Published on 07/09/2023
Electric hearse
  • Birmingham undertakers embracing sustainability to help safeguard planet
  • Company saves five tonnes of carbon emissions in just five years
  • Aston University course ‘invaluable’ to help companies take next green step

Electric hearses, cardboard coffins and now cremations by water are all indicative of a growing move towards environmentally friendly funerals. At the forefront of this greener future is A Natural Undertaking, a Birmingham firm of funeral directors that recently benefitted from a sustainability course at Aston University.

Frances Glover, co-owner of A Natural Undertaking, based in Kings Heath, was talking about her experiences in the latest episode of the ‘Aston means business' podcast series, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.

Frances, whose company is a member of the Association of Green Funeral Directors, had worked in various sales and marketing roles before responding to a friend who wanted help in setting up a funeral business.

She recalled: “We had one meeting and we properly discussed what it was that she felt was going on in the funeral industry, and I went away thinking ‘oh my gosh, there is really something interesting and exciting there’. So, I said ‘would you like us to do this together?’ It certainly wasn’t something I expected to do, and my family were quite shocked when it happened.”

Frances said offering “green options” to their customers was crucial from the outset nine years ago: “I think some people call us alternative, but I feel that belittles what we do. We offer the same services as other funeral directors, but what we do is actively make sure that people know they have lots of options, including greener options.

“For example, we don’t embalm people unless absolutely necessary, we offer a range of coffins that are more environmentally friendly, and we make sure that people know natural burial is available.”

She said they also make people aware of more “sympathetic” crematoria, such as Redditch Crematoria which uses the heat from its cremations to heat the neighbouring swimming pool.

“And we have electric hearses which we charge out at a lower cost than a traditional hearse. We are adamant that being green should be an easy choice, so people shouldn’t have to pay more to be greener.”

A Natural Undertaking was one of the first independent funeral directors to buy an electric hearse, a Nissan Leaf in 2017, and the company took delivery of a second one in December 2022.

Frances said: “We think we have saved around five tonnes of carbon emissions in the five years since we’ve had the first Leaf, and feel this can only double with the introduction of our second car.”

She said people coming to them with a “strong view” on wanting a greener funeral would typically use a wicker or cardboard coffin at a natural burial site, very few cut wildflowers, and with the person who has died dressed in natural cotton.

“You can now also choose a coffin that looks like cardboard and is made from something called Enviroboard which is said to produce up to 87% less greenhouse gases than MDF when cremated, and uses up to 80% fewer trees.”

She said she noticed people were becoming more aware of different things, including ‘aquamation’ or alkaline hydrolysis, which is cremation by water instead of fire. This process, which is not yet generally available, uses water and an alkali heated to around 150°C, with the combination breaking down body tissue and dissolving it into the water.

“You are left with DNA-free clean water-like liquid. And the key thing is it uses less than one-fifth of the energy from gas or electricity than a traditional crematorium with less harmful gases going into the atmosphere.” 

She added: “There’s now also talk of something called organic reduction, lovingly known as human composting!”

Frances attended the 12-week Green Advantage course at Aston University earlier this year, which she said was “absolutely brilliant” and “invaluable” in terms of access to experts on sustainability issues, plus meeting people who had previously been on the programme.

Since the course, A Natural Undertaking has started the Greener Globes process for funeral directors, which recognises the best steps on becoming more sustainable.

She added: “If, as a group of small businesses, we all do our little bit, then that will add up to a lot for our planet. Looking at how I can help reduce emissions will certainly help me sleep at night.” 

For more information about the Green Advantage course, visit: https://www.aston.ac.uk/research/bss/abs/centres-hubs/aston-centre-for-growth/green-advantage 

Episode 7 in series 6 of the ‘Aston means business’ podcast can be found at https://www.aston.ac.uk/bss/aston-business-school/aston-means-business-podcast

Notes to editors

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a university since 1966, Aston is a long established university led by its three main beneficiary groups – students, business and the professions, and the West Midlands region and wider society. Located in Birmingham at the heart of a vibrant city, the campus houses all the University’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Aleks Subic is the Vice-Chancellor & Chief Executive.

Aston University is ranked 22nd in the UK in the Guardian University Guide, based on measures including entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality and graduate prospects. The Aston Business School MBA programme was ranked in the top 100 in the world in the Economist MBA 2021 ranking.

For media inquiries in relation to this release, contact Sam Cook, Press and Communications Manager, on (+44)7446 910063 or email: s.cook2@aston.ac.uk

Be first to get the latest news, research and expert comment from Aston by following us on Twitter

Need an expert for your story? Browse our expert directory

 

Sue Smith,
Head of Press and Communications

 

Sam Cook,
Press and Communications Manager

 

Nicola Jones,
Press and Communications Manager

 

Helen Tunnicliffe,
Press and Communications Manager

 

Alternatively, email