Exploring the environmental impact of death

The Corpse Project is leading a debate about options for our bodies after death and helping inform our choices. We are part of the wider conversation about death and dying which is gaining momentum. Our focus is on the absent guest at the table, the body itself, and we ask how we can lay it to rest in ways that help the living and the earth.

One death does not have a great environmental cost. We are likely to have more carbon impact by taking a minibreak to a European city, and how often do many of us do that? But collectively our deaths do have an environmental impact – about 500,000 people die in England every year – and we should keep working at reducing that impact. Hand in hand, we need good and relevant rituals, as varied as our diverse society needs them to be.

We publish our first findings at the end of this month (join our email list to receive them). Meanwhile here are some things we have been exploring:

  • If we want to return our bodies through burial, to the ‘natural cycle’, is shallow burial better than deep? Intuitively we’d say yes, because that is where the nutrient action takes place. But how shallow, what does the soil need to be like and how long is the benefit?
  • ‘Natural’ decomposition has some greenhouse gas effects, including the highly potent methane. Does this hint that efficient cremation might be better in some respects?
  • Traditional burial and cremation are here to stay. What stops them being as good as possible for people and the planet? What about new technologies, like dissolving?
  • ‘Ashes’ are ground bone and you would expect them to be good for the soil, like ‘blood, fish and bone’ for the garden. But is it as straightforward as this?

There are inspiring people working in the death industry and technology is on our side. In the next generation we may see developments as significant as when cremation was first introduced around 130 years ago.

On World Environment Day, you can’t have a better example than the corpse of the need to capture hearts as well as minds, to change our behaviour. The Corpse Project interrogates the science, but also tries to understand our thoughts and feelings, so that we can change our practice in the one thing which all humanity shares and needs to do well: saying goodbye to our precious physical home, and thanking the planet in the process.

10 thoughts on “Exploring the environmental impact of death

  1. I believe that studies show that the soil around buried remains absorbs methane from decomposition. The amount of absorption will no doubt varies depending on soil type and burial depth, but the ability of soil to do this is valuable and beneficial.
    The favourite in the race for lowest environmental impact has to be:
    – simple burial in a hand-dug grave
    – a locally sourced shroud or coffin of biodegradable materials
    – in an environmentally sustainable burial ground
    – with eventual reuse of the grave
    Can anyone improve on this?

    • Sounds pretty good, James. If I were buried it would be in an old favourite cotton duvet cover with the poppers taken off!

      One factor that came through in our research was that travel to a site / crem whatever is the biggest single carbon load if you have a fair few mourners travelling…

      A sustainable burial ground has so many aspects to it, doesn’t it, including contribution to the landscape, if good tree planting goes on, (which doesn’t mean you have to stick one near or on the bodies, of course). And burying on the kinds of estates you work with helps economic sustainability which is important too. I do like double land use. SC

      • The carbon impact of travel to a funeral is something that only a small number of our families have taken seriously, and they have organised a single coach to take mourners from the place where a gathering is being held to the burial and back again. The communal spirit on those occasions was wonderful and very supportive.

        Of course, cremation will often mean that there are two or three events – a church service, the cremation, and the interment or scattering of ashes. It can also generate extra products, such as urns, gems, jewellery, glass objects, fireworks etc.

        Best to keep it small, simple, natural and beautiful.

  2. Who else has read the SWC Report “The carbon impacts of choices with the body after death”, which informs commentary being made by the Corpse Project? The conclusions drawn by the report were shocking and (as admitted by the authors) are highly dependent upon some extraordinary assumptions made by the authors. Significantly, the report does not back up the basis of its assumptions by reference to data or research. One of the extraordinary assumptions that steers the report’s bizarre conclusions is that ZERO people return to a crematorium after a funeral. If that were the case, why then do crematoria have gardens of remembrance crammed full of memorials brimming with windmills, solar lights, teddies, candles, and a myriad other ornaments? Who is it then that regularly visits leaves and leaves fresh flowers on the imported granite memorial stones (the carbon impact of which no mention is made in the report)? Who is is that makes it necessary for crematoria to dispose of skip-fulls of grieving waste every week (the carbon impact of which is also neglected by the report)?
    We believe that the report does not merit academic status and that it is fundamentally wrong in its conclusions. We have contacted the authors to see if they can provide data to back up their assumptions and await their reply. In the meantime, one useful thing can be taken from the report – travel to and from a funeral and place of remembrance afterwards can have a significant effect on the total carbon impact of your choice, whatever that might be.

