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Some musings on funerals

Did you know...

Did you know that you don't need to be filled with formaldehyde? That you can be buried in places other than a churchyard or cemetery? That any car can carry a coffin, as long as it will fit? That you don't even need a coffin if you don't want? That a cremation can send up to 190kg of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to driving a car approximately 470 miles?

I've been learning a lot about death and funerals and I was fascinated to learn that, just like weddings, funerals don't HAVE to be the traditional affair you might be familiar with. Of course, there is nothing wrong with tradition and it is comforting for people to know that their death will be treated with the veneration that a traditional funeral provides. But, when I think about what I'd like my funeral to be like, I don't actually want a mahogany coffin, a slow procession and a graveyard. Through lots of interesting research, I have found that there are many different ways of doing a funeral that might better represent the person more closely.

Burial, cremation or...

When people talk about dying, often they express a preference about what happens to their body - do you want to be buried or cremated or have your body donated to science?

I know people who love the idea of growing into a tree, but if you're buried in a graveyard, it is unlikely that there is room for a tree to grow and in any case, it takes a long time for your body to decompose and return to the earth when you're buried inside a mahogany coffin 6 feet under in a concrete grave liner! Many people opt for a more natural burial and there are more and more places that offer natural burial grounds, where coffins are made from more organic materials like willow and bamboo or biodegradable materials like cardboard. These places also sometimes practise shallower graves as this allows for more surface microbial life and oxygen to encourage the body to be returned to earth sooner. Some places allow the planting of trees on these grounds, but don't really do anything else to make the area a place of natural beauty.

I read about a process called 'resomation' where the process of decomposition is sped up using water and chemicals eventually leaving only bones and a brown sludge. The bones can then be crushed, just like cremation remains are, and kept as ashes. The liquid can be disposed of and is non-toxic, some people saying that it could even be nourishing for land. Currently, this is only available in the USA, but it seems that it will come over to the UK and is currently being piloted by Co-Op Funeral Care as an alternative to cremation and burial.

Environmental impact

It makes sense that people might be concerned about the environmental impact of burning bodies, which contain lots of carbon and if embalmed, other harmful chemicals. However, there is also the environmental impact on the land in which embalmed bodies are buried (it is arguable that a body which has been naturally buried should not have a negative impact on the land). Scattering or burying ashes might also have a less than ideal impact on the natural world. Though of course plants do grow on graves and where ashes have been scattered, it is perhaps pertinent to consider whether the cremated remains or embalmed body is actually doing the land any good as one might have believed it would.

There are some interesting new developments underway that have environmental considerations at their heart. For example, there is such a thing as a mushroom coffin, which not only is non-toxic for the ground in which it is buried, but also encourages the decomposition of the body, meaning the deceased returns to the earth more rapidly. Then one could be more confident that the ground is truly being nourished.

Financial considerations

Funerals can be cripplingly expensive for families. The average funeral in the UK costs about £4000 and though people want to do right by their deceased, does spending lots of money equate to how much you love and respect the person? I recently spoke to a registrar who said that when people are grieving they might make the decision to spend whatever money it seemingly costs, but later down the line realise that perhaps that wasn't necessary, especially if they are now still paying for it. In my local cemetery (which happens to be very old and is also home to some well-known people's graves) there is very limited space and with high demand and low supply, this means that the plots cost up to tens of thousands of pounds. This is a special case, but the nature of burial means that continuing to bury people does result in high demand and low supply, which drives up prices.

If you decide to go down the cremation route, it is less expensive to have a 'direct cremation' which is where no one is present when the cremation takes place. This means that the funeral could happen after the direct cremation with the ashes present, as opposed to the deceased's body in a coffin or shroud. This also means that the funeral could take place anywhere you like and needn't be in a chapel or crematorium - somewhere that might be closer to representing your person and could indeed be much less expensive (or even free if it is yours or a friend's property).

Spiritual considerations and beliefs

Whatever you think about what happens when we die, your funeral should reflect at least some of that. For example, if you want to be returned to the earth to grow into something new, then this should be the main consideration when choosing a coffin and place of burial. If you don't think anything happens when you die, then why are the people you love sending you off in a way that negatively impacts the environment and costs a lot of money? On the other hand, if you and your family believe that your body needs to be intact for judgement day, then it is important to be embalmed and have a sturdy coffin deep in the ground where nature can't get to you so easily.

At all the funerals I have been to, the body has been there during the ceremony, except at one where the person had died abroad. Personally, I do not feel any more or less like it was a 'proper' funeral whether the deceased's body is there or not. Indeed, as mentioned, it is quite nice to be able to do a ceremony in a place that is special to the person or their family and community. However, I also understand that sometimes people feel a need for the person's body to be there for them to say goodbye and come to terms with their death. It really is a preference.

Rounding up...

I appreciate that everyone has their own views, opinions and beliefs about death and since nobody really knows what happens, who am I to dictate what happens to your body when you die? Moreover, what happens to your body when you die is not really in your hands anymore and decisions made also have to consider what you loved ones want. There are many things that make people feel very uncomfortable when someone dies and also many things that can really comfort them. When people are grieving, the most important thing to be is understanding and to hear people, so that is what I do when talking to bereaved families. But I also want to inform people that there are many different options and considerations, so it is helpful to learn about these things whenever you can.

Luckily, I've done a lot of learning and so am well prepared to talk you through different options to make sure your person has the send off they deserve and we say it right for them together.

Contact me by emailing


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