Talking death & funeral options - make your end of life Your choice
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
For many, death has become a taboo subject. We think of death as something to be feared, something we don’t understand and certainly something we shouldn’t talk about, even with (or sometimes especially with) those who are dying.
Why is this? 100 years ago, families would deal with their dead themselves and death was seen as the natural process that it is. However, over the decades, due to advances in modern medicine and more people dying in hospital rather than at home, we have lost that understanding of the dying process.
We have lost touch to the extent that we don’t even use the words ‘death, dying, dead’, or even ‘illness’ anymore, substituting them with euphemisms like ‘passed away, lost their battle’.
If we don’t alter this trend, how will we know how our loved ones want to spend their final days or what funeral they prefer? How will our families know what our own wishes are? It is important to reclaim the language of dying so we can have those unambiguous conversations.
We need to re-familiarise ourselves with death, to take away the taboo and the fear. The majority of the time, death is a gentle and even beautiful process.
So, have you considered your own end of life options? Would you prefer to die at home surrounded by your family, or would you prefer medical professionals to do all they can to prolong your life? Would you like to be buried or cremated? Or what about other options? Did you even know there are other options?
The first thing to mention here is that traditional burials and cremations are not very environmentally friendly. In traditional burial, heavy metals and toxic chemicals from the body and coffin (which contains plastic, toxic glue, man-made fabrics and metal) leach into the soil and groundwater. It is important to note here that there is absolutely no requirement for a body to be embalmed unless the body is being transported a long distance or the funeral is delayed.
Flame cremation requires a large amount of fuel and releases carbon-based emissions. Around 78% of the UK population choose cremation over traditional burial – this amounts to around 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide being released per year. While some crematoriums have filtering systems to remove pollutants like mercury from fillings, and one could choose a more eco-friendly coffin, or rent a wooden coffin for viewing but not for burning, carbon emissions are still significant.
So, what other options are there?
Natural (or Green) Burial
With concerns over the environment, natural burial is becoming more popular as people choose to return their body to the earth in a more natural way. In many parts of the world, returning a body directly to the ground is what humans have been doing since ancient times and some religions, for example Islam and Judaism, require burial to be a natural process.
A natural burial uses materials and resources that have a minimal impact on the environment, for example there is no chemical embalming, there are no expensive coffin trimmings or grave liner and no gaudy headstones. Bodies are instead buried in a natural shroud or biodegradable container, allowing nutrients to be returned to the earth without contaminating it at the same time. Burial plots are either unmarked or marked with a natural stone/slate marker or a tree.
Resomation (alkaline hydrolysis or ‘Water Cremation’)
Resomation has about a tenth of the carbon footprint that flame cremation has. It has been available in the USA & Canada since 2011 and wastewater discharge consent has just been granted here, allowing for water cremation to soon be legally rolled out across the UK.
Water Cremation imitates the same process a body goes through naturally when it is buried, but in a fraction of the time. The body is gently dissolved in a weak alkali solution, returning to its constituent elements, leaving only the bones which are then reduced to ‘ash’ to be passed back to the family. The ‘waste’ liquid is assessed and treated before being returned to the water system. There are no harmful emissions like there are with flame cremation, less energy is used in the process and the resultant ‘ash’ is pure bone (and therefore much whiter than the remains from flame cremation).
This is an unattended cremation where the body is cremated without ceremony, the ashes being returned to the family, who can choose to hold a ceremony somewhere else that may be more meaningful, or at a later date.*
Those with an interest in medicine may choose to donate their body to be used in the education of future healthcare workers, for scientific research and the development or improvement of medical procedures. Unlike organ donation, only the person choosing to leave their body to medical science can consent to it. You would need to contact your local medical school well in advance and enter into a written agreement in order to be accepted.
This is similar to medical science, where donated bodies are used to study decomposition for the development of forensic science. It is not clear whether the first Body Farm in the UK is operational yet (and the location is secret), but forensic scientists were hoping for it to open last year.
Washington state in the US is currently the only place where human body composting is legal, the process due to start this year. The body is mixed with natural materials such as woodchips and straw and placed in a closed vessel that is slowly rotated. A balance of carbon and nitrogen enables microbes to break down the body over a few weeks. The resultant compost (about 2 wheelbarrows of soil) is returned to family and used to enrich the earth.
I hope this blog has given you something to think about and investigate further.
Please take the step today to have a conversation about death with those you love. Let the end of your life be what you choose.
Other useful resources
I highly recommend the document ‘Leaving Gracefully’, compiled by a colleague and fellow funeral celebrant and end of life Doula, Beverley Bulmer. It is a comprehensive guide and notebook where you can record your end of life wishes to support your family and friends to carry them out. It includes personal and financial details, practicalities, people to notify, wishes before and after death and lots more.
The following guide to your Legal rights and responsibilities covers other frequently asked questions, for example ‘Do I have to use a Funeral Director?’ (no) and ‘Where can a dead body be buried?’
* Due to the current coronavirus restrictions, direct cremation is becoming the norm in many areas and may become the only option for a while.
Please be aware that many funeral celebrants (or at least UKSOC trained ones like myself) have been trained in delivering a ‘remote ceremony’ via Zoom which allows participants to interact via a video link, which can include a full ceremony including music, readings and committal and may also include a live feed of the coffin.