470  Natural death

Death, an event which happens to other people, will nevertheless eventually transform all of us into a special type of waste disposal problem.  Many graveyards and cemeteries are overcrowded.   In 1900 fewer than 500 cremations took place, all using solid wood coffins.  Since then cremation in the UK has increased to about 500,000 a year.  

Pollutants and waste 
Most are now in chipboard or mdf coffins.  Both produce many pollutants including dioxins.  Formaldehyde in embalming fluid can contaminate watercourses.  Coffin handles are often plastic - these and glues in chipboard are pollutants when burnt, and smoke from crematoriums compounds the greenhouse effect.  Funerals and coffins are also very expensive.  Yet there is no reason to use such costly and polluting containers.

The bodies of the poor used to be placed in the parish coffin. This was carried to the graveside, where the body was removed and lowered into the grave. The same coffin was re-used for decades.  The Victorians introduced private coffins made in oak and elm and often heavily ornamented.  But as hardwoods became expensive, they have been superseded by cheaper materials.  Standard coffins today are of chipboard with a veneer which looks like real wood.  Nameplate, handles and inner lining are all made of artificial materials, mainly plastic.  These coffins are used for both burial and cremation.  Yet many people assume these coffins are real wood, and the plastic handles to be metal.

When cremated, chipboard or fibreboard coffins, containing formaldehyde, cause most of the small amount of pollutant emissions that arise.  Crematoria are also wasting vast quantities of "wood".  

To use a "re-usable" coffin for cremation and burial is a return to the Parish coffin concept, but it now offers important environmental and cost benefits.  An attractive outer casket can contain a biodegradable cardboard coffin, to be withdrawn from the outer casket following the burial ceremony and cremated or buried, the coffin and body remaining undisturbed.  The outer casket can be used repeatedly.

Changing times
Irrespective of expense, or type of ceremony, including celebration of the life of the person, a funeral will, for many, not be a happy occasion, and probably leave a great sense of loss.  For many, a simple, more ecological approach with more personal involvement would be appreciated.  Yet convention seems to demand otherwise.

It need not be so.  The possibilities for alternative arrangements are growing as a result of persistent, independent-minded people prepared to challenge the existing order.  There are many different ways of seeing someone off, celebrating their life, and involving friends and family in a positive experience.  

There are very few rules about what should or shouldn't happen at a funeral.  There is no requirement to have a religious minister present or to transport a coffin in a black hearse. 'Humanist' based ceremonies can be very moving and uplifting.  Contrary to popular belief, the law does not necessarily prohibit DIY burial on private land (check with your local environmental health department for precise rules).  You could be cremated or buried in your own garden, a local cemetery or in a woodland burial site. 

Woodland burial
Woodland burials require biodegradable coffins, and a tree can be planted on or near the grave.  Some sites are meadows where bulbs or wildflowers are substituted for trees.  There are now many civic and private 'green' burial grounds based on planting trees instead of headstones, with secondary objectives of creating woodland areas and wildlife havens. New sites are being created around the country, some in beautiful mature woodland like the South Downs Natural Burial Site in Hampshire, but most in newly established grounds.

Here (unlike the postcode lottery for burial sites at cemeteries) the average cost of a grave, including digging and the planting of a tree, is about £500 (council sites) and £600 (private sites).

Biodegradable coffins
Nor are polished wooden coffins (particularly endangered mahogany), religious ceremonies and consecrated grounds mandatory.  Most crematoria and funeral directors now accept more biodegradable options such as cardboard, wicker, bamboo (fast growing and pollution free), papier mache, straw, or other environment friendly coffins .  

Dignity and individuality
A cardboard coffin has been called "cheap" and lacking in "dignity" by some people.  This is a matter of opinion.  The word dignity is defined as "true worth" and if a person has a belief in protecting the environment, or having a modest funeral, then a cardboard coffin has true worth to that person, and they should be given the choice.  An advantage is that cardboard coffins can be painted attractively (varnishes or oil-based paints should be avoided for cremation, but water-based paint is suitable), or personalised by an artist, family or friends.  Lighter coffins also reduce the weight carried by the bearers, which could prevent physical injury. For cremation, the design, construction and materials can minimise the use of fossil fuels.

