Dead wrong

Is it time to stop burying dead bodies?

14th June 2019

Tradition is undeniably important; it can unite people, it can give purpose to everyday life, it can give people a sense of belonging. Some traditions, however, can be harmful to individuals and to the environment. One such example is traditional burials.

Funeral arrangements are difficult for those involved in the process. Grieving family members have more to think about in the moment than the environmental impact of their loved ones’ send-off. However, these things need to be thought of. There are 15 people dead for every person alive and out of those people many would have been buried. Currently, the number of burials in any given 12-month period is roughly 150,000 in England and Wales, and we’re running out of space.

The space used to bury the new bodies, or rather the lack of, is a pressing issue. Perfectly good land that could be left alone or used for other purposes is being taken up even with there being other options available.

The lack of space in UK cemeteries is hitting crisis levels. A 2013 study indicated that nearly half of all England’s cemeteries will run out of burial space within the next 20 years. A solution presented for this is the reusing of burial spaces — essentially, digging up the remains of the old bodies and using the space for a new burial, new headstone and all. This, obviously, is a distressing reality that many families are not made aware of.

Funeral director Holly Clarke from Holly’s Funerals said she doesn’t think most families are aware that is a possibility. “It’s up to the funeral director to be very clear on what they’re getting.”

It is only in quite extreme cases that the bodies are dug up

But Clarke’s clients are aware. “It is very rare that graves are re-used,” she says, “Even though cemeteries have a policy of there being about 50-odd years until you have to buy it again, it is only in quite extreme cases that the bodies are dug up.”

Alternatively, the City of London Cemetery has found a way to theoretically never run out of burial space: second burials. This is pretty much what it sounds like; another body is buried in the space above the original with any remains found from previous burials being placed deeper within the grave. The headstone from the original burial is also re-used; turned around and re-engraved. Depending on who you ask, it is either an abomination against the natural law or a way into the future.

It has been pointed out that if the family wishes, the grave will be left alone. The graves chosen have to be at least 75-years-old, as is compliant with the law. Once a plot is picked out, where possible, the families affected will be notified. This is carried out via posts on their website and advertisements in the local newspaper.

This alternative allows for an option both cheaper and closer to home, so it is no wonder over 60% of burials in the cemetery are done in re-used spaces. While the ethical implications are still somewhat shaky, it is seen as the sustainable option, as evidenced by the almost unanimous agreement with only “a handful of objections”.

A similar project in Southwark has not gone down so well, with protesters claiming it to be “a desecration of the grave”. A campaign going by the name Save Southwark Woods has brought a community together in order to protect the land and people they love.

Lewis Schaffer, Brooklyn-born comedian and representative of Friends of Camberwell Cemeteries — the protest group heading the campaign — has taken a deep interest in saving the woods and cemetery that are being torn down. He says he “couldn’t have imagined this happening in this country”, the country that his sons have grown up in. “[It’s] not reflective of the country that I wanted it to be — that it should be. It isn’t the London I grew up dreaming about.”

In an article in The Guardian, Tim Morris, chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management, said that the only alternative — cutting down Camberwell Wood in order to build more plots — has received negative attention from the same group protesting the grave re-use. Morris points out that they can’t have it both ways.

Now, this seems like a reasonable compromise until you realise that, actually, the woods are being chopped down in order to get to the graves they have grown up above. The woods are not “clean land for burial” but rather have become intertwined with the graves and a part of the history and heritage that surrounds them.

Morris also makes the claim that “if any of those protesters have objections [to a particular graves re-use] they just have to register that objection and it won’t go ahead”. Schaffer, however, claims families were not explicitly made aware of what was going on, and when people are made aware they don’t believe it is right.

Southwark had put up notices around the cemetery which, while put up for 18 months, were not explicitly clear on what the actual plans were. The signs used words like “remodelling” and “enhance”, claiming the work being done was to fix “structural deformities and defects”. The only indication of them getting rid of anything was the mention of “Phase 2” when 700 new burial plots would be created and there would be a “clearance of poor quality soils and unsuitable materials” with a “remodelling of the land and additional soils to prepare the site for burial”.

The protestors believe, however, that even if the signs had explained the plans for grave re-use it would not have been the same thing as asking for consent in the way the council deemed it to be. The council itself said it gave ample time for any protests to be made, but as to whether the general concerns were taken into account is highly debatable.

For people to actually be able to protest the plans, they would have to be at the cemetery often enough to spot them. If a family had not been to the cemetery within those 18 months they would have had no idea until it was too late. Burying a loved one can mean you are too far away from them to see them as often as you would like. That does not mean it is okay for their remains to be removed in your absence.


Southwark council claimed the memorial, including anything left by the grave, was kept safe but what good is a headstone to someone who has no idea where it once lay? The council also said none of the memorials were damaged and it would not throw them around carelessly.

