Illustration showing a body below layers of earth, including text copied below

Burial remains an important option for many people (though only about one in four deaths in the UK) and it is often believed to be more environmentally friendly than cremation. This depends partly on the return of the body to the natural cycle. We have looked at this and other aspects of burial.

Key findings

  • The dead body is not just a waste product. It was our home and after death it is rich in nutrients. It is not usually dangerous.
  • Decomposition is likely to be faster and more likely to feed the soil in shallow graves. But this depends on the soil.
  • We are interested in finding out how shallow burial would need to be, to enable normal decomposition to happen and how long any nutrient enrichment would last.
  • Land is expensive and scarce and having a plot for ever will be rare for most people in the future.
  • If the environment is your concern, driving a long way for a ‘green’ burial might not be any better than a local cremation. But it might be very good for other reasons.
  • We did one piece of research looking at the carbon implications of different scenarios for burials and cremations. The biggest factor was car travel. However, burial in a beautiful spot may help preserve the landscape and make good use of the earth and may bring healing memories.
  • Carbon-rich materials such as cardboard, sawdust and certain fungi can help decomposition. As a culture, we are a little squeamish about rapid decomposition and the taking up of bones, but possibly we shall need to look at this if we want to achieve better land use through burying the nutrient-rich corpse. Have a look on YouTube for the famous mushroom suit!

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Our conclusion is that burial will continue to be important for many people. We need to know more about when it is the greener option and we have to be realistic about how much land is available in the future. We advocate an informed and truthful public debate about the pros and cons of burial.

Read the research

Explore our other findings