Green death: Saving the planet from beyond the grave

Glasnevin Cemetery. Photo by James Molloy

As the population of the world move towards living a greener and more eco-friendly lifestyle, many of the traditions and habits we posses have had to adapt or change in some capacity in order to help us achieve this greener approach to life.

One such change we can undertake, even after we have left this earth, is to change our attitudes about burial rituals. Eco-burials are a growing phenomenon amongst the population as a cheaper and eco-conscious alternative to traditional methods.

Eco-burials follow the ethos of sustainability and the use of biodegradable materials, such as willow instead of the traditional varnished wood. Everything takes the environment into account, from the type of casket to the location of the burial.

Eco-burials are a growing industry in Ireland as people search for a safer, cheaper, and more viable means of burial going into the future. There are currently two companies operating natural burial sites in Ireland – Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds in Ballinlug East, Co Wexford and Knockma Woodland Burials in Tuam, Co Galway. These burial grounds differ from the traditional graveyard as they are set in living woodlands, with stones used as grave markings instead of imposing headstones.

“They’re not as scary as the hard-based traditional coffin. They remind people of cradles or Moses baskets”

Colm McAteer

Colm McAteer, who owns Green Coffins in Donegal, shared his views on the benefits of eco-friendly funerals, the current trends and how he sees the future of this growing industry.

“The materials we use are biodegradable, they’re completely natural. Willow grows freely… It’s mainly softwood versus hardwood. It’s using a sustainable resource that’s readily available.”

He notes that it isn’t a new thing, as materials such as willow were originally used before the introduction of “cheaper materials like chipboard” and veneer, which are now traditionally used in the mass production of coffins but not really sustainable in the long-term.

A Willow casket pictured above. Photo provided by Colm McAteer

“A lot of the time people just like the look of them,” he says, “they’re not as scary as the hard-based traditional coffin, there’s more warmth in the material and there’s more warmth in the skill in making them. They often remind people of cradles or Moses baskets.”

McAteer fully expects the popularity of the eco-friendly coffin to keep growing. 

“We think it will become the replacement, the norm or the new norm, and every year we get busier. What you do find is if one member of the family chooses that, in general other members do too.”

Green Coffins produce a number of different styles of coffins using various other materials aside from willow, including water hyacinth, banana leaf, pandanus, golden wicker and corrugated cardboard. Each coffin is made by hand to fit and takes from “three to three and a half days” to produce, according to McAteer.

He further adds “there’s a complete and utter craft in weaving the casket, to keep the size, to keep the walls straight as they go up, and it’s not something you learn overnight. It’s an old skill that was almost dead here in Ireland.”

McAteer also opened Ireland’s first natural burial site in 2010, Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds in Co Wexford. 

Woodbrook Burial Ground. Photo by Colm McAteer

“We want to look after our environment and it’s a simple natural burial,” he says. “They’re using you or your place of burial as a conservation tool.”

“Done right, they also create pockets of biodiversity close to major cities, and they are becoming places for people to reconnect with nature. People do come and spend time there and sit on the benches, they do enjoy the fact that they can be re-immersed in nature,” he tells me.

The burial ground itself is non-denominational with people of all faiths and walks of life buried here. McAteer also believes that as time goes on, there will be more of these natural burial sites cropping up around the country as an alternative to the traditional graveyard.

The natural burial grounds in Woodbrook offer a cheaper alternative to a traditional grave plot — the charge is €950 per plot, as opposed to €2,000 to €5,000 for an average plot.

Another natural burial site is Knockma Woodland Burials in Tuam, run by Donagh Hawtin. According to Hawtin, the benefits of a natural burial ground are that they are “more ecological, they leave less of a carbon footprint, they help with conservation.”

Knockma Burial Ground. Photo by Donagh Hawtin

“Unlike a traditional burial ground which is regimented with concrete, headstones and whatever else, this is still a living, breathing and growing environment,” she explains.

She says there is a trend away from traditional burial sites: “It is an alternative, which is something that surprised us. People are going away from the church; they are going away from tradition. Graveyards are getting full and there is no alternative.”

“People are going away from the church; they are going away from tradition… Graveyards are getting full and there is no alternative”

Donagh Hawtin

“It’s a growing market,” she continues. “We have had a lot of presales. People can buy it straight or they can come and find their plot, there’s no time limit.

“People like that we are already an established woodland, we haven’t been built up to be a woodland, we’re not regimented.

“The burial ground is changing, and it is our generation changing tradition and looking at alternatives.  I believe that this is the future, and we are doing our bit for the new way of living and saving our planet.”

Further afield, Canadian company Bio Urns was established in 1997 by Gerard Moline.

According to their website, Bio Urns are the “world’s first biodegradable urn designed to turn you into a tree in the after-life. Specially made with two separate capsules, the urn is designed to contain the seed or seedling of your choice which will grow into a tree as a way for a person to be remembered by.”

The company also opened a natural burial ground in Quebec where people go to plant their bio urns.

It offers worldwide shipping and the urn costs €180.

So, whether you choose to be laid to rest in a in a bio-degradable casket, buried in a natural burial ground or become a tree in your afterlife there are plenty of options for those who want to continue their eco-friendly lifestyle and help improve their carbon footprint even after their gone.

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