Except that’s exactly what one man found when he went to scatter his mother’s ashes on his grandparents’ graves. Not only did he find the whole thing gone, upon further inspection also found tens of gravestones left seemingly discarded on the ground. While he had been there several times in the previous months, he claimed he had never seen the notices and so the whole thing came as a shock, especially with just having lost his mother.

Another woman tells the story of her baby son born in the March of 1977, who she lost just hours after having a failed inducement followed by a caesarean section. In the following hours, despite the efforts of the medical team, her son passed away. “Numb and unable to process what had happened”, she felt too devastated to attend the funeral. She never got to hold her baby in her arms or even see him, as per the general policy at the time. It has only recently come to her attention that his grave will be demolished — even then it was only through the efforts of the campaigners did she find out.

They have taken a bit of land [used previously for common graves] where they’re allowed to bury on top of those graves

This can be seen as even further proof of the funeral industry becoming more fixated on the numbers and less on the ethical implications of what it is doing. While it has the advantage of having a boundless market, there is not an infinite amount of space to accommodate for this. It has reached such a level that it seems that no space is sacred.

Whether or not individuals agree or disagree with the reusing of graves, most people would find Southwark’s latest project downright horrifying. Perhaps most unacceptable of all it has done is the burying over war graves. Instead of remembering, Southwark is erasing.

According to Schaffer, Southwark is constructing new burial grounds on a hillside. He explains that there are two types of graves. “There are graves that people buy and there are common graves or public graves.” The latter would have multiple burials with no kind of headstone to mark their resting place meaning the council could bury over them. “What the council has done, they have taken a bit of land [used previously for common graves] where they’re allowed to, by law, bury on top of those graves. In that pile of 48,000 graves are 48 war graves.”

For some, burial is the only option

The council insists it will not bury on top of the war graves, however, there is no way of knowing where those particular bodies are. The council has, nevertheless, put up markers “kinda-sorta” where they think they could possibly be, finding what available space they could, according to Schaffer. Its own website states the graves will be marked “where possible”.

However, councillor Richard Livingstone, cabinet member for environment, transport management and air quality, says: “The council has completed very detailed and thorough checks, resulting in the identification of the 48 war graves. These have been reported to the [Commonwealth War Graves Commission]. War graves are plotted on our system and our records are carefully and electronically managed, so as to specifically avoid placing any graves over them in the future. The CWGC are satisfied with these records.”

With the crisis levels of the lack of burial space, many would say the council is justified in what it is doing despite the issues the plans present. In Southwark, on average 380 bodies are buried each year, and this shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. The council has pointed out that, for some, due to reasons such as ethnicity, family heritage and religion, “burial is the only option”.

The campaigners, however, believe the space provided is not fit for Muslim burial and there is no segregated space for Jewish residents. Southwark claims that it has had many Jewish burials, but statistics from the Save Southwark Woods website point to Muslims outsourcing their burials 96% of the time.

Livingstone says: “The council meets with people at mosques and multi-faith forum groups, to learn about the specific needs of the communities we serve and to ensure that we are able to best provide for all of our residents. We have at no point received any requests from orthodox Muslim or Jewish residents, asking for changes to the cemeteries to meet their burial requirements.”

Putting away the ethical issues momentarily, another issue with traditional burials is the practice of embalming. In short, embalming is the process of temporarily preserving the body for public viewing by delaying the decomposition through an injection of a preservative chemical into the circulatory system.

Tools used for embalming bodies

The issue with this practice lies in the toxins that are used as part of the process — a combination of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol and water, and in some cases dyes to simulate a life-like skin tone. The effects of these on the living can range from irritating, as with phenol, down to carcinogenic, as with formaldehyde. Exposure to formaldehyde has also been linked to motor neurone disease (MND), for which awareness was raised with the ice bucket challenge.

The risk of MND, also known as ALS and Lou Gehrig Disease, is raised by 34% with regular exposure, although some studies have found no such link. The negative effects stemming from embalming primarily harm those in the industry like morticians, but also wildlife and the general public when the toxins are leached into the soil and water supplies as the body breaks down.

A representative from the British Institute of Embalmers claims: “The fluid is taken up by the proteins in the body. In America there have been quite a few studies of the earth and water around cemeteries. They have not found contamination from the embalming fluids.” Though, this does not seem to be the whole truth as, while the half-life of formaldehyde when leaked into the water is just two to 20 days, when leaked into the earth it is there to stay.

Embalming does, however, have its place, such as when the individual “dies in trauma”, says Holly’s Funerals which advocates against the practice. For those who want an open casket, it would appear to be the only option without causing distress for the grieving. Many people feel that it gives some degree of comfort to see their loved one “at peace”, especially in cases where the deceased had gone through a period of illness where they had “not looked themselves”.

With traditional burials comes a lot of pressure for things to be a certain way, with guilt often playing a big role. Everything needs to be perfect for those we have lost. But perfection comes at a price — £9,204 to be precise, according to SunLife’s 2018 cost of dying report.

