Medical advancements and better living standards have contributed to people living much longer, but with around 1% of the populace dying each year, for many years, the death care sector along with most of society has been unknowingly contributing to Global Warming and Climate Change. As COP26 approaches and sustainability is brought to the top of the global agenda, industry experts are urging the deathcare sector to face up to the role it is playing in the escalating environmental emergency.

New information has emerged about the toxicity of materials involved in body disposal, from the ecological effects of embalming fluids and coffins, through to the effects of natural body composition and even the release of mercury from tooth fillings. What is clear is that the sector as a whole is facing a significant challenge when it comes to addressing and reversing its contribution to the Climate Crisis.

The pressure to implement change is no longer coming from the smaller, eco-conscious subsections of the community alone.  As of 24th February, it was reported that 300 out of a total of 404 District, County, Unitary and Metropolitan Councils had so far declared a Climate Emergency. This includes 8 combined Authorities and City Regions.  As part of the declaration, aggressive timelines and plans are being put into place to address all of the areas under their control, including death care services. Time is of the essence too, with the vast majority of these plans set to be implemented by 2030.

“Many death care professionals think that it is impossible to avoid the negative impacts on the environment completely, regardless of whether customers are opting for burials or cremations,” explains Scott Storey, Head of European Operations for OpusXenta, a global technology company serving the death care profession and its suppliers.

Earlier this year, Scott conducted a webinar ‘The Climate Emergency: What Changes Can Crematoria, Funeral Homes and Cemeteries Make to Protect Our Environment?, alongside  Executive Officer for the FBCA, Brendan Day and guests from the sector. In it they discussed the steps that Funeral Directors, Crematoria and Cemeteries can take to help limit their impact on the environment.

These included:

  • Pollution reduction – a single cremation generates NOx (greenhouse gas) emissions equivalent to a car travelling 2,280 miles. Burials are also problematic, due to toxic chemicals which leach into the soil and have been detected in groundwater around cemeteries, posing a risk to public health.
  • Preserving Ecological Habitats – the intensive maintenance of lawns and memorial plots in cemeteries and gardens of remembrance continues to damage the environment and the local ecology.
  • Recycling – there is more to be done than just composting of floral tributes or the reuse of plastic, including rainwater harvesting solar panels and even electrical car charging ports.
  • Energy Consumption – crematoria consume significant amounts of energy which often just escapes directly into the atmosphere, however there are ways in which some of this energy can be captured and reused.

Scott believes that the death care sector as a whole must accept the role it continues to play in the climate crisis. “Despite providing much needed and valued services to the communities they operate in, their impact on the environment continues to be damaging and unsustainable. By taking practical steps to fully assess the operation, identifying areas for improvement and actively seeking out solutions which benefit the environment, bereavement service professionals can ensure that the future death care sector delivers far more than it takes away,” he says.

“What is clear is that the most fundamental shift needs to come in mindset, outlook and company culture. It is only by changing your perspective and considering the environmental impact of all activities undertaken can we truly start to make the necessary changes, and see them permeate the entire death care sector,” concludes Scott.

Executive Officer of the Federation, Brendan Day, said ‘the need for education across the sector and amongst the public is central to ensuring we can reduce the impact of funerals on the environment. To encourage this shift we now provide our members with a free Environmental Awareness Report when we carry out Compliance Inspections and we encourage them to adopt an Environmental policy to support their efforts to be more sustainable’.