Even after death, our choices, or lack of choices, affect the environment. Unfortunately, in western societies, our fear of death has hindered open discourse about what will happen to us after we pass away. This is particularly problematic for people who, during their lives, have cared for the environment and its inhabitants. One such group, and the direct focus of this article, are vegans.
Most of us have just the vaguest answer to the question, “what are your burial plans?”. Most would say either burial or cremation with no further stipulations on the details. This leaves all the planning and choices up to your loved ones who may or may not know what is important to you.
For example, I am a vegan environmentalist with a deep love and reverence for trees and old growth forests. I believe that animals deserve to inhabit the Earth for themselves and not for human servitude. Until early 2020, when I stumbled upon green burials, I planned to be cremated. I had no idea what that meant, I just didn’t want to be put into a coffin. After actually looking into this option more comprehensively I discovered that not only would I still be put in a coffin (potentially made from unethically sourced, old growth timber, and lacquered and lined in animal products) but that the cremation process is so incredibly un-environmentally friendly. The energy used to cremate me would be the equivalent of driving from Melbourne to Darwin and back, a round trip of 6300 km. After all that I thought, “at least I can fertilise the garden with my ashes”… But no. Cremation ash (cremains) isn’t wood ash, it is bone fragments. Due to the incredibly high temperatures, the ovens reaching around 900 degrees celsius, the bones are rendered inorganic and as such the cremains will never biodegrade. Cremains are also very high in sodium and have a PH level of 12-14, the same as household bleach, making them actively dangerous to plant life and not at all beneficial.
Unfortunately conventional burial is even more unsustainable. The general aim of conventional burial is to ensure that the body is preserved for as long as possible. This requires a huge amount of resources including, but not limited to, concrete, hard wood, polyester, polyurethane, chemicals, lacquers and just a ridiculous amount of plastic. So many people have said to us that they had chosen to be buried so they can decompose in the earth and nurture the plants and trees around them, but unless you specifically choose a green burial (also known as natural burial or eco burial), this simply will not happen.
It was after learning all this and realising that I could have become a post-mortem biohazard that I decided that I had to have a comprehensive end of life plan. One that would be sustainable, vegan, and allow me to genuinely give my body back to the earth when I no longer need it.
Below is a relatively thorough list of things to consider when planning your vegan burial.
- Avoid hardwood. These are often unethically sourced from old growth forests.
- Choose unvarnished timber. Most chemical varnishes contain animal products and the “sustainable” options are usually bees wax or shellac.
- Check the lining. Linings can be made of silk or wool. Most often they are made from synthetic fabrics which, though vegan, are not biodegradable.
- Avoid woolen options. There are caskets available now that are made from wool, they may be marketed as a ‘natural coffin’ or ‘enviro coffin’.
- Be cautious of cardboard coffins. They are nearly all imported so it can be hard to confirm that they are vegan. The glue used in the cardboard may contain animal products.
- Wicker/banana leaf. Similarly to cardboard these caskets are imported, I have not been able to find any information on how these coffins are treated, you would want to make sure they are not chemically treated, or if they are that the treatment does not contain animal products.
- Heaven and Earth shrouds are the only vegan certified shrouds on the market.
- Most shrouds will specify the fabric they are made from. Silk, wool and felt may be used.
- Avoid standard cotton. Cotton production is inflicting enormous damage on the Murray-Darling Basin. It is also responsible for bringing the Bogong Moth to the brink of extinction. Insist on organic cotton, bamboo, hemp or linen.
- Avoid embalming. It is not a legal requirement unless you are planning on being buried in an above ground mausoleum or if your body is being repatriated by plane. Embalming fluids, specifically formaldehyde, are used in animal testing, they are also very unenvironmentally friendly. Formaldehyde has been classified as a class A carcinogen.
- We are currently unaware of any vegan funeral directors or morticians and, chances are, standard funeral directors would use makeup products that are not vegan or cruelty-free. You or your loved ones are legally allowed to provide makeup and it is important to discuss this with your funeral providers.
Ultimately I have chosen to have a local green burial in a Heaven and Earth shroud. I will not be embalmed or have any unnecessary mortuary procedures. I do not want anything non-biodegradable buried with me and although I would like a headstone I would like it to be a natural and local flat stone that has been engraved. That way my family can tend to it while they wish to and, when it is no longer valued by them, nature can absorb it back into the earth.
People who value veganism really must discuss their end of life choices or risk being interred in a non-vegan manner. There is plenty of information available on the internet but also consider joining one of our death cafes where we can discuss all things vegan end of life in a casual and relaxed atmosphere. We never know when our time is up, so it is important to attend to end of life plans sooner rather than later. The alternative is a send off that flies in the face of the values we hold dear.
Written by Tamsin Ramone