Dying to protect the environment

Seeking an ethical departure from this world is not that simple

Funeral director Colin McAteer at Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds, Killane, Co Wexford, with his own headstone. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Funeral director Colin McAteer at Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds, Killane, Co Wexford, with his own headstone. Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

For centuries, we have been told that the body goes from dust to dust and from ashes to ashes. There should be nothing more recyclable. The reality is a little more complicated.

While the Earth will one day recycle us all, it can take a very long time – especially if an eternal reward comes pumped full of drugs and embalming fluid in a heavily lacquered, hard-wood box, with metal and plastic trimmings.

“There is no way you can make a funeral really green as it stands and that is not because we are lazy or unaware of environmental concerns but because there are so few options,” says Dublin funeral director Gus Nichols.

“Cremation is sometimes seen as a more eco-friendly alternative. But that requires a lot of fossil fuels to do the work that nature can take a thousand years to complete,” he says.

“Even if you donate your body to science, it will have to be disposed off eventually through cremation or burial. By the time it is it will have more embalming fluid than Lenin.”

People seeking an ethical departure should have their mortal, drug-free remains taken by horse and cart, wrapped in nothing more than a linen shroud, to a graveyard and placed in the soil with no markings whatsoever.

Even then, Nichols says that it will take a couple of hundred years for a body to disappear without a trace. Such a route will not appeal to the dying, or to their families.

Environmentally friendly

However, progress is being made. Some of Nichols’ environmentally friendly coffins come from Colin McAteer, a fourth-generation Donegal funeral director.

He began to make them after he tried and failed to find a “green” coffin for a colleague, who died from leukaemia, aged just 19. In 2009, he started using willow, wicker, banana-leaf, even cardboard.

“They are getting more and more popular. To be honest, people are not motivated by cost and most of those who opt for them do so because they are softer and more natural looking than the heavy wood coffins,” he says.

In 2010 McAteer met Giles FitzHerbert, the former British ambassador to Venezuela. He agreed to lease 7.5 acres of his Wexford estate to McAteer as a public burial ground. So the Woodbrook Natural Burial Ground came to life.

Since then, it has grown more wild and inviting for wildlife. It has no tombstones, no pathways – the hundred or so buried there are marked by simple stones, or lie under trees.

“The Victorian model graveyard is simply not sustainable,” says McAteer, “I want to be buried under a tree. I think a lot of people feel the same way,” he says.

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