One option is the burial shroud. The body is laid on a board, wrapped in a large piece of woven, soft wool cloth.  Cotton ropes are attached and used by four or six bearers. The shroud is suitable for all forms of burial, but not cremation. 

Just the body?
The Federation of British Cremation Authorities (FBCA), which represents UK cremation authorities, issues a directive for coffin design.  This prohibits use of materials such as PVC, pitch or zinc, which pollute the atmosphere.  It is important to consider the explosion or pollutant impact of anything placed in a coffin, especially for cremation.  Heart pacemakers, implants, batteries, pressurised containers, even coconuts, have all caused explosion. Medical implants can be removed by a doctor, a mortician or the funeral director.  Even clothes made of man-made fibres, shoes or rubberised materials can cause smoke and pollution.  

Crematoria must operate within the Environmental Protection Act 1990, so 'foreign objects' can cause serious operational difficulties.  Most metals including jewellery, bolts or screws, artificial joint and bone splints, pass through the cremation cycle without difficulty, and are withdrawn at the finish, but it may be better to remove the first - metallic joints, splints etc may be suitable for re-use.  Jewellery melts and is unrecognisable, forming small pieces of aggregate.  These, and all other metallic residue are buried in the grounds and are not removed off site or sold for re-use.  Use of balms, scents, flowers and other natural materials should not pose any difficulties.

The New Natural Death Handbook acts like a funeral watchdog on behalf of the consumer - a fascinating and invaluable guide to burial sites, cemeteries, prices, legalities, coffins, funeral directors and DIY funerals.  See Natural Death Centre below, whose website has much useful information.

Alphabetical list of organisations

AB Welfare & Wildlife Trust Fund

Tel 01423 530900
7 Knox Road, HARROGATE, North Yorks HG1 3EF

Charity advising on green funerals and burials on private land.  One of its primary aims is to persuade major wildlife charities to offer spaces in nature reserves for burials. Provides advice on legal aspects and wills.  Owns part of a national landmark which could accommodate up to 25 burials for benefactors of the Charity. Most of the surrounding land is owned by the National Trust.  Set up by John Bradfield (author of Green Burial - the DIY Guide to Law and Practice - now out of print).

ARKA Original Funerals
Tel 01273 766620  Email info@eco-funerals.com  Website www.eco-funerals.com 
39-41 Surrey Street, BRIGHTON, Surrey BN1 3PB
Contact  Cara Mair, or Hazel Selina

Uses Ecopod designed coffins (see Ecopod / Arka, below), which can be very colourful.  Flexible services from horse drawn (cart, or white Victorian hearse) to limousines, and from jazz, harpists, gospel singers to Scottish pipers.  Claims to keep costs low.  Can offer a Minister, or  a Celebrant who can incorporate aspects of any tradition or faith.  Can try to provide non-formal or unusual venues and ceremonies, which may be tailored to reflect the values of the deceased.  Family and friends can have as much or as little involvement as they wish.  Will help arrange the right poetry, music or ritual for the ceremony.  Advice and information about legalities of alternative burial sites and creative funeral services.  The use of Ecopod in Brighton's woodland burial site is supported by East Sussex Bereavements Manager (Stephen Horrocks).  (Updated Jan 2004)

Association of Natural Burial Grounds
Web Site www.naturaldeath.org.uk  Email ndc@alberyfoundation.org
Tel 0207 359 8391  Fax 0207 354 3831
6 Blackstock Mews, Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park, LONDON N4 2BT

Brings together and operates a code of practice for over 200 woodland or green burial grounds run by farmers, local authorities and wildlife charities and trusts.  Normally a cardboard coffin is used and a native species tree is planted instead of a headstone. There is a nationally co-ordinated open day for visitors at many of the sites.  Set up by  The Natural Death Centre.  (Updated Apr 2005)

