Green Coffins Caskets and other options
Green coffins are really a trip back in time. The dead have been buried in a variety of ways over the centuries. In pre-Christian times, the body may have been naked and laid in a stone “cist”. Then people started to cover the body. The wealthy took up wood and even metal coffins, leaving the poor to use shrouds. Then the government decreed that wool be used in order to help the wool trade (and woollen coffins are staging a comeback). The poor would fo into the re-useable parish coffin, which was carried to the graveside, where the body was removed and lowered into the grave. Once could last for ten years or more – very green coffins!
The Victorian era ushered in as normal individual and privately purchased coffins. They were typically made of oak or elm and often heavily ornamented. As time went by, cheap softwood coffins replaced increasingly expensive hardwoods.
The modern standard coffin is made of chipboard with a quality veneer. They look just like solid wood coffins. The nameplate, handles and inner linings are all made of combustible artificial materials, mainly plastic.
When used for cremation, chipboard coffins, MDF mouldings and plastic fittings cause the majority of the modest amount of polluting emissions. The manufacture of chipboard uses formaldehyde, not considered environmentally friendly. Coffins of wood and other natural material such as bamboo and wicker are available.
Some think that a re-usable green coffin could be used: it would offer environmental and cost benefits. An attractive outer casket could contain a biodegradable cardboard coffin. This inner green coffin would be withdrawn from the outer casket following the funeral ceremony and cremated or buried. At no time would the green coffin or the body be disturbed. The outer casket could be repeatedly used in this way, cutting costs and environmental impact.
The reason why a re-usable option has not previously been developed is probably because many undertakers felt that such options were undignified; lacked commercial viability or that there is no “demand.” We shall see.
Green coffins can be the central item of the funeral. The coffin can be the final and most telling statement after a person has died. Unless a choice of green coffin or alternative is easily available, the deceased and bereaved are unable to express their needs or philosophy. The choice should allow for a range of containers from the ostentatious through to the simple and ultra green coffins. The ostentatious could include a coffin crafted in the shape of a car for a motor buff, or hand carved in natural wood by a joiner to last a few hundred years in the soil.
The bereaved have the right to choose from a selection of coffins ranging from American style and ornate coffins to those made of wicker or green cardboard coffins.
The coffin, of any type, can be personalised to reflect personal interests, e.g. a gardener, fisherman or football fan. The artistic options are individual, require skills and time, all elements that are generally missing with the current funeral arrangements. A wider range of coffins is becoming apparent and is indicative of changing attitudes to the needs of the bereaved.
Modern Green Coffins.
Other options have developed in recent years:
Biodegradable (cardboard) coffins often with velvet cloths to cover them.
Cardboard coffins are easy to decorate. The burial shroud actually a board, upon which the body is laid, the whole being wrapped in a large piece of woven, soft, wool cloth. The shroud is sold with black, pure cotton ropes that are attached and used by four or six bearers. The shroud is suitable for all forms of burial, but not for cremation. Wool is not mandatory and any natural material could be used.
Coffins for burial should be constructed to the smallest size possible, as this reduces the size of the grave excavation and improves safety margins. Smaller and, thereby, lighter coffins also reduce the weight carried by the bearers, which may reduce physical risks posed by manual handling. For cremation, the design, construction and materials used in the coffin must be such that it minimises possible emissions of pollutants and the use of fossil fuels.
It is important to note that the manufacturer of a coffin, whether a commercial concern or a private individual, has a “duty of care” to those who will subsequently be involved with it. Obviously, it is necessary to ensure that it is strong enough to hold the body whilst being carried. Less obviously, if varnishes or oil based paints are used, these could cause a flashback when the coffin is placed into a pre-heated cremator.
The Federation of British Cremation Authorities (FBCA), which represents a large proportion of cremation authorities in the UK, issued a directive on coffin design. This prohibits the use of materials, such as PVC, pitch or zinc, which pollute the atmosphere. It is important to consider the explosion or pollutant impact of anything placed in a coffin, especially for cremation. Heart pacemakers, implants, batteries, pressurised containers, even coconuts (that have not been punctured), have all caused explosion. A doctor, a mortician or the Funeral Director can remove medical implants. Even clothes made of man-made fibres, shoes or any rubberised materials can cause smoke and pollution. As crematoria have to operate within the Environmental Protection Act 1990, these can cause serious operational difficulties. Most metals, including jewellery, bolts or screws, artificial joints and bone splints, pass through the cremation cycle without difficult and are withdrawn at the finish. Jewellery melts and is unrecognisable, forming small pieces of aggregate. These, and all other metallic residue, are buried in the grounds and are not removed off-site or sold for re-use. The use of balms, scents, flowers and other natural materials should not pose any difficulties. Check with if you are in any doubt.
Coffin photos courtesy of Coffins.co.uk