I haven't recently had a death in the family (nor is there any prospect of an upcoming funeral), but it's probably a thing to think about when you're not bereaved. Sorry to sound like an undertaker's advertisement (or a life insurance sales pitch), but it's something that you don't think that much about unless the time is nigh, and when that time comes, the last thing you're considering is environmental impact. You're thinking about traditions and "doing it properly" and sending the person off and catering the wake. So put some thought in beforehand to the carbon footprint that dying leaves and discuss it with your nearest and dearest. Here are some aspects to consider:
Before you go in the ground, you can recycle many bits that will help others live. Forget the ick factor, forget the idea of being opened up by doctors and redistributed. There's an incredible way to make your life count that will have you remembered in a deep and abiding way by people you've never even met. Offload some organs, save or drastically improve someone's life.
No need. It's one of those things that people do without really stopping to think about it - it's the practice of putting chemicals inside the body to slow its disintegration. But unless there's a need to transport a body by plane or train, in rare instances of communicable disease or if there's going to be a delay between death and burial/cremation.
If watching Six Feet Under is anything to go by, caskets is where unscrupulous funeral directors fleece grieving families. Working on the same sales principles as buying a flashy sports car, there's some notion that honouring a person's memory requires a large amount of money spent on something that is going to wildly depreciate in value from the moment you get inside it. Green undertakers use biodegradable material like bamboo, cardboard and wicker (much less expensive than, say an oak coffin). Some people opt for no casket at all except for a cloth shroud.
Burial or cremation?
Cremation is generally considered less environmentally sound than burial. The energy required for a cremation is about the same amount of a single person consumes in a month, plus creates a large amount of mercury poisoning in the atmosphere (16% of all mercury emissions in the UK), via our teeth fillings. (Of course the other option would be for everyone to take advantage toothbrushes and not get fillings). Plus, coffins are bound with formaldehyde, which also gets burnt into the atmosphere. Of course, that same chemical is going into the ground with burial (especially so if the body is embalmed), but the figures seem to say that burial is the better course, especially with biodegradable coffins.
Woodland burial sites are becoming much more popular, with over 200 now available in the UK. I once read a thing about an eco cemetery that slotted you in in an upright position, allowing for more access per square foot, that was near a motorway, but I can imagine not many people wanting to go for that option, preferring instead the traditions of "laying to rest"; people also like peaceful burial spots. No joke, when my nan died, my pop said of her sea-side grave: "I finally bought her some land with water views." He had a wry sense of humour.
Of course, we usually think of it as a "gravestone", but are there more eco-friendly ways of marking a burial spot? Some choose to mark it with a tree or shrub, if the space is available, which is a nice gesture to renewal and memory. If you're going for a conventional grave stone, choose the smallest size available, and ask whether the stone is locally quarried rather than imported, reducing the carbon footprint of the stone itself.
In an interview a few months ago, a funeral director is quoted as saying, a little redundantly, that "traditions are a long time in the making” (duh). But traditions can be changed (apparently post-war there was a big push for cremation which accounts for its current popularity - "Save the land for the living!" was apparently the cheery slogan. It's time to start having conversations about this last taboo: with the global population only increasing, it also means that the number of dead people is following close behind.
Resources and further reading: