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The changing nature of funeralcare

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that pre-pandemic CO2 levels accounted for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. To tackle this issue, the use of renewable sources are surging in the UK, with pre-pandemic domestic transport carbon dioxide emissions having fallen 19.6% to 97.1 million tonnes, and the funeral industry in particular has been taking strides to tackle this issue.

With increasing discourse on sustainability permeating the funeral services industry, an increasing number of funeral directors are implementing methods to decrease their carbon emissions. According to the UK Government, 91% of carbon emissions came from road transport vehicles in 2019. Data from the Climate Change Committee reveals that emissions fell by 13% in 2020 which is 48% below 1990 levels; the fall was primarily in transport sectors as a result of Covid and lockdowns. However, the committee emphasises that much of the 2020 fall is likely to be temporary, and that “all of the present day observed warming is estimated to be due to human activities”.

One funeral director that has been at the forefront of addressing sustainability is Co-op Funeralcare, who have had hybrid vehicles within its fleet for a number of years. Samantha Tyrer, managing director of Co-op Funeralcare, reveals that not only are the Co-op Funeralcare’s ceremonial vehicles moving to full electric, but 2022 will also see the first full electric private ambulance introduced into its fleet. Electric vehicle charging points are also set to be a standard feature across all new Co-op Funeralcare care centres that open in 2022 and beyond, meaning all its electric hearses will be charged from renewable sources.

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Overall, the group’s electric vehicle strategy and its £4m hybrid investment last year will help the Co-op Funeralcare to achieve its pledge for net zero status by 2040. Currently, the group’s total hearse fleet is over 250 vehicles, and the company is introducing a new Tesla hearse to initially serve communities in North and East London. Additionally, the group will also be replicating the Nissan electric hearses in Edinburgh and Bristol later this year.

According to EDF Energy, just one electric car can save an average 1.5 million grams of CO2 in one year, and overall, sales of low or zero emission vehicles have increased in the UK with more than 500,000 Ultra-Low Emission Vehicles (ULEVs) having been registered as of April 2021, the Department for Transport reveals. But why is there an increasing discourse surrounding electric vehicles? According to Tyrer, the way people choose to say goodbye is changing and those who have worked to reduce their carbon footprint in life are “passionate about reducing their impact on the planet when they pass”.

Tyrer says it’s “imperative” to help the bereaved and their loved ones have a final farewell that “does not adversely impact the environment”. She adds: “Whilst we are already proud to be a carbon neutral business, it’s imperative that we work to drive down carbon emissions and that’s why we are so excited to be bringing electrical vehicles into our fleet”. Co-op Funeralcare has also seen a surge in demand for biodegradable coffins, including bamboo, banana leaf, willow, water hyacinth and wool variants. Tyrer reveals: “Demand has risen sharply in the past year and for willow in particular, which has seen demand increase by an estimated 200% between 2020 and 2021”.

Similarly, Rosie Inman-Cook, manager of the Natural Death Centre Charity and the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, urges funeral firms to use solid timber to produce coffins. She explains: “If you’re burying timber, the carbon embodied in that wood is then locked down into the ground and taken out of the atmosphere, so it’s a good way of sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere”.

In addition to using natural materials, Gemma Johnson, manager of the Association of Green Funeral Directors, emphasises that funeral companies should also be thinking about how these are shipped. She says “some companies design their products to maximise the numbers that fit in a container load,” and she recommends funeral directors to check whether their coffins are Fair Trade certified.

Meanwhile, Sarah Jones, director of Full Circle Funerals, shares that a third of the families that Full Circle Funerals supports choose an electric hearse for a number of reasons. “Some people choose it because it’s more sustainable than having a large diesel fueled car, while others choose it because they like that it looks slightly less traditional and grand, that it’s a more gentle choice. Others like it because it’s unusual, so it might reflect the person who died”.

She states that “we need to be trying to make more sustainable choices in every part of our lives”, and that funerals are a part of life. Speaking on Full Circle’s sustainability, Jones discloses: “We try to make sure we behave as sustainably as possible in the way that we run the business, in the way that we interact with the community and the information that we try to share. It’s important to support people in understanding which funeral choices are better for the environment so that they can incorporate that knowledge in their decision making.”

