Can you have a tree coffin burial?

Our guide explains how tree pod burials work, and explores other environmentally friendly funeral ideas.

A tree pod burial means burying a body in a capsule in the earth and planting a tree above it. The idea is still in development and not available in the UK yet.

How tree pod burials work

They turn cemeteries into memorial forests

The idea is to bury a body in a biodegradable pod in the earth and let the nutrients from the body feed a tree above it. It’s a way to lay people to rest while making a positive contribution to the environment.

Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel are developing the concept in their project Capsula Mundi. Egg-shaped burial containers hold a body in a foetal position, which represents rebirth. People buying pods in advance of their own death choose the tree they want to plant.

The biodegradable shell breaks down in the earth, and the body feeds the tree as it decomposes. Family and friends can visit the tree as a memorial and watch it grow.

Capsula Mundi wants to transform the look and purpose of cemeteries, swapping headstones for trees. They hope to create living memorial forests - describing them as ‘sacred forests’ - where people become part of the natural world after they die. 

They’re still in the development phase

Capsula Mundi’s burial pods for bodies are not available yet. The designers are working to make sure the pods are effective, safe and legal to use, and to raise awareness of the concept.

There’s hope that it will soon be a burial option for people in countries where natural burials are increasingly popular. The UK is in a good position to start offering it, as we already have woodland burial grounds. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US also offer natural burials - in some cemeteries and woodland areas.

‘Natural burial’ is the term for types of burial that seek to reduce damage to the environment

It can include some or all of the following practices:

  • Preparing the body without using embalming fluid

  • Using a biodegradable coffin, casket or shroud

  • Avoiding the use of any container or vault that blocks the body’s contact with the earth

  • Digging a shallow grave to allow microbial activity similar to what happens in composting

  • Digging graves by hand rather than using machinery

  • Having a simple wooden memorial plaque

  • Leaving as little impact on the surroundings as possible

There are versions of the pod available to use with ashes 

While you cannot yet buy a tree pod for a body, there are options if you want to achieve a similar result with cremation ashes. These work in a similar way to the coffin concept - you bury the urn under or next to a tree, where it biodegrades and feeds the tree. 

Capsula Mundi sells an egg-shaped biodegradable urn which you can bury under an existing tree or a new tree of your choice. Similarly, the Living Urn has created a biodegradable urn and planting system, which allows you to create a living memorial.

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What’s the environmental impact?

Tree pod burials may appeal to people looking for environmentally friendly funeral ideas

Many people think about climate change when they’re trying to choose between burial and cremation. The concerns are typically to do with the energy and materials that each process uses.

Traditional burials can affect the local environment because: 

  • some coffins and clothes do not degrade properly;

  • embalming a body uses Formaldehyde, a toxic and carcinogenic chemical that may leak into groundwater and the surrounding area;

  • some cemeteries get overcrowded, meaning wildlife and wild plants cannot survive in these areas.

Choosing cremation can also affect the local environment because: 

  • it releases carbon dioxide and mercury emissions into the atmosphere (from dental fillings). These emissions can affect air quality, global temperature and rainwater;

  • it uses a lot of energy. The Guardian estimated that one cremation uses around 285 kiloWatt hours of gas and 15kWh of electricity. That’s about the same amount of energy one person uses in their home over one month;

  • one cremation produces an estimated average 534.6lb of CO2.

Tree pod burials could go some way to reducing these impacts, presenting a greener way to lay someone to rest.

Capsula Mundi also points out that the manufacturing of wooden coffins typically requires trees to be cut down. Ideas like theirs seek to contribute positively to the environment by:

  • planting more trees;

  • improving air quality and wildlife habitat;

  • creating a beautiful, natural memorial.

Callout box.

Alternatives to cremation

There are new processes that are available in some parts of the world including the US, but not yet the UK:

  • Promession is when the body goes through a process of freezing and vibration. It closely mimics the natural way a body decomposes and uses less energy than cremation. It produces a white powder similar to cremation ashes.

  • Resomation - also called water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis - turns the body to ashes using water and an alkali-based solution. It speeds up natural decomposition and uses less than one-fifth of the energy required for a flame cremation.

  • Composting - mixed with substances such as wood chips and straw, the body turns into soil over the course of several weeks. The Guardian reported in 2019 that Washington had become the first US state to legalise human composting.

Other eco-friendly funeral ideas

While tree pods are still in development, there are some steps you can take to reduce the environmental impact of a funeral.

Reduce the number of cars driving to the funeral

It may not be possible to reduce car journeys, depending on the location. But it can be worth trying to arrange for people to share lifts. 

If your relatives live close enough to the funeral venue, you could encourage them to walk if they’re able to.

Choose a biodegradable coffin

If you’re having a traditional burial or a cremation, one thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint is to choose a coffin made from a biodegradable material like cardboard, bamboo or banana leaf - with no metal or plastic elements.

Some people choose a shroud for the body, which is a natural cloth wrap that also decomposes naturally.

Innovations in coffin design

A Dutch company has created a coffin in a box – a flatpack coffin that reduces carbon emissions by taking up 80% less space during transportation. Meanwhile, in the US an industrial designer, Shaina Garfield, created a sustainable coffin that speeds up the decomposition of the body using fungus. The fungus eats the toxins in the body so that only nutrients go into the soil. It’s likely we’ll see more innovations like these as the funeral industry considers ways to reduce its impact.

Consider a woodland burial

Also called a green burial or natural burial, this involves burying your loved one at a site of natural beauty, such as a woodland, meadow or orchard, instead of a traditional cemetery plot.

People choose them for lots of different reasons but there’s usually a focus on reducing the impact on the environment. Funeral directors do not embalm the bodies to reduce the release of chemicals. All sites favour biodegradable coffins to preserve the environment. 

Every woodland burial site has unique rules to make sure that the surrounding natural areas and wildlife are not disturbed. Most allow small wooden plaques of remembrance but others do not allow any changes to the nearby environment. 

To find out how to organise one, see our guide on everything you need to know about woodland burials.

We’ll help you arrange a meaningful send-off. To get started, see our free guide on how to arrange a funeral, which explains the options available, what a funeral director does, and how much a service costs.

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