Funeral directors are increasingly guilting people into spending more than they can reasonably afford. In many cases, families are convinced, or even straight-up emotionally blackmailed, into “upscaling”, whether it be a bigger, “better” coffin; extravagant flower arrangements; or a bevvy of doves to be released at the service. Logic oftentimes flies out of the window in the face of grief, at which point people can be very easily be taken advantage of.

Planning a funeral is best done when the person is alive

We all know deep down, however, none of this will make any real difference to the person we are doing all of this for and, in fact, in the majority of cases, the actual wishes of the deceased are completely unknown.

Robert Green who has attended “more than [his] fair share of funerals” says: “Planning a funeral is best done when the person is alive. Otherwise, once grief hits you, you are not in the proper frame of mind to be making decisions. I was not in the right mindset and could have been more of a comparative shopper had I the time, but I would have spent more anyways, in order to give a proper send off.” And funeral directors are more than happy to show what a “proper” send-off entails.

The exorbitant costs are even more upsetting when you find out these so-called high-quality coffins are actually made up of cheap materials. According to Holly’s Funerals, the majority of coffins sold in the UK are actually chipboard veneer with plastic handles, which they get cheap and mark up incredibly. Families may think they’re getting a really nice solid wood coffin, but in reality, they are not.

Burial urns have been used for thousands of years

So now that the good name of traditional burials has been torn down, we have to produce some viable alternatives. Cremation is among the more popular options, but is not particularly good for the environment either. As with all things, it has its good points such as, in comparison to burials, it does not take up much, if any, space in burial grounds. It has also been argued some of the nutrients found in the ashes can be beneficial for plants. This sounds like a great way to pay tribute to a loved one; symbolic as well as a greener-sounding option.

However, the reality is quite different. While human ashes are composed of nutrients that plants require, they also contain an extremely high amount of salt, which is toxic for most plants and can be leached into the soil. The cremains will also not contain other important nutrients which could cause an imbalance, hindering plant growth.

Some groups have tried to counter this with biodegradable urns with soil that supposedly counteracts the nutritional imbalances as well as the harmful PH levels. Alternatively, spreading a small amount of the cremains or mixing it into the soil should not have any adverse effects. Other ideas, such as mixing the ashes into concrete for a unique garden sculpture, birdbath or paving stones, could act as an alternative of sorts.

A new, innovative yet dignified approach

Two unusual but promising alternatives to traditional burials have recently cropped up — promession and resomation. Promession (pronounced pro-mesh-ion) is essentially freezing the body and breaking it up into tiny crystals, which is then placed in a biodegradable container made of corn or potato starch and buried. Theoretically, promession offers several advantages in terms of ecological impact, though, it is still in the testing phase and it promises to be a pricey alternative if and when it does hit the market.

Resomation is a process likened to cremation but, in lieu of using fire, it uses water and an alkali-based solution, which supposedly speeds up the natural process of decomposition. It has been said to be a “new, innovative yet dignified approach which uses significantly less energy and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gasses than flame cremation”. Much like traditional cremation, the ash is returned to the family to do as they wish. Unlike promession, resomation is already available in Australia and parts of the US. The UK was set to follow suit, but plans have been put on hold over environmental fears.

Even burial, when done “right”, doesn’t have to have negative environmental implications. There are individuals and groups who think the human body can be utilised after death as a way to bring new life. As with cremated remains, human bodies when buried have minerals beneficial to plants.

Serious problems must be tackled to fully embrace the potential of necrosols

Dr Estella Weiss-Krejci, from the OREA-Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences says: “A burial of an untreated corpse without a coffin has many advantages — not only does it not cause pollution, but the decaying corpse produces so-called necrosols which are valuable soils.” These necrosols could prove to be beneficial in farming. Unlike cremains, however, the body will not cause toxic emissions to be a problem.

Ladislav Smejda, one of Dr Weiss-Krejci’s colleagues from her current project DEEPDEAD, is working on this issue. Smejda et al have found these necrosols could be utilised in ecology, soil science and landscape management. They have recognised, though, that “serious problems must be tackled to fully embrace its potential; from ethical concerns towards human remains to methodological aspects”. However, if this were to become the norm, the environmental implications would be huge, as it could be a solution for the crisis-level concerns over burial space.

There are many reasons people still choose traditional burials for themselves and for their loved ones. These reasons could stem from personal beliefs, pressure from what is the perceived norm and lack of knowledge on the other options available to them. This, in itself, is not a bad thing and will not affect us directly. Though, at the rate that things are happening, it could have severe negative consequences for future generations and the environment.

Societies need to be open to different and innovative options. There needs to be a balance. We should remember that funerals are a time for mourning, a time where people are at their most vulnerable and likely only thinking of what is best for their loved one but we also need to acknowledge that those same decisions have long-term, broadly negative, effects.

14th June 2019