As It Happens

Public health expert calls for 'green burials' on roadsides and other unused land

Dr. John Ashton has an idea he says could address climate change and the U.K.'s shortage of cemetery space at the same time.

Dr. John Ashton says the U.K. should set aside space for bodies and trees to tackle climate change

Dr. John Ashton, the former president of the Faculty of Public Health — the U.K. professional body for public health specialists — says it's time to re-think where and how we dispose of human remains. (Submitted by John Ashton)

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A public health consultant has an idea he says could address climate change and the U.K.'s shortage of cemetery space at the same time.

Dr. John Ashton says it's time to start giving people "green burials" — meaning no embalming fluid, casket or headstone — on unused public lands, such as meadows, former industrial sites and even alongside roadways. 

"Most [graveyards] in the U.K., and I suspect in many of the countries in Europe and the developed world, are due to be full in the next five or six years," Ashton told As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

"Globally, there are 55 million deaths a year. So 55 million bodies to be disposed of somehow."

Ashton contends that alongside motorways is just one of many spaces that could be re-purposed for green burials. (Mike Finn-Kelcey/Reuters)

Ashton says the proposal, which he outlined in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, combines two recent trends — environmentally friendly burials and massive tree planting initiatives.

A recent study in the journal Science suggests the best way to fight climate change is to plant a trillion trees worldwide. In the U.K., Environment Secretary Michael Gove is spearheading a plan to plant 130,000 trees in English towns and cities.

"Why don't we just join up the dots?" Ashton said. "If we're going to be doing a lot of tree planting, let's put some of this, you know, to one side for green burial."

Finding your loved one with an app 

While burying your loved one on an industrial site or next to a highway may not seem particularly respectful at first glance, Ashton says he imagines these spaces transformed into lush, tree-covered lands with walking paths.

"Like open park land with trees, with woods where people can go out walking, cycling," he said.

"Not too far from the town, but maybe in a part of the area which is not conducive to any other use, but which could be remediated and planted up as woodland and contribute to the solutions for the ecological catastrophe that we're all facing."

Ashton says that if everybody in England and Wales was given a 'green burial' on unused land, the U.K. could plant half a million new trees each year. (Submitted by John Ashton)

People could mark their loved one's burial site with a tree, he suggested, then upload the co-ordinates to some sort of app.

"You just need a digital set of numbers that tells you where your relatives are," he said.

"You can have it on your iPhone and find the train that would be the way to go, and you can go and sit under the tree and have your picnic with the family."

Leaving a legacy for the next generation 

It's an idea that young people are already starting to embrace, he says, with private companies filling the niche market for green burials.

The next generation, Ashton explains, isn't going to be comfortable leaving toxins in the Earth in the form of caskets, headstones and embalming fluid.

Cremation is a slightly better alternative, but one that still requires vast amounts of fuel, contributing to air pollution.

"This is very much in keeping with the movements of what's happening, the trends towards greening," he said.

"The group that are behind the millennials, when it comes to be their turn, they'll be saying, 'Why didn't the generations before get into this sooner and quicker and on a bigger scale?'"

Ashton is putting his own money where his mouth is.

He and his wife have secured the necessary permissions to be buried on their own property, on a tree-lined hilltop overlooking their hometown, a village in the South Lake District of England.

He sees it as a way to contribute to the world even after he's gone.

"This can be your last gift to those who are coming after into the planet is to donate a tree and be planted under it," he said. "And that's not a bad legacy."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Sarah Jackson with files from Sarah-Joyce Battersby.