Environmental issues

Extracted from 'The Charter For the Bereaved'

(1) Information

Environmental issues have not featured prominently with regard to bereavement, possibly due to the sensitivity of the subject. This view is changing as environmental issues become increasingly important. The inclusion of the cremation process in the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is the most recent example of this. The services associated with bereavement have more impact on the environment than might be initially considered. Improvements in this area are very relevant to: “Acting locally – thinking globally”. Environmental issues are also elsewhere in the Charter under “Coffins and Alternatives”, "Maintenance of Grounds and Grave-digging" and in Appendix B, "Information on Embalming".

Environmental concerns are summarised below:


Cremation has progressed from coke fired through to gas and electric cremators over a period of 100 years. Almost all cremators use gas. The use of gas, a finite reserve, and the creation of air pollution, are adverse criticisms of this process. To keep this in perspective, the historical factors which support cremation need to be considered. Cremation was introduced in response to the ever increasing use of land for burial. Using the land for producing food was important, particularly following the last world war. In addition, the clean and clinical impact of cremation was seen as “modern”. More recently, increasing support for burial has emerged. This may be partly in response to adverse criticism of the “factory line” process levelled at crematoria. Land is also no longer at a premium for the production of food, and is being “set aside”. Further support arises from the potential re-use of graves, which precludes the creation of sprawling, derelict, Victorian type cemeteries.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 requires that all cremators must comply with specified emission requirements by 1998. Consequently, a massive cremator re-placement programme is taking place, which has greatly increased the cost of cremation. The new cremators also requires a threefold, or even higher, increase in gas consumption in order to meet the requirements of this Act. Any increase in the need to monitor or control emissions will lead to further escalation of costs. The increasing emphasis on new techniques such as Air Quality Management (AQM) are likely to increase costs event further.


Burial is sometimes suggested as a more environmentally acceptable alternative to cremation, as no air pollution is created. Such comments ignore the impact of herbicides and petrol mowers routinely used in cemeteries, often over long periods of time. In addition, the effects of interring chipboard and plastic coffins are unknown. Finally, the pollutant effects of burial on water supplies is generally unresearched. The benefits of the new woodland burial schemes appear to overcome many of these problems, particularly where they are associated with the use of bio-degradable coffins and a reduction in embalming. Further research into these issues is urgently required.

The environmental and visual value of cemeteries to the local community has generally been ignored. The older sections often date back to Victorian times. They usually contain the oldest trees in the locality, and provide habitats for mammals, wildflowers, insects, bats and birds. The old stone memorials are often the only available habitat for lichens and mosses. Changing mowing regimes, placing bird and bat boxes and replanting herbaceous borders with butterfly plat species, are small yet effective parts of this process. These improvements to the older sections can complement intensive high quality maintenance in current and more recently used burial areas.

The environmental benefits of turning old burial areas into wildlife reserves are twofold. Firstly; there is a reduction in fossil fuel and herbicide usage. Secondly, the increasing birds and wildlife create a valuable resource, offering benefits to the grieving process as well as increasing leisure/educational possibilities for the community. This process does not impact on graves visited by mourners and is generally supported by the majority of those using the grounds.

The value of nature in improving the grieving process is rarely identified and yet, is very important. A singing bird, a beautiful tree, or a colourful bedding display, are all therapeutic and symbolic of new life. The alternative is the cemetery blighted by weed killer, without trees and a true harbinger of death.

Other Environmental Issues

Other environmental issues involved with bereavement have been identified but have not received any specific attention on a national scale. This is due to the sensitivity of the issue and in some cases, difficulty in identifying the actual owner of the item or materials involved eg Prostheses belong to the NHS.

These issues include:

  • The use of environmentally friendly chemicals to clean memorial stones, as an alternative to caustic acids.
  • Composting a greater amount of mown grass, leaves, flowers and other plant material removed from the grounds.
  • A reduction in the use of herbicides/chemicals and peat used in grounds maintenance.
  • Retaining cut timber in habitat piles, rather than burning which releases the carbon content.
  • Increasing tree planting in order to offset carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Reducing the use of moss and lichens in the construction of wreaths and other floral tributes.
  • Re-using wreath frames and associated fittings (generally plastic), as an alternative to their destruction.
  • Sourcing alternatives to teak, mahogany and other hardwoods, used in the construction of garden seats, burial caskets, etc.
  • Returning the metal content of hip and other bone repair implements (prostheses) to the NHS, for recycling following removal from cremated remains.

Other issues have been identified which involve bereavement but are beyond the remit of the Charter eg the environmental damage caused by the production of cut flowers and quarrying eg stone in foreign countries, which are then imported into the UK.

(2) Charter Rights

(a) You have a right to be aware of all known environmental issues relating to bereavement services. Information will be available through this Charter and by direct contact with your local Charter member.

(3) Charter Targets

(a) Charter members should strive to improve environmental efficiency and understanding, relating to bereavement. Due consideration should be given to the conservation of wildlife and management according to sound ecological principles.

(b) Charter members should establish researched environmental impact data for all aspects of bereavement.

(c) Charter members should co-ordinate their efforts in order to improve the aspects outlined under “Further Information” above.

(d) Charter members should create strategies for enhancing the wildlife value of cemeteries and crematoria grounds. This is particularly important in the creation of new cremation and burial facilities.

(e) Charter members should introduce services that directly enhance the environment, as an integral part of the bereavement experience. Woodland and wildflower graves are an example of such initiatives.

(f) Charter members should contribute to a reduction in global warming by reducing their total energy consumption