Pet treatment

I recently met a Canadian who said his wife spent $500 on burying a mouse! Actually it was a hamster but don’t let that distract us. And if I’m really honest, part of that was the vet’s fee for finding out that the mouse / hamster was going to snuff it. Then there was more to pay to help the little creature along….

Now I’m not anti hamsters but I’m also not convinced that it’s worth spending large sums of money on helping them pass into the next world. And I have to admit that elaborate funeral arrangements for larger pets strike me as a waste of resources too. Looking on the internet, I discovered that there’s a booming industry in pet coffins, urns, caskets, memorials and even pet DNA necklaces – the DNA is suspended in a coloured liquid.

OK so this exhibition is largely centred around funerals for humans. I’m afraid I think that our fear of death leads us to some pretty bad decisions – from an environmental point of view – when disposing of our loved ones. And given that we do some weird things when burying our pets, perhaps it should be no surprise that there are some odd practices for disposing of humans too.

Embalming is barmy

Bizarrely, I found that researching death issues for The New Green Consumer Guide was particularly fascinating. This was chiefly because I learnt a lot.

One thing that particularly horrified me was the practice of embalming. What this actually means is that they remove the blood from the body (one funeral expert said this was then chucked down the drain - can this be true?). The blood is then replaced with a pink coloured formaldehyde, which is a toxic ingredient. The idea is to make your body look more 'life-like' - that's why it's pink - and to preserve the body longer. But even the people I've talked to in the funeral trade say that it's very rarely necessary from a practical point of view.

Environmentally this process is not so great. For burial it can contaminate the land and in cremation cause more pollution. The really shocking thing is that it’s standard practice for the UK’s two biggest funeral companies – the Co-op and Dignity. They call it ‘hygienic treatment’.

Burial space

Slowing down the rate that bodies de-compose is a pretty bad idea when we’re running out of burial grounds. One solution to this is recycling the ones we’ve got. Apparently this is hugely contentious even though it was common practice a couple of centuries ago. Grave diggers would start at one side of a churchyard, work their way across and then start again when they’d filled up the spaces.

Today, a number of European countries re-use graves. They dig up body remains after about 20 years and store the bones in an ossary – meanwhile using the grave for another corpse. But to do this you need to put bodies closer to the surface, for speedier decomposition. If you’re put six feet under there is very little air and therefore no worms and pretty few microbes working away to turn us to mulch.

In the UK the idea of ‘natural burial grounds’ is becoming more popular. These could help reduce over-crowding, if they’re not solely designated as graveyards with memorial stones. The modern approach has to be to use these areas for tourism, leisure or agriculture rather than somewhere solely reserved for the dead and their relatives – life goes on.

In the fire

Like 70% of the British population my father was cremated. We sprinkled his ashes in our garden and planted a beautiful tree on top. Our family didn’t go to the crematorium – we weren’t interested in that part of the process. So why I wondered did we pay the bearers to put on sombre costume to carry the coffin to the furnace? Come to think of it, why did he need to be put in a coffin – and have that burnt too? I’ve discovered that crematoria are designed to receive bodies on a solid hard board, which is why coffins are necessary.

But going back to my father. We didn’t feel able to make bold decisions once he had died. My mother didn’t want to challenge the funeral directors about what they wore, about the coffin or indeed about removing his gold teeth and fillings. Did you know that 11% of mercury contamination in the North Sea comes from crematoria pollution – from fillings? And its predicted this will increase to a third of contamination in the next decade because the generation dying have well filled teeth.

Choosing how to go

The Green Funerals Exhibition was a good idea. We need to make decisions about our funerals when we’re alive and well. Grieving relatives are not best placed to challenge tradition – and if they’re going to do it they want to be certain it’s something that would be appreciated by their loved one.

Apart from burial or cremation – which are the two main options today – the biggest decision will be what sort of coffin to choose. In the New Green Consumer Guide, I’ve given an eco-rating to different types of coffin oak to wood chip to cardboard and even bamboo. Top of my list went to ones made from recycled newspapers – using a waste material has to be better than growing something from scratch.

Julia Hailes’ New Green Consumer Guide was published in May 2007 by Simon & Schuster at £14.99 and is available at all good book shops and Julia’s website – .

Ecopod coffin