  3. I’m with James here. These assumptions are not verifiable, therefore the conclusions (I’m being kind) are questionable. There are are also regrettable omissions, eg, travel to wake; travel to a place of ash scattering; burial in a conventional cemetery with associated on-costs. All in all, this report is, I’d say, of little or no value. There is no substitute for boots-on-the-ground research.

    • Many thanks for comments, James and Charles. Just to reiterate, the scenarios were not set up to represent the whole picture of what people do, but were specific options from which we could explore the carbon impact. Of course, a burial could be more local and a cremation involve more travel. The piece simply makes the point as you say, James, that travel is a major factor in carbon emissions – and of course that’s not all it’s about, nor even the wider environmental issues such as landscape, wildlife, people’s connection to nature – which are all benefits of a good burial.

      • As an exercise in exploring the carbon impact of travel, readers should be made acutely aware that the results must be interpreted with great caution as they are entirely dependent on imaginary scenarios with unequal and unverified travel burdens – assumptions made without any supporting evidence. The pivotal assumption is that the cremation scenario incurs zero post funeral miles, which is most unlikely. I state this here because the report does not include such a caveat.

        • Hi James

          Given resources available for the research, it was decided to choose four, varied scenarios, covering two forms of cremation and two burials. Nowhere does the report say these are typical but they are each of interest as a potential option. We were not able to cover the variation to be found within burial and cremation and there was no attempt to cover issues such as the wake or further accessories used. The Corpse Project has no bias towards cremation or burial as such and in respect of the major finding of the study, that car travel has the greatest single carbon burden, it is clearly the case that this can be less or more, regardless of the way in which the body is disposed of and we believe readers can extrapolate that clearly from the report. The Corpse Project also takes a holistic view of the environmental aspects of dealing with the body. This includes soil health, landscape and people’s well-being and sense of being connected to the planet, not just carbon emissions. This report however focuses on the carbon burden as part of our work to build the complete picture.

          The report states:

          Carbon burdens for each scenario are calculated based on the total carbon emissions over a five-year period. This includes elements such as the coffin, travel by mourners, and fuel use for burning and site maintenance. The five-year time scale allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the impacts of each scenario.
          The complexity of supply chains is such that all GHG emissions estimates contain a degree of uncertainty. The results of this analysis are also highly dependent on the assumptions made within each scenario. However, we have confidence that this report identifies at least in broad terms the most and least significant components of the footprint of the four funeral choices and can serve as a guide to the issues.
          Clearly, the carbon footprint of each option is very small compared to the lifetime carbon footprint of a person, and equally clearly, there are many other important considerations when planning a funeral. However, the occasions we assess in this report are times of reflection at which great symbolic importance can be attached to small actions. Positive environmental decisions therefore have the potential to make statements about life values and to have influence far exceeding their direct impact.

          The assumptions behind the figures are included at the end of the report, in accordance with usual academic practice.

          All best! Sophie Churchill

  4. Dear Sophie & others,

    Greetings from Australia,

    I’ve a long history in every aspect of the funeral industry, and am recently retained by a sustainability charity to developed sustainable funeral options and practices in Australia. Accordingly, natural burial is an important element of this work, and one we are currently researching. Two points, if I may, one a statement and the other a question.

    Travel: The travel assumptions devised for the research are held constant across scenarios, so there is no inherent methodological bias. However, legally, under international carbon accounting standards, this travel footprint is the mourner’s, rather than the deceased’s, responsibility. Artificially loading mourners travel onto the ‘footprint’ of the once off ‘funeral event’ could readily mislead a layperson to deduce that cremation is the ‘greenest’ choice. The resource use and emissions from any style of funeral represent a negligible contribution to the lifetime ‘travel’ footprint of virtually any (vehicle owning) person in a first world country.

    Methane from Burials: I would be most grateful for any information, or direction to any evidence based research, used by TCP to evaluate the reality and/or extent of methane release to the atmosphere?

    • Hi Kev

      Very sorry not to have picked this up earlier and thank you for it. Greetings back. Yes I’d agree about the carbon issue being the mourners’ issue in a sense, but there is also I think a public interest in having a sense of the total carbon load of their funeral choices – and, again, the weight of this will depend on the person. Whether a cremation or burial is the ‘greener’ choice will depend entirely on the circumstance. is a useful if possibly slightly out of date discussion – for example how the crematorium is run (as many cremations a day as possible and holding over bodies if necessary) makes a big difference. Ken West is a pioneer whom you may have heard of, re woodland burials. As far as I know methane is not produced from cremation, but from decomposition. All best, Sophie

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