Change is in the Air

The still and unchanging feel of a graveyard echoes the ingrained attitudes within many funeral homes.

For a hundred years or so, any innovations have crept in at a sedate, quiet pace; traditions clung to tenaciously, from the slow-moving hearse to the black attire of guests. But the past few years have witnessed a dramatic shift, driven by evolving cultural attitudes and new technology.

We are suddenly being asked (and delighted to deliver) events that celebrate rather than lament a life gone, and we are adding personalisation and incorporating family traditions. It is no longer enough to offer a formulaic pack, and Affertons is happy to lead this shift, delivering what individuals and their families desire.

Up, up and away

“One family wanted their loved one jettisoned into space in a rocket,” says Affertons’ Paul Craigie, who once worked in pyrotechnics. “I was able and happy to oblige and together we shot the rocket off over the Tay. Another request was for the funeral cortege to go the wrong way through the crematorium, which we did.”

The biggest change has been towards cremation. Its introduction in the late 19th century was probably the last major innovation, and quickly became the norm due to cost and pressure on space within burial grounds. It is now the choice of 75-80% of people. But with more than 400kg of carbon released per cremation, not to mention the carcinogenic embalming fluids, increasing awareness of the environment is driving a lust for greener, more technologically advanced alternatives.

Building new life

One innovation is bio-cremation.  Alkaline hydrolysis is one option, currently championed in the UK by Resomation, and involves submerging the deceased in a tank of hot water and potassium hydroxide. Over a few hours, the fat and tissue dissolve into a dna-free liquid, leaving only the bones, which are then cremated. It produces much less carbon and the liquid can be released safely or used as a fertiliser, with the nutrients helping to build new life.

Beyond science fiction

Promession, using a freeze-drying method of cremation, had a moment briefly in the 1990s. Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak developed the concept of cryogenic freezing in liquid nitrogen at -196C, which would crystallise the body. Vibration would then cause disintegration, with the particles placed into a biodegradable casket and interred.

Back to the earth

In the US, the world’s first human composting facility is due to open this year in Seattle. Known as natural organic reduction, the process uses humidity and a mix of naturally occurring gases to convert the body into two wheelbarrows’ worth of soil in four to six weeks.

“Bio-cremation could well take over from traditional cremation in the future, but meanwhile woodland burials are a more realistic green alternative to us in Scotland, and we are increasingly asked for it by families,” says Affertons’ head of development, Louise Miller. “This involves using biodegradable caskets or shrouds buried in a grave marked only by a tree, allowing the deceased to degrade naturally and feeding new life into the surrounding plant world. It’s a beautiful setting.”