Existing funeral practices within Belgium require a re-think in the context of the climate crisis. An increasing proportion of the Belgian population is choosing cremation over burial. The reasons for this shift are complex but commonly boil down two factors: cost and space. We find that individuals are often concerned with 'taking up space' and for many, cremation remains the cheapest options. In the end, human remains removed from old graves end up being cremated.
While the increasing trend of cremation has solved the individual concerns of 'taking up space' and cost, they do not fully remedy the environmental impact of burial practices. Cremation releases carbon dioxide as well as particles that decrease air quality.
Air quality is become a key issue within urban context and effort to reduce unnecessary pollution is key to making cities more liveable. From an urban perspective, church graveyards are certainly not a replacement as they cause measurable amounts of groundwater pollution as well as take up space that could otherwise be used as urban green spaces. A re-think of burial practices could help increase both liveability and sustainability of Belgian cities.
REFORESTATION THROUGH BURIAL
The rate of reforestation must outstrip the current pace in order for cities/regions to meet climate goals, but there is often are often limited resources for reforestation. The Covid crisis has reiterated that people have need access to green spaces for their mental wellbeing. Our concept of 'Reforestation through Burial' attempts to combat these issues simultaneously by creating a financially sustainable model for the reforestation of urban and semi-urban spaces.
In the "Reforestation through Burial' concept, cities would designate areas for reforestation. This area would be subdivided into burial plots which citizens purchase for subsequent burial. Burial plots would vary in size, with larger plots subsiding the purchase of smaller plots by economically-disadvantaged individuals. In this way, this burial practice in broadly accessible regardless of socio-economic background.
Crowdfunding reforestation schemes tied to life/death are not unheard of, so-called "birth forests" have been planted in many regions in Flanders, with schemes dating back to the early 2000s. Similarly, natural burials are by no means a new practice, and are being increasingly adopted in Western European countries (Netherlands, Germany UK, etc.)
We believe that the time is ripe for this solution to be implemented within the Flemish context. We hope to persuade Flemish municipalities to implement the "Reforestation through Burial" concept to allow for the development of equitable and sustainable burial practices.
WHAT HEIR&NA ADD
The Hier&na vzw is currently innovating on two aspects relevant to the successful implementation of the "Reforestation through Burial" concept within the Flemish context: coffin design and development of new burial rituals for natural burial practices.
In contrast to traditional burials, natural burials necessitate coffins that are easily biodegradable. Given fungi's role within forest ecosystems as degraders and recyclers, it follows that including fungi as a component of the coffin will aid the reincorporation of the human body's nutrients into the forest ecosystem. Fungi are also capable remediating toxic metals and may reduce groundwater contamination associated with burial.
Our survey of burial attitudes revealed that many individuals were dissatisfied by existing burial practices. In the past, burial practices in Belgium were tightly interwoven with religion and in this was gave the rituals an important layer of meaning. As Belgians becoming increasingly agnostic these practices lose their meaning and consequently their value. We believe that the development of specific ritual practices that fit within the context of natural burials will not only speed up the society-wide adaption of natural burials but will add value to burial practices in the increasingly agnostic Belgian society.