Dead set green

Demand for funerals incorporating green products and practices is growing healthily as customised funerals become more popular. As more baby boomers start to die, flexible funeral directors will reap the benefits.

A manufacturer of eco-friendly coffins once contacted me seeking publicity. He failed. I could not imagine grieving relatives interring Auntie Pauline in a cardboard box, like a defunct guinea pig. No business is as conservative as undertaking, I believed. The fear of disrespecting the dead slows change to a glacial pace.
I was wrong. Demand for funerals incorporating green products and practices is growing healthily, at the specification of Auntie Pauline herself. Non-religious send-offs are flourishing in parallel. Conditions are right for a quiet revolution in the British way of death. This will kick in seriously when baby boomers start checking out wholesale. Flexible funeral directors will reap the benefits.

The full Gothic horror show of British funerary rites – the polished coffin, the black crepe, the protracted mourning – was refined during the Victorian era. That death cult is memorialised by such necropoleis as Highgate Cemetery, boasting enough moss-choked inscriptions and weeping angels to keep a Joy Division fan happily miserable for days. It persists too in cremation. This practical solution to the problem of corpse disposal in overcrowded cities is still chosen by 70 per cent of Britons.

Funerals became less formal after the second world war. But they remained conservative ceremonies managed by a conservative profession. An undertaker is not exactly an entrepreneur, even though that is what the French call him. His role as a contemporary Charon dignifies him but also sets him mournfully apart. In return, tradition grants a competent funeral director a local monopoly, from which he will earn around £60,000 a year from just under 200 ceremonies.

Howard Hodgson, a fourth-generation funeral director, injected some commercial chutzpah during the 1980s, building a national chain of funeral homes. But the would-be consolidator that followed him, Service Corporation International of the US, stumbled. SCI’s claim to fame was that it had buried Elvis. Perhaps it imagined that because Europeans had adopted rock ’n’ roll they would take to US mortuary conventions too.

Wrong. The British did not want white caskets with half-open lids that displayed the loved one halfway to Paradise. They did not want sales-driven funeral directors. A clamour arose in the media and among regulators. Texas-based SCI sold its UK business, Dignity, in 2002. Mike McCollum, chief executive of the quoted company, which has 12 per cent of the UK market, says: "We help people through a very difficult time in their lives and charge a fee for services.” Selling coffins is "ancillary”.

Corporate strategists could not change British funerary practices. But consumer choice is doing so. Funerals with environmental trappings are now 5 per cent of the total, says the Co-op Group. Over a third of Britons want to be disposed of greenly, according to one survey.

Cremation is out. It has been estimated that reducing a human body to ash uses over 350 cubic feet of natural gas. The old way is still the best. "In the name of the Father, the Son and into the hole he goes,” as the little boy parroted at the funeral, mishearing the phrase "Holy Ghost”. Traditional graveyards face competition from a growing number of natural burial grounds, where grave markers are unobtrusive or absent. Some, I suspect, are simply fields owned by enterprising farmers with JCBs. Three of the most sophisticated are run by Woodland Burial Parks, a business backed with £5m in corporate investment. This reports 20 per cent growth in plot sales at its longest-established site. A standard grave costs £2,000 to £3,000. A spot "under a knotty oak in a bluebell wood overlooking a valley” costs double that, according to co-founder Nick Taylor.

Internecine hostility divides the environmentally friendly when it comes to coffins. Eco Coffins, whose sales are growing 40 per cent annually, says that its cardboard sarcophagi (imagine a long Banker’s Box) are greenest. Rival supplier JC Atkinson, whose sales are up 10 per cent, testily denies that its recycled chipboard coffins use too much planet-damaging formaldehyde. Eco Coffins offers a plain white model that friends and relatives can sign like a skier’s plaster cast. JC Atkinson ripostes with bespoke colour printing. Picture coffins with golfing and angling motifs are popular, apparently.

Increasingly, death is customised. These days, the faithless want to celebrate the life of deceased co-irreligionists rather than mumble hypocritical "Amens” over their disputed immortality. Dominic Maguire, a prominent Scottish funeral director, sees growth in non-religious rites – now over 10 per cent of the total – as a bigger trend than green burial. "Old shibboleths about what the neighbours will think are fading,” he says.

The proportion of non-religious funerals will likely shoot up after 2015 when old age starts picking off those free-thinking folks born in the post-war baby boom. Then, the UK death rate is predicted to begin rising from under 600,000 a year to 800,000 by 2051. Mr Maguire is phlegmatic concerning this funerals boom. "At the end of the day,” he tells me over the phone, "the death rate is always 100 per cent.” If he was not a funeral director, I would assume he was smiling.