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Post-mortem ecology: the rise of “green funerals”

Martin Julier-costes
Martin Julier-Costes
sociologist, research associate at Université Grenoble Alpes
Key takeaways
  • In France, only three methods of inhumation are legal: burial, cremation and donation of the body to science.
  • However, these methods have a significant ecological impact, since according to one study, a single burial generates 833 kg of CO2.
  • Today, more ecological alternatives are emerging: promession, aquamation and terramation.
  • These “green funerals” illustrate society’s ecological aspirations, with burial methods that are synonymous with a spiritual return to the earth.
  • At the same time, cemeteries are evolving into greener spaces that welcome biodiversity.

Funer­al rites have not escaped the glare of the eco­log­i­cal tran­si­tion. While alter­na­tive meth­ods of bur­ial are slow­ly emerg­ing, tra­di­tion­al means of bur­ial and cre­ma­tion are evolv­ing to reduce eco­log­i­cal impact, in par­tic­u­lar with the advent of green­er cemeteries.

In the words of André Mal­raux, “the most beau­ti­ful tomb is the mem­o­ry of man”. The most eco­log­i­cal, how­ev­er, has yet to be deter­mined. We are increas­ing­ly con­cerned about the envi­ron­men­tal impact of our death, but we are still faced with a lim­it­ed choice. “Only two types of bur­ial are legal in France,” says Mar­tin Juli­er Costes, a soci­ol­o­gist spe­cial­is­ing in end-of-life and bereave­ment issues. “These are bur­ial and cre­ma­tion. There is a third option, which is to donate one’s body to sci­ence,” he adds, “but very few peo­ple make this choice.” The major­i­ty (6 out of 10) of funer­als are buri­als. Cre­ma­tion, on the oth­er hand, has become increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar since “the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry and the autho­ri­sa­tion of cre­ma­tion”. Accord­ing to the Asso­ci­a­tion Française d’Information Funéraire (Afif), cre­ma­tion will account for 41% of funer­als by 2022, and more than 50% in many towns and cities.

These funer­al rites have a sig­nif­i­cant eco­log­i­cal foot­print. They gen­er­ate green­house gas emis­sions, con­sume nat­ur­al resources and pol­lute the soil. One of the only French stud­ies on the sub­ject1, com­mis­sioned in 2017 by the funer­al ser­vices of the City of Paris, esti­mat­ed the car­bon emis­sions pro­duced by a sin­gle com­mit­tal at 833 kg of CO2. That’s the equiv­a­lent of dri­ving a pri­vate car 4,000 km or pro­duc­ing 741 litres of beer.

Alternatives are still in their infancy

While more envi­ron­men­tal­ly-friend­ly solu­tions are emerg­ing for pay­ing trib­ute to the deceased, none has yet been legalised in France. There is “promes­sion”, a Swedish ini­tia­tive that is still in its infan­cy and as yet untest­ed, which involves using extreme cold (a liq­uid nitro­gen bath) to freeze and then reduce the body to pow­der. Con­ver­s­ley, “aqua­ma­tion” is a reverse tech­nique that dis­solves the body in an alka­line solu­tion at 93°C, before trans­form­ing the bones into pow­der. “This method is legal in North Amer­i­ca,” explains the soci­ol­o­gist, “but its tech­ni­cal effec­tive­ness has yet to be demonstrated.”

From one ele­ment to anoth­er, “ter­ra­ma­tion” does not involve liq­uid process­es, but con­sists of “return­ing the human body to a state of humus”. In oth­er words, human com­post­ing, which can take place on three dif­fer­ent lev­els. First­ly, on the ground, with a humu­sa­tion process in which the corpse is placed on a bed of shred­ded mate­r­i­al, then cov­ered with organ­ic mat­ter. Then above ground, as pro­posed by the Amer­i­can com­pa­ny Recom­pose, which decom­pos­es the body in cap­sules (“recom­po­si­tion con­tain­ers”) and cre­ates com­post in a few weeks, which is giv­en to the fam­i­ly to “return to nature”, with the aim of revi­tal­is­ing the soil. Last­ly, there is a ground tech­nique, i.e. bur­ial with­out a cof­fin, in a shroud and with shred­ding to acti­vate and regen­er­ate the soil. In this case, “we make some­thing new out of some­thing old”, explains Mar­tin Juli­er Costes, “because coffins were not com­pul­so­ry in France until the time of Napoleon”.

