On Friday, friends and family of the late T&A columnist Keith Thomson will celebrate his life in a reception at City Hall. Here, Keith’s daughter, Niki Thomson, writes about his green burial

MORE and more of us are becoming concerned about the impact we’re having on the earth. My father, Keith Thomson, was an environmental evangelist! He was an intelligent, sensitive man who saw what the human race is doing to the environment and knew how we should adapt our lives to take care of the world, for ourselves and future generations.

He not only spoke about the effects of climate change, the importance of renewable energy, the reduction of plastics and many more environmental issues, he lived his life by his word. When he died recently, on International Earth Day, his wish was for a green burial. Actually he wanted to be put in a biodegradable bag on the compost heap at the bottom of the garden but we told him it wasn’t allowed! As a family we set about finding out how we could honour Dad’s wishes. Where could we bury him? What could we bury him in? How do we go about it?

By choosing a green burial, you choose to be buried in a green cemetery or natural burial ground and to use only green burial products. It is a way to lessen your impact on the environment. It aids the conservation of natural resources, helps reduce carbon emissions and establishes the restoration or preservation of habitat. It also helps protect the health of those who work in the funeral business.

From a social perspective, people observing religious traditions and laws, specifically Jewish or Muslim traditions, a green burial may be an easy way to meet religious law. For example, the Jewish faith forbids embalming. Instead the body is ritually washed and wrapped in a linen or muslin sheet and placed in an all wooden casket, with no metal attachments. The casket may have holes in the base to ensure rapid decomposition and a swift return to the earth. Similarly following Islamic law the body is washed, no chemicals are used and it is wrapped in white cloth. Often no casket is used either, just a shroud, again ensuring swift decomposition.

There is no legal requirement to use a coffin in the UK. However if you choose to use a casket for a natural burial it must be created with sustainably produced materials from renewable sources, such as cardboard, willow or wool. Green caskets are easily biodegradable, don’t add toxins to the earth and are often produced in a way that’s carbon-neutral. Conventional caskets are often made of wood or steel that is not produced in sustainable ways. These can take an extraordinarily long time to break down in the soil, especially if any metal parts, such as handles and hinges are used. Also, the manufacturing and transport of conventional caskets and outer burial containers requires more energy and causes significant carbon emissions. We chose a simple cardboard casket for Dad.

Green cemeteries require that green caskets or a shroud be used when the body is buried, and prohibit conventional embalming and the use of outer burial containers. This helps to maintain the natural habitat of the environment, including clean groundwater, preserving the natural landscape and providing an environment for native plants and animals to thrive. In conventional cemeteries the outer burial containers used, along with embalming, impedes the decomposition of the body so it takes a long time to decompose. Also most conventionally produced caskets have chemical treatments, such as paint or veneer, which seep into the soil. Green caskets don’t have chemical-based paints or finishes so no toxic by-products released into the environment.

Green burials also consider the health and wellbeing of those working in the funeral industry. Many green caskets are made by companies that are fair trade-certified, ensuring that those making them are employed in safe environments and receive a fair wage. However, with conventional burial methods, the embalming fluids used contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen that has been proven to pose health risks to people who have regular exposure to the chemical. There are now formaldehyde-free alternatives, made up mostly of essential oils and approved by the Green Burial Council. These will not harm the health of the embalmer. Another consideration is the use of herbicides to maintain the grass in conventional cemeteries. These can be absorbed into the earth and may be hazardous. This is prohibited in a Green cemetery favouring natural management methods, letting the grass and wild flowers grow.

We held Dad’s green burial in the woodland section of Thornton Cemetery, a beautiful wooded slope, alive with birdsong. His plot is unmarked. We chose to have a birch tree planted in his memory, to add to the developing woodland. It was a very simple and uplifting experience for our family. In death, as in life, he wanted to make the most positive environmental impact he could. As his family we have honoured his wish and continue to live with the positive eco conscience of our father, grandfather and great grandfather. One person can make a difference.”