Globally there is interest in green funerals. For example, the UK has increased its green burial sites from just one 15 years ago, to more than 270 today. And a US study by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council found that 64 per cent of people aged 40 plus expressed an interest in green burials, a 21 percent increase since a similar survey in 2010.
But in Australia the growth has been steady. CEO of the Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association, Chris Harrington, puts the figure anecdotally at 5-10 percent maximum, saying there’s always been a small number of consumers who ask about green and sustainable funerals.
He believes, people like to ask the question about a green funeral, and if the answers provide them with “enough information about what they want to achieve for a loved ones’ funeral, then that’s great, but more often than not, it doesn’t quite get there”.
When Colin Clarke, of Clarke Natural Funerals, opened what was to be a strictly green cremation and burial company in Adelaide in 2014, market forces dictated that they wanted other things. “What it was in 2014 and what it is now are two different things,” says Colin.
He now operates The Natural Funeral Company with its green options together with a more conventional funeral business. He believes green funerals are a very, very small market that’s not increasing, but is consistent. “You have peaks and troughs where some days every funeral is green, others just want a nice affordable funeral service.”
Rather than younger people, it’s those over 60s that are more inclined to look at burials with about 90 percent opting for a natural burial with a tree planted in their honour. “In terms of our work, 90 percent is cremation,” explains Colin who is looking at more environmental options for this too.
“While there’s a slow increase in natural burials often when people look at the cost of a green alternative, they opt to not spend the money,” he says. In Colin’s experience, buying the plot is the most expensive outlay in a natural cemetery. Only one person can be buried in the grave, as opposed to a more conventional gravesite where up to three people can be buried in the same plot.
In Australia there is no standard for green funerals. Because of this lots of places are offering things that vary enormously explains Dr Philip Bachelor, Cemetery Administrator and Academic at Deakin University in Victoria.
He is not alone in thinking that green burials are open to interpretation. Some can be a burial without a coffin in a shroud, others can be in a bushland setting where the graves are well spaced, some have simple stone markers, others have none. For others it means no embalming, or chemical intervention.
But at the end of the day the decision of a green burial is about getting all these facts, and then being able to make a decision.
For example, Chris Harrington has known people who say, “we don’t want embalming chemicals”, without understanding they will then need to hold the funeral in a short period of time or the body will decompose. “It comes down to what’s most important, and people generally say OK we’ll get the embalming, or have the funeral sooner.”
While the definition is broad, if people seek out cemeteries with green burial options, Chris believes the answer is that most are likely to be able to comply. For example, if someone doesn’t want to be buried beside someone else and wants to be laid in a bushland setting, many of Australia’s 3000 odd cemeteries should be able to accommodate this.