The benefits of electric hearses

Out of the options currently available to funeral directors, Jones says it’s more sustainable to run cars on electricity, hence why all of Full Circle’s energy supply comes from renewable sources. She shares that the company’s electric hearses are being charged using renewable energy, which she explains is more environmentally friendly than having cars fueled by either diesel or petrol. “They’re also smaller and lighter, therefore they use less energy to run,” she says.

With that being said, however, Graham Clow, national sales manager at Coleman Milne, asserts that electric cars are “efficient when they’re small, but they aren’t as efficient when they are larger due to the weight being carried”. He says that electric hearses require manufacturers to make the vehicle larger to carry more weight, which ultimately has a “negative impact” on the distance the vehicle will travel. Moreover, Clow notes that a disadvantage for funeral directors having a fully electric hearse, rather than a hybrid vehicle, is that companies are dependent on the electric charge.

He highlights: “With the technology that’s available at this moment in time, sometimes the most cost-effective option is to go for a plug-in hybrid. For instance, the power requirement to charge five electric vehicles would far outweigh what’s available in most premises”. 

Are electric hearses the future?

According to Tyrer, the public are “increasingly concerned” about reducing their carbon footprint not only in life, but in death as well, therefore individuals are “actively seeking” more eco-friendly funeral options. She explains that “the climate emergency is real” and that the automotive industry is moving forward with the “electric car revolution” as the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned in just eight years. “It’s important for us to invest and future-proof our fleet and our plans are to invest in electric operational vehicles going forward,” she highlights.

Meanwhile, although Clow believes that the implementation of electric cars will “increase quite substantially” in the short-term, he reveals that most manufacturers are equally looking at hydrogen cars, “so it may well be that electric cars are not the end of the story.” Similarly, Jones shares that “I don’t think we’re quite at that point yet where we know what the most sustainable choices are going to be long-term, but I think in the meantime, we need to embrace what is available”. She emphasises that the funeral industry must “step up, try to understand its impact on the environment, and minimise that as much as possible without compromising good care.”

What other measures should funeral firms consider?

Looking to the future, Jones states that there are two things that can be done to improve sustainability in the funeral sector. Firstly, Jones suggests that an improvement in understanding scope emissions for funeral companies is needed. “The piece of work that I find really difficult at the moment is understanding my scope three emissions, so that’s all of my supply chain effectively, and trying to understand the greenhouse gas emissions associated with my supply chain. And I don’t know that, so therefore I can’t make choices to work with more sustainable suppliers.”

Furthermore, she suggests that gathering better data on the impact of different types of body disposal on the environment would be helpful for funeral directors to understand in a “scientifically robust way” what environmental impact each type of burial has. She explains that this would “help to inform how things might happen in the future” as well as helping funeral directors to provide bereaved families with the information that they need to “make the right choices” for them.

Highlighting the most common way to offset carbon emissions, Inman-Cook shares that firms should ensure they buy electricity and power from renewable sources, use recycled paper, recycle waste, and refrain from purchasing single-use plastics. “That’s just tinkering at the edges. The biggest negative impact that the whole industry has is cremation. If we buried and planted a tree for all 600,000 people who die in the UK every year, that would be 600 acres of new green space and woodland created every year to combat climate change,” she says.

Inman-Cook adds that a natural burial can be seen to be “much better” than a conventional burial. She asserts: “Natural burials are more shallow, which means that bodies don’t decompose anaerobically. The nutrients in the body can’t be recycled by the microbes in the soil and the goodness can’t be absorbed and taken up by plants. Most good natural burial grounds bury shallowly so that the body can go back to the earth from whence it came.”

Meanwhile, with suppliers impacting sustainability levels, Johnson encourages funeral companies to ask their suppliers about the carbon footprint involved in producing and transporting their products. She reveals: “They can also order a larger number of each product to reduce the energy use of transporting each one to their premises. Even something as simple as ordering the urns/scatter tubes with the coffin might be preferable to ordering them from two separate suppliers.”

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