Joan Bakewell: In death, as in life, we need to start thinking green

You can have a motorcycle funeral, a coffin of willow or cardboard
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The Independent Online

Dying isn't easy but once it's in sight people begin to make plans. They want to resolve decisions before they go, to avoid squabbling among the bereaved. How unseemly then is the news that the family of Billy Graham is already quarrelling among themselves while their patriarch is still alive. Now 88 years old and ailing, Billy Graham - perhaps the last great evangelist preacher - once led his powerful crusade around the world taking the message to more than 210 million people in 185 countries. They won't be impressed by the current spat, between his son, Franklin who wants his father's body to be interred in grandeur at the memorial library constructed in his honour where a plot is already set aside, and his wife and his younger son, Ned who abhor what they call "the circus" and want him to lie at a private site in the mountains of North Carolina.

Billy Graham carries a heavy responsibility when he meets his maker. For it was he who intervened in the life of a 40 year old alcoholic George W Bush, and persuaded him to become a born-again Christian. The consequences of this conversion have played out in bible meetings and prayers in the White House, and Bush's unshakeable belief in his own (and God's) judgement, that has wrecked Middle East politics for most of the current century. One wonders how enthusiastically the trumpets will really sound for Dr Graham when he crosses over to the other side.

In the meantime, the funeral. Earlier this year America's National Association of Evangelicals had a remarkable change of heart when they suggested that green funerals might be appropriate. By tradition, evangelical believers haven't been at all worried by climate change. The more extreme of them believe that the end of the world is not far away, that they, the chosen, will be swept up to heaven in the Rapture and the fate of the planet is of little concern to God when the Second Coming is on its way.

That was very much that until 2001. Then an extraordinary meeting took place in Oxford between a bunch of scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, led by meteorologist Sir John Houghton, himself a devout Christian, and a delegation of American evangelists who came to listen. They were impressed by what they heard and in 2004 called a meeting in Maryland of the National Evangelical Council - 45,000 churches, a congregation of 30 million - together with the Southern Baptist Convention. From that, emerged first the Sandy Cove Covenant, then finally this year the Evangelical Climate Initiative. The evangelicals, taking seriously God's injunction in Genesis to care for the world, now embrace the need to be green.

As we are ever more encouraged to live a green life, isn't it also time to consider a green death? For a long time the received wisdom prevailed that cremation was the proper way to go, "keeping the land for the living". Britain's parish churches were full, research showed people were unwilling to be piled in on top of strangers, and the neatest thing was to go up in smoke at the local crem. Nowadays it's the smoke that is the problem. It was reckoned in 2003 that 11 per cent of UK atmospheric dioxin resulting from combustion comes from crematoria. Crematoria also account for up to 15 per cent of mercury emissions to air. It's the tooth fillings that do it, and the level is predicted to rise by two thirds by 2020.

It's not surprising that burials are now the greener thing to do. But where? And how? In this highly individual age, it isn't surprising many options are now available. As The Natural Death Handbook explains, there is "no law requiring a coffin", and "organising a burial on private land is much easier than people think". In 1994 the Department of the Environment advised them: "Planning permission is not required for the burial of one or two persons in back gardens." The scene was set for a proliferation of off-beat burials. You can have a motorcycle funeral, a coffin of willow or cardboard. You can be buried at sea if you - or they - can afford it. You can even be composted and used to fertilise the roses. Which all suggests that Billy Graham should be destined for those mountains in North Carolina.

Meanwhile funeral services are going through a sea change, too. Perhaps it is the banality of the updated Anglican liturgy that is prompting so many believers to rewrite to standard burial service. The custom of a memorial service following a small family funeral, is taking us towards the traditional Irish wake, a full-scale knees-up with dancing and song and everyone getting drunk. "I'd so much rather have a funeral than a wedding," an Irish friend told me. "At a wedding there's always a fight, and no one fights at a funeral." Certainly not at Dr Graham's. Unhappily they're fighting about it now.