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Last Updated: Friday, 2 March 2007, 13:29 GMT
Towards a carbon neutral death

Alison Trowsdale
BBC News

Even death offers no escape from the global warming debate. But as with most things these days, there are eco-friendly alternatives. Woodland burials and wicker coffins are the among the greenest ways to a carbon neutral end.

Don't forget your wellies.

It's not the sort of reminder you'd normally expect to accompany notice of a funeral.

But a combination of several weeks' continuous rain and sticky clay mean sensible footwear is a prerequisite for anyone attending this particular funeral.

Preparing for a green burial at Herongate Wood

It is being held at Herongate Wood, an award-winning woodland burial site, just a few miles outside the M25 and within easy reach of all those Londoners who want to make the ultimate environmental gesture by going green beyond the grave.

Ray Ward wanted to "give something back" when he retired and, perhaps with a businessman's eye for a niche in the market, has invested more than 1m on the Essex site he hopes to restore to natural woodland.

The demand for "natural burials" has been growing and the Natural Death Centre, an organisation which claims to help improve the quality of dying, is predicting an increase from 6.5% to 12% of all burials in the UK by 2010.

With this in mind, it is planning its first Green Funeral Exhibition in London this spring.

Britain has a lot of ground to make up on the green funeral front, largely because of its lack of ground. The high cost of burial plots these days has made cremation a cheaper and more attractive option for many, and the UK leads the world with 70% of all funerals ending in cremation.

Sign for Herongate wood
Ray Ward wants to return his Essex site to natural woodland
The side effect has been an increase in damaging mercury emissions in the air from crematoria caused by the melting of dental fillings.

In the words of Michael Jarvis, of the Natural Death Centre, "You can't expect a mortuary assistant to become dental technician and start removing teeth. The most they will do is remove a heart pacemaker."

But even crematoria are starting to clean up their act, and last month the Sherwood Forest Crematorium in Nottinghamshire became the first in the country to install new filters to cut mercury emissions. Others will follow, as they try to comply with government guidelines to reduce emissions by 50% by 2012.

The south London borough of Croydon is among those pioneering other eco-friendly measures. It has cut its operational cremation furnaces in daily use from four to two, and extended working hours to make them run more efficiently.

Families who opt to cremate their loved one in a biodegradable coffin even get a discount.

Alan Collins with oak coffin
A traditional oak coffin takes about 50 years to degrade
The council is also taking action in its traditional graveyards, where space is at a premium. Croydon is reclaiming graves where old family plots were never filled and even removing some remains to bury them deeper, allowing new bodies to be put in on top.

On the other side of London, undertaker Alan Collins - is only too aware of the growing pressure on burial plots. His nearest local cemetery at Old Southgate filled up 10 years ago and plots at New Southgate are nearly 3,000 a time.

As a traditional undertaker, does he see much demand for green funerals?

"I only ever had one customer who wanted a quote for the 'total green package' and she never came back," he says. However, all his coffins come from sustainable or renewable sources and he is happy to source more environmentally-friendly options.

But such "token" environmental efforts don't impress Ray Ward. His plan is eventually to turn Herongate Woods back into a natural woodland. And with that in mind, he insists bodies are buried at a depth of 4'6" - too shallow, he says, for another coffin to be loaded on top.

Alan Collins lighting candle
Alan Collins runs a traditional funeral directors in north London
By planting trees and encouraging native bulbs, he hopes Herongate will look indistinguishable from any normal wood. Traditional granite headstones are banned and he has plans to fend off aggressive developers by setting aside a fighting fund of 25 per burial plot.

But how will future generations know where their loved ones were buried? Every plot is carefully marked on a grid and a record kept.

Unlike some more ardent woodland burial managers, Mr Ward is willing to accept cremation ashes.

"Call me light green," he jokes. "When we first started we used to try and talk them out of cremation, and then they used to bring us the ashes anyway, so there was no point in it."

Coffins range from traditional wood - only from sustainable resources - to willow from Eastern Europe, wicker and even cardboard, capable of carrying a body of up to 17-stone.

All degrade over time, but what about the metal fixtures attached to the caskets? Even this is recycled.

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