Back to the Earth

For the researcher, who shares his thoughts and work on his per­son­al page2, all these ini­tia­tives mobilise the imag­i­na­tion of “gen­tle­ness, (…) nat­ur­al ele­ments and a return to the earth”. But their growth in pop­u­lar­i­ty is not only explained by the rise of eco­log­i­cal aspi­ra­tions in soci­ety. “Some peo­ple are tak­ing an inter­est in the des­tiny of their bod­ies by draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from new spir­i­tu­al­i­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly those stem­ming from East­ern cur­rents such as Hin­duism or Bud­dhism”. Their approach is moti­vat­ed by a cer­tain coher­ence between life, body, nature, and spir­it. The idea of return­ing to the earth is par­tic­u­lar­ly present in the ter­ra­ma­tion process, with the idea of “cre­at­ing a vir­tu­ous cycle between life and death, by regen­er­at­ing nature” after hav­ing lived in it for a while. “Oth­er men­tal frame­works are asso­ci­at­ed with this dynam­ic,” he con­tin­ues, “such as ani­mal­ism, shaman­ism, or the new phi­los­o­phy of liv­ing beings espoused by intel­lec­tu­als such as Philippe Desco­la or Bap­tiste Morizot”.

At the same time, the soci­ol­o­gist observes a grow­ing indi­vid­u­al­i­sa­tion of social behav­iour, which would explain a “grow­ing trend towards per­son­alised funer­als”. This is a new way of stand­ing out from the crowd, by organ­is­ing “funer­als in one’s own image, out­side the tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of bur­ial” that are too close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with dom­i­nant reli­gious or cul­tur­al dogmas.

From fields of gravestones to gardens of rest

While we await the legal­i­sa­tion of some of these envi­ron­men­tal­ly-friend­ly funer­al rites, the first steps to be tak­en to reduce the envi­ron­men­tal impact of our funer­als should be sought in ceme­ter­ies. French bur­ial grounds are essen­tial­ly grav­el and min­er­als. “Bur­ial with the con­struc­tion of a vault and the instal­la­tion of a mon­u­ment, often import­ed from South-East Asia, is equiv­a­lent to the green­house gas emis­sions of more than 5 cre­ma­tions” warns the City of Paris funer­al ser­vices in their study.

Against this back­drop, we need to make the tran­si­tion from a field of tomb­stones to a gar­den of rest. “Our ceme­ter­ies are grad­u­al­ly becom­ing green­er, land­scaped spaces,” observes Mar­tin Juli­er Costes, fol­low­ing the exam­ple of Père Lachaise in Paris and oth­ers in Niort, Ver­sailles, Lyon and Greno­ble. Weasels, fox­es and tawny owls roam freely along­side 140 oth­er ani­mal species and “more than 220 wild plant species (…) observed between 2010 and 2020”, accord­ing to the Paris City Council.

The recent “Liv­ing Ceme­ter­ies” study con­duct­ed by the Île-de-France Bio­di­ver­si­ty Agency shows that these areas have “an inter­est­ing capac­i­ty to host bio­di­ver­si­ty”. Nev­er­the­less, they remain “heav­i­ly min­er­alised”, sug­gest­ing the need for a real green­ing pol­i­cy? This would ben­e­fit both wildlife and res­i­dents (the urban green lung effect), as well as those who live there or aspire to do so in terms of eco­log­i­cal accept­abil­i­ty. What remains to be done is to “get this trans­for­ma­tion adopt­ed by staff and cit­i­zens alike”, points out Mar­tin Juli­er Costes, who points out that more and more local author­i­ties are “tak­ing a polit­i­cal approach to the green­ing of the funer­al indus­try”, as is the case in Lyon.

Taking political ownership of green funerals

This is not the full pic­ture, and there are still gaps in the analy­sis of the eco­log­i­cal foot­print of funer­als. “There is, for exam­ple, no sol­id study com­bin­ing biol­o­gy, hydrol­o­gy and chem­istry to exam­ine the envi­ron­men­tal impact of bur­ial and cre­ma­tion on the soil, the air or the water cycle, or on thanato­praxy and the asso­ci­at­ed care”, notes the soci­ol­o­gist. The study com­mis­sioned by the Paris funer­al ser­vices “is inter­est­ing, from his point of view, but still insufficient”.

He there­fore calls on the pub­lic author­i­ties to take up the issue, to objec­tivise this envi­ron­men­tal impact, and take the nec­es­sary mea­sures to make the funer­al indus­try green­er, and tomor­row – per­haps – we could curl up in a plant cocoon and let the soil take care of our bur­ial. Naturally?

Samuel Belaud

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