A topic that may seem morbid but one that has interested me for some time are the growing number of options for anyone wishing to return to the earth with minimal environmental impact. In particular biodegradable coffins.
The market for biodegradable, low-impact coffins is not huge and varies from country to country. For example, in North American ‘casket culture’ the majority of coffins are of steel construction reflecting the idea that a casket’s function is to preserve its contents forever, they also tend to be larger. In 2006, 80-85% of coffins in North America were fabricated from stamped steel. A further 10-15% were solid wood/chipboard caskets. Alternative materials, including biodegradable materials, natural cotton shrouds and fibreglass, make up what remainder of the market there is. But what does coffin material selection mean in terms of environmental impact? Well to give you an idea, each year 22,500 cemeteries in North America bury:
- 30 million board feet (70,000 m³) of hardwoods (in coffins)
- 90,272 tons of steel (in coffins)
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (in coffins)
- 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
- 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
- 827,060 US gallons (3,130 m³) of embalming fluid (most commonly formaldehyde although apparently once used for embalming it is technically and chemically inert, its affects largely only a danger to mortuary workers and the destruction of the decomposer microbes necessary for the breakdown of the body in the soil)
If, like me, the idea of adding more hardwood and steel to these incredible statistics isn’t your cup of tea then you’ll be pleased to know that there are a whole range of biodegradable coffin materials to choose from, many of them also being sustainably produced. The selection includes; cardboard, compressed recycled paper, wicker, bamboo, natural wool, seagrass, cane, jute, organic cotton and even pineapple or hyacinth leaf.
Here are some interesting examples:
Recycled paper:Ecopods are handmade in Brighton, UK, from post consumer newspapers from local curbside collections. The newspapers are converted into a paper clay using a pre-war dough machine and then laid into fibreglass moulds before spending 6 days in a drying chamber. They are then steamed and sanded into their final shape after which customisation is possible if desired.
Wool:The UK’s leading coffin manufacturer JC Atkinson and Son and AW Hainsworth and Sons Ltd, a Yorkshire-based speciality textile firm joined forces in 2009 to create the Natural Legacy woollen coffin. Made in Yorkshire, UK, it uses pure new British wool over a strong recycled cardboard frame with a waterproof, biodegradable base. It is elegantly finished with an organic cotton lining and edged with jute.
Bamboo:Oasis Bamboo Coffins have created a socially as well as environmentally responsible approach. Their bamboo coffins are produced in the Nilpharmari district, north of Dhaka in Bangladesh by local people using bamboo from local producers. They are shipped flat-packed to the UK where distributors donate 10% of the cost of each coffin sold to Oasis International, a UK registered charity working to alleviate poverty in Bangladesh.
Cardboard:Creative Coffins make their cardboard coffins from unbleached pulp containing at least 60% recycled paper plus wood pulp sourced from sustainable forests using natural starch based glues and handles made from natural woven cotton. What sets them apart from a normal cardboard box are the bright, fun, quirky printed designs. You can choose from amongst design categories such as flags, sports, hobbies and flowers or commission your own design. I’m not sure I want my final resting place to be printed to look like a box of chocolates, though.