Water cremation signals a sea change

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Having been a progressive undertaker for nearly 24 years now, I would like to say I have seen the culture of funerals in the UK radically change, and while it is true that more and more people are refusing to be led down the aisle into the sort of identically bland funerals that were the norm two decades ago, much of the change is cosmetic, particularly from the mainstream corporate companies.

Most of the information that is produced in the press as articles about changing funeral tastes comes from these funeral behemoths, who seem to have a direct line to lazy cut and paste journalists, and is often restricted to what is now the most popular funeral song, or stories about funeral directors wearing themed fancy dress for the funerals of young people.

Yes, this does make a change from the Victorian liveried slow march in front of the hearse, and dressing up as Darth Vader with the coffin bearers all dressed as Stormtroopers makes for a great photo opportunity, but most of these funerals are still missing the most important element, what actually is said and done in the ceremony.

The Green Funeral Company has always been more about emotional content than what the industry likes to call hardware: the fancy car, the expensive coffin, the upselling of funeral “tat”, and of course, we have always prioritised the environmental aspects as much as we can, (the clue is in the name) no embalming, green coffins, and where possible, burial in an ethically run natural burial ground. But if we had been inflexibly purist, and only buried people in woodland burial sites then we would have gone bankrupt a long time ago, as 75 percent of the British public still choose cremation.

So we cremate, but fight the way that cremation parcels out the experience into half an hour slots by doing as many of the actual ceremonies elsewhere before finishing with the last slot of the day.

Last year, we carried a coffin one and a half miles up the coastal path to a cliff top on the edge of Exmoor overlooking the Bristol Channel, much to the bemusement of rucksacked hikers, to sit around the coffin hearing tributes as our eyes rested on the distant coastline of Wales. The actual cremation took place later on that afternoon. But despite its popularity, cremation remains an environmental nightmare, using fossil fuel and creating unwanted emissions in the form of CO2 and wasted heat, and sometimes mercury gas from teeth fillings. But there has been an alternative process known as Alkaline Hydrolysis available for over 20 years, and has been successfully used in the Mayo Clinic in the US for all of that time, which uses a heated alkaline water to dissolve the body without the need for any burning. It’s green, it’s clean and now after much prevarication due to the fear that the funeral industry has had around the public acceptance of such a procedure, a completely unfounded fear in my opinion based on the number of people who ask me when it will be available, it is finally being brought to the UK by Co-op Funeralcare.

The big question is whether the Co-op will allow other funeral directors to use their facilities, or whether they will keep it purely for their clients. I have a sinking feeling it might be the later.

This is a terrible shame. We need wide scale and quick change in so many structural aspects of our lives in order to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the funeral industry, particularly the way we deal physically with our dead needs to be a part of this rapid shift. The reluctance for the mainstream to adopt such change is out of unease at public perception, not helped by the press, who greeted the Co-op’s announcement by dubbing it “boil in the bag” funerals.

But it needs to be done, despite the trashy pronouncements of our ever snide tabloid press.

Sadly the rest of the industry is still dragging its heels.

Plymouth city council have built a lavish new crematorium to replace their literally Victorian crematoriums, a state of the art facility on the outskirts of Plymouth which will undoubtedly give a better experience for the public, but the cremators, while modernised to full digital wizardry still uses gas. A wasted opportunity to change the practical and ceremonial ways in which we deal with our dead.

The press better hold onto their hats when human composting arrives in the UK, because it is going to. Now that will be real change, with incredible opportunities to reimagine the way we commemorate our dead. Brace yourselves.