Bamboo Eco Coffin
Tel 01795 472262  Fax 01795 422633
Email info@bamboocoffins.co.uk 
Highsted Farm Highsted Valley, SITTINGBOURNE, Kent ME9 0AG
Contact William Wainman

Manufactures bamboo eco coffins - woven handles and threaded lid fastenings give them a natural, friendly look.  William Wainman began in the furniture business and was inspired to carry over his designs to coffin production. Minimal treatment on the cut bamboo - the coffin contains even less harmful chemicals than the body and is biodegradable.  UK owned company but workshop in Hunan Province, China, regarded as a model in its region for well-treated employees.  Pandas do not eat this type of bamboo nor  live here.  Coffins individually woven using age-old skills, then come by sea to UK, "Russian-doll-style" - inside each other, maximising space and minimising transport and fuel costs.  Next working day delivery if you phone by 2.30pm.  Two types - eco (pale green, £195) is woven; lattice (cream, £270) - open looking weave, but double layer, so no see-through.  Various sizes including child and baby coffins. Leak-proof cotton liner and bamboo headrest. Bamboo nameplate on request.  Prices include VAT and delivery.   (Updated Aug 2005)

Bereavement Register
Tel 0870 600 7222  Fax 0870 400 5644
Website www.the-bereavement-register.com
The Bereavement Register, Freepost SEA8240, SEVENOAKS, Kent TN13 1YR

Direct mail addressed to a person who has died can be very distressing.  There are a number of ways to stop this mail.  The Bereavement Register is a free service designed to remove the names and addresses of people who have died from databases and mailing files.  By quickly completing a form, hundreds of companies will be able to identify that your relative or friend has died and remove their details from databases and files.  Mail should begin tailing off within six weeks.  You can find out about the service and register details online at www.the-bereavement-register.com .  Can be read in French.  (Operated by the REaD Group, appointed by the Direct Marketing Association.) 

You can also register their details onto the Mailing Preference Service at
www.mpsonline.org.uk (see below).  This will reduce unsolicited personally addressed mailings received under their name.  This is a free service.  

If there are companies that the person had dealings with it may be useful to contact them direct and inform them of the change of circumstances.  

Telephone calls can be even more distressing.  At no charge, TBR Call-Guardian can prevent unsolicited calls from being made by simply blocking the number at the telephone exchange.  This will have no effect on personal calls to your number as the marketing company has to subscribe to this service using a special type of exchange.  Contact  www.the-bereavement-register.com/uk/tbr_call_guardian.htm   (Updated Nov 2005)

British Humanist Association
Tel 020 7079 3580  Fax 020 7079 3588
Email info@humanism.org.uk  Website www.humanism.org.uk
1 Gower Street, LONDON WC1E 6HD

Believes in a world without religious privilege or discrimination, where people are free to live good lives on the basis of reason, experience and shared human values.  Supports and represents ethically concerned people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.   For humanist ceremonies, including funerals, weddings and baby-namings, email or phone 020 7079 3582.   Practical guide "Funerals without God" £6.50 through website.  Committed to human rights, democracy, equality and mutual respect, the BHA works for an open and inclusive society.  Helps humanists and other non-religious people to gain confidence in their beliefs and build a foundation from which to live their lives with integrity.  Supports networks for families, teachers and others to share ideas and experience and provide mutual support.  Local humanist groups provide opportunities to meet like-minded people for discussion, lectures, and social activities.   Lobbies for inclusion of Humanism in school curriculum so all pupils have the opportunity to learn about it;  provides educational resources for schools and students of all ages. Contribution to improvements in religious education widely recognised.  (Updated Aug 2005)

Carlisle City Council

Tel 01228 817000 Fax 01228 512742
Civic Centre, CARLISLE, Cumbria CA3 8QG

Pioneered the concept of ecological funerals by opening the first woodland burial ground and formulating rules which have generally been adopted by most of the similar British sites (approximately 60) that have followed, viz: shallow burial (4' 6" instead of 6') enabling decaying bodies to yield nutrients to growing trees; use of biodegradable fibreboard coffins or woollen shrouds; encouragement of DIY and low-cost funeral arrangements.

