Imagine taking a subject most people don’t want to talk about—death—and pairing it with a subject many people know little about—climate change. That’s the conundrum facing the death care profession as this century advances.
The health of the planet is top of mind, but so too is the solvency of funeral homes, crematoriums, and cemeteries amid this global challenge. Even if citizens of the world are aware of climate change, many may not realise that funerals, burials, and cremations add to that environmental impact.
That’s why in times of crisis, the bereavement services profession has the opportunity to respond by trailblazing solutions. To that end, OpusXenta is working with the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities (FBCA) to produce an educational webinar series to help identify, develop and implement green agendas within this sector.
It’s a simple premise. Everything impacts the environment…even death. To that end, the Environmental Stewardship Group (ESG) was formed in late 2020 in response to climate emergency declarations and the recognition that the bereavement sector has a substantial part to play.
As part of a bigger global picture, the goal of the Paris Agreement, within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F).
Those levels would substantially reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. One of the main ways of doing this is by reducing emissions, some of which come from cremations.
Recently published targets on reducing carbon (CO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions paint a grim picture, especially with an astronomical increase in the number of cremations. In the UK, for example, it is estimated that if nothing were done to offset the carbon emissions from cremation, 1 million trees a year would need to be planted to offset the impact. And NOx emissions—harmful to both humans and ecosystems—from cremations in the UK generate the equivalent of a car’s emissions traveling 43,000 times around the planet. With the number of cremations in the US almost triple the UK (based on 2019 statistics), those numbers are even more staggering.
This decade will be pivotal indeed. So, what are the next steps for the death care industry? Essentially, there are four steps worth discussing—people, process, technology, and communication. How can we manage these things to achieve our industry’s goals?
Part of the problem with climate change is convincing people we all have a role to play. The buy-in, of course, has to be with the living who make decisions for their loved ones.
Acknowledging that one’s choices matter is key, and funeral directors and cemetery owners need to be able to communicate that impact to families. It’s a matter of changing minds before changing habits.
For example, most families consider cremation a greener alternative to burial. Still, both have substantial impacts on the environment, ranging from CO2 emissions and fuel use in cremation to issues of deforestation, pollution, and carbon footprint with caskets, monuments, and traditional burials.
Likewise, funeral homes and cemetery owners must be on board as well, realising that the profession must do its part in the global community.
How can the industry optimise processes? Or introduce new ones? As stewards of the planet, we must make decisions which help reduce pollution and energy, enhance recycling efforts, and encourage environmentally-friendly grounds management processes.
Some are obvious (and possibly costly), such as seeking out better filters or heat exchangers for retorts. Some are small but noteworthy, such as limiting water use or the use of chemical pesticides in cemeteries. Others take more conscious planning but can make a subtle difference, such as using thoughtful grounds management to secure natural wildlife areas or streamline maintenance protocols.
Funeral directors and crematory operators may also want to explore up-and-coming technologies that could lower the industry’s environmental impact. Many are experimental (and sometimes controversial), but cracking open Pandora’s box of possibilities is worth exploring—things like alkaline hydrolysis, Promession, and natural organic reduction. Those, of course, would need to overcome significant cultural and societal (as well as marketing) challenges, but no major shifts come overnight or without struggle.
The year of the pandemic has taught everyone how to use technology to deliver services. It can also be used to assist the profession in optimising processes as well as educating others. Using services such as byondcloud to book services and arrangements increases proficiencies and uses technology to benefit both the profession and the families it serves. Technology could also mean using online cemetery mapping tools, advocating for digital transactions, and creating/offering digital memorials, as well as grounds management tools to schedule maintenance, identify native plants and use alternate fuel sources when possible.
And, yes, while the death care profession is steeped in personal touch and customer service, today’s digital native generation is more accustomed to using—and expecting—technology to do business. So, it makes good sense for the profession to follow suit.
The Environmental Stewardship Group is focused on educating those in the profession on recommendations and options for moving forward in a greener way. This will bring about a greater understanding of the nature of the emergency and where it impacts the sector, exploring interdependent relationships between each other and that of the environment.
But it’s not just about communicating within the profession. Understanding and relaying alternatives to burial and cremation to families go hand in hand.
How can the death care profession manage these goals to achieve its goals of being more environmentally friendly stewards of the planet? Collaborations such as the ESG are one step in the right direction. Working to eliminate the taboos around death—and the discussion of final disposition alternatives—is also important.
Every country must deliver a climate strategy to achieve the targets agreed upon in the Paris Agreement, which means every country must reduce CO2 emissions by a minimum of 7.7 percent every year starting now—amounting to an aggregated 65 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030.
The population of our planet is not getting smaller, and the impact is getting greater each day. That’s why it’s time—now—to introduce end-of-life conversations, with both staff and families, that can have meaningful impacts not just for the families but for Mother Earth.