Compakta Ltd

Tel 01455 828642 / 01455 828642
2 Newbold Road, DESFORD, Leics LE9 5GS

Makes the Compakta Coffin, designed in Britain and made from largely recycled fibreboard.  Interlocking, jointless system assembles into strong but lightweight structure avoiding boxlike appearance. Inset lid safely carries floral tributes. Comes in dappled white but can be painted or decorated. Special colours or woodgrain finish at extra cost. Low cost answer for person wishing their death to have as little effect on the environment and resource use as possible. Price includes delivery by courier in England.

Ecopod / Arka Funerals
Tel 01273 746011  Fax 01273 734160  Email info@ecopod.co.uk  Website www.ecopod.co.uk 
ARKA, 37 Western Road, HOVE, East Sussex BN3 1AF
Contact  Hazel Selina

Manufactures Ecopod coffins, for people who want to be buried without damaging the environment.  Biodegradable, made from recycled newspaper and decorated with paper made from silk and mulberry leaves, with calico mattress and optional feather lining (straps provided, and carrying poles for hire if required).  A 'cross between a sarcophagus and a seedpod', in bright jewel-like shades, the Ecopod, comes in three striking and attractive designs.  Plain white is also available, suitable for own decoration.  Strong and light (14 kilos), and built to carry people up to 6 feet tall and 15 stone, they cost £632 inc VAT and post.  Also produces the Acorn urn (£30) overlaid in moss green, handmade paper, 10" high x 8" wide, to contain ashes after cremation.  However, Hazel discourages cremation (polluting) and promotes woodland burial.  She used to run a natural birth centre in Devon, and believes a funeral should be a colourful celebration of the person's life.  She wants people to be left feeling ‘Wow, that was amazing’.  From 3 Nov 03 she will run Arka Original Funerals (see ARKA above), offering a green undertaking service, including essential oils (non-toxic), woodland burials, and a lively environment, with a professional jazz band, harpist and gospel singers available to help celebrate the person's life.  (Updated Oct 2003)

The Green Burial Company plc

Telephone 01234 241808  Fax 01234 240363
Email information@thegreenburialcompany.plc.uk  Website www.thegreenburialcompany.plc.uk
Olney Green Burial Ground, Yardley Road, Olney, Buckinghamshire MK46 5EH
Contact Warwick Clarke

Independent company maintaining private green or woodland burial grounds.  Purchase of burial rights for all seeking natural alternative to cemeteries, graveyards and crematoria.  Funeral arrangements and burial methods at customers' discretion, as long as interment includes biodegradable materials, avoiding plastics (some biodegradable plastic coffin linings acceptable), toxic adhesives and hardwoods.  Lightly veneered chipboard or softwood coffin, willow 'basket', papier mache, flax, cork, or natural fabric shroud with body supported on a plank, all acceptable.  Those buried become part of a wood, protected by covenant.  A tree is the lasting memorial, on a 4m square plot which is used only once.  Stone memorials are inappropriate, but location and details of graves are kept in a register - copies provided for family.  Families may wish to have a stone memorial in a churchyard or cemetery, costing from £600. (Graves cost considerably more.)  Olney Green burial ground is on the north side of the Great Ouse valley, close to Yardley Chase wood.  The native oak trees planted on each grave are nurtured; the woodland that evolves will be colonised by animals, birds, butterflies and insects.  (Updated Oct 2003)

Green Endings
Tel 0207 424 0345  Fax 0207 428 0104    
Email info@greenendings.co.uk Website www.greenendings.co.uk
141 Fortess Road, Tufnell Park, LONDON NW5 2HR
Contact Roslyn Cassidy, funeral director and facilitator

Specialist in sensitively arranged eco-friendly, individualised funerals, with personal assistance offered to ensure that it reflects and celebrates the sensibilities, lifestyle and beliefs of all those involved. Ideas can include poetry readings, picnics, music, singing, dancing, and photographic exhibitions.  Help for those who want to speak, or in sourcing appropriate music or literature, and to find the right combination of venue and catering, a variety of coffins in natural, biodegradable materials, and woodland burial if appropriate.  Roslyn believes traditional directors don't offer choice.  "People's lives are so individual, it seemed crazy to me that a funeral is like a conveyor belt, when it is possible to create something completely different."  Premises available for decorating the coffin, whether with photographs, paintings, flowers, fabric and other mementoes.  "Roslyn can conjure up a sky blue coffin painted with white doves, or provide a torch song singer at the graveside.  Indeed, she takes on as a cheerful challenge almost anything a bereaved family requests to personalise a burial and break with the ossified British rituals surrounding death" - Guardian, Jan 16 2002.  (Updated Oct 2003)

Greenfield Coffins Ltd
Tel 01376 327074  Fax 01376 342975  
Email mail@greenfieldcoffins.com  Website www.greenfieldcoffins.com   
Unit 2-6, Lakes Road, Braintree, Essex CM7 3SS

Supplier of cardboard coffins, made from 100% biodegradable materials.  Outer shell, inner and lid, all in recycled cardboard.  Unique locking system makes them strong and sturdy.  They arrive ready assembled, will hold 17 stone in weight and accommodate up to 6' 1".   Accepted at cemeteries and crematoriums - some now have woodland or natural burial sites.  The coffin or urn is placed in a selected meadow, and a tree or shrub planted instead of a marble headstone.  The meadow will become a woodland nature reserve, or wildlife sanctuary.  Coffin available in woodgrain, marble, white, plain colour or custom design or theme.   Also children's coffins in plain white or decorated.  Delivery of standard coffin to any mainland UK destination within 48hrs; overseas orders taken.  (Updated April 2002)

Green Undertakings
UK Ltd      
Tel: 01283 521104  Fax: 01283 815992  
E-mail info@greenundertakings.co.uk  Website www.greenundertakings.co.uk 
11 Hillside, Tutbury, Staffs DE13 9JG

Eco-Funeral business currently being taken over by new owner.  Woodland burial, eco-cremation, DIY funeral assistance.  Makes patented "cocoon" coffin for reuse, made to contain an inner recycled wood or cardboard coffin which is cremated, and award winning*  "Celtic"  (high tech cartonboard combining strength, light weight, environment sensitivity and appearance) or Bamboo (fastest growing plant on earth, which replaces itself in 7 months) coffin with hemp fibre handles for burial.  Also cotton shroud, or 98% recycled wood casket which can be painted to any design or covered in fabric.  No destruction of resources in coffin production, and no chemical processes involved in manufacture.  100% pollution free in either burial or cremation. * Natural Death Centre Best cardboard coffin manufacturer.  (Updated Oct 2003)

Green Undertakings of Watchet Ltd

Tel 01984 632285 
12A Swain Street, WATCHET, Somerset TA23 0AB

Non-profit seeking company.  Undertaker offering 'alternative' or traditional funerals in south-west; specialist in woodland burials.  Also supplies environment-friendly coffins nationwide - oak, foil or cartonboard, wicker (locally made) and bamboo.  Also shrouds and caskets.  Free advice and information service for DIY funerals.  Helps plan funerals in advance.  (Updated Oct 2003)

J C Atkinson and Son Ltd  
Tel 0191 385 2599  Free fax 0800 521 970
Email  info@jcatkinson.co.uk   Website www.coffins.co.uk
Station  Road, Penshaw, Houghton -Le-Spring, Tyne and Wear DH4  7PE
Contact Julian Atkinson

One of UK's leading independent coffin makers - over 60,000 a year, in all sizes, delivered UK-wide.  Two thirds of production now FSC certified (Forest Stewardship Council - see section 420 Environmental labelling).  Chipboard coffin specially made with virtually nil formaldehyde from up to 75% waste timber in partnership with George Reynolds UK and Just Wood Ltd at Wallsend (UK's largest timber recycling yard).   All wood waste from Atkinson's coffin factory is also sent to Just Wood, avoiding landfill or incineration.  Website of this family business states "A skeleton staff is available during holiday periods".  (Updated Oct 2003)

Natural Death Centre

Web Site www.naturaldeath.org.uk  Email
Tel 0207 359 8391  Fax 0207 354 3831
6 Blackstock Mews, Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park, LONDON N4 2BT

Organisation promoting ecological disposal of the dead, involving minimal use of resources and avoiding mahogany coffins.  Acts like a Citizens Advice Bureau on dying and death - runs befriending project and workshops.  Supports those dying at home and their carers, helping people to arrange inexpensive, do-it-yourself, environment-friendly funerals.  Established 1991.  Set up Association of Natural Burial Grounds.  Publications include information and advice on DIY funerals, and burial on private land or nature reserves.  Publishes The New Natural Death Handbook, a fascinating guide listing over 200 green or woodland burial sites, cemeteries, prices, legalities, coffins, funeral directors and DIY funerals (£12.99 including postage).  Info by email on 'How to organise a funeral'.  Can be ordered online.  General info pack, including living will, advance funeral wishes form, death plan, and life values statement available for £5.  (Updated Apr 2005)

Natural Endings
Tel 0800 197 0401  Fax 
Email enquiries@naturalendings.co.uk 
Website www.naturalendings.co.uk
151 Northenden Road, SALE, Cheshire M33 2HS

Funeral service based in South Manchester specialising in environment-friendly, ethical, alternative funerals for the north-west.  A coffin made of natural products with no glues, solvents or finishes will greatly reduce the potential for harmful emissions released during cremation.  All coffins are from sustainable sources, including bamboo, willow, wicker, ecopods, cardboard, and coffins from reclaimed timber.  Help with arranging woodland burial (biodegradable coffin, usually with a tree planted on or near the grave) or traditional cremation or burial, with funeral service using an eco-coffin, and/ or alternative form of transport - or advice on a DIY funeral.  Offers a choice of alternative venues for funeral service, such as fields, gardens, community halls, a pub, a family home, a barn, a beautiful hotel or a sporting ground, allowing time to reflect on the things treasured in life - music, hobbies, interests, poems, colours, beliefs, values.   Personal care and continuity.  Wide range of transport including vintage, horse-drawn, motorbike and non-black hearses.
(Updated Aug 2005)

NHS Organ Donor Register

Freephone 0800 555 777
Freepost BS8793, P O Box 14, Patchway, BRISTOL BS12 6BR

A confidential record of people who wish to donate selected organs or any part of their body for the treatment of others after their death. Over 5000 people await transplants. Registration saves valuable time but note - bereaved relatives are always consulted and are required to give consent.

Peace Funerals
Freephone 0800 093 0505  Fax 0114 253 0503
Email: info@peacefunerals.co.uk  Website www.peacefunerals.co.uk/mawdesley.html
Head Office, Gleadless Mount, Sheffield S12 2LN

Award winning funeral directors providing choice, personal support and advance help with funeral plans, including woodland cemeteries.  Offer willow coffins and caskets handcrafted exclusively in Lancs.  Range of sizes, for baby, child or adult.  Adult coffins about £550 including delivery within 36 hours.  Operates throughout UK  Bases in S Yorks, Lancs, Derby and London.  Railway funerals organised at Ripley, Derbyshire - details on website. (Updated Oct 2003)

Somerset Willow Company
Telephone 0 1278 424003  Fax 0 1278 446415 
Website www.somersetwillow.co.uk  Email enquiries@somersetwillow.co.uk 
The Wireworks Estate, Bristol Road, BRIDGWATER, Somerset TA6 4AP

Maker of willow coffins.  Coffin-shaped or curved end; buff, 'weatherbeaten gold' or white; also baby oval coffins.  Hemp handles.  Also variety of baskets, baby cradles, furniture.  Somerset is the last place in the UK where willow is still grown commercially for basketmaking.  Brief history of willow growing and basketmaking on website.  (Updated Aug 2005)

Strettle of Newcastle

Tel 0191 253 3222 Fax 0191 297 1775
Mooredge Road, Shiremoor, NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE NE27 0HU

Can provide headstones with computer generated design and will use interesting offcuts of discarded stone. Also name plaques for front doors.