Clothilde Goujard is a Paris-based journalist who has contributed to The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, and other publications.
The city has devoted a section of its Ivry-sur-Seine cemetery to lower-carbon, chemical-free burials—with wooden grave markers used in place of tombstones.
Under Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris has set ambitious goals for sustainability. Now Parisians will now be able to reduce their carbon footprints even after death: A 17,000-square-foot section with 150 green-burial plots has opened in the Southern suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. It is part of the larger City of Paris Cemetery in Ivry-sur-Seine, operated by the city.
According to Pénélope Komitès, deputy mayor in charge of funerary affairs, the city’s first eco-friendly burial ground is another initiative in the fight against climate change. “To keep with our ambition and Paris’s target to be carbon neutral by 2050, no field can be forgotten,” said Komitès. In 2015, Paris banned the use of pesticides in all 20 of its cemeteries, which total more than 1,000 acres.
In order to meet the green-burial standards, elements used in burials will have to be biodegradable. Coffins and urns must be made of cardboard or unvarnished, locally-sourced wood. The deceased must forego chemical conservation (embalming) techniques and should be buried wearing clothes made of natural fibers. Traditional gravestones will be replaced with “discreet” wooden markers, according to the city.
Although there are new approaches to dealing with human remains in an environmentally conscious manner, French citizens can still only choose between burial and cremation. Historically, the French have preferred burial, but cremation has become popular in the past few decades, going from 1 percent of funerals in 1980 to 36 percent in 2016, partly due to environmental motivations.
A 2017 study conducted at the request of the City of Paris found that traditional burials generate, on average, 833 kilograms (or almost 1 ton) of carbon dioxide, nearly the equivalent of a round-trip flight between Paris and New York. Cremation produces an average of 233 kilograms (500 pounds), and burial without a tombstone, 182 kilograms (400 pounds).
“Burial without a tombstone is currently the solution with the least environmental impact available in France,” said Komitès. (Cremated remains will be allowed at Ivry-sur-Seine.)
Camille Strozecki, founder of the funeral company Pompes Funèbres 1887, which operates in greater Paris, has seen growing attention to environmental concerns among clients planning their own funerals. “A lot of people tell us the environment is important to them, and many go into fairly complex planning, even thinking about how their relatives and friends will use transportation to their funerals and how they can reduce their carbon footprint,” he said.
Richard Feret, president of the Confédération des Pompes Funèbres et de la Marbrerie, an association representing funeral businesses in France, said the industry has already introduced greener options. “About 15 years ago, coffin manufacturers started using solvent-free glues and water-based varnishes,” Feret said. “A growing number of funeral companies … work with much more eco-friendly coffins. There are even companies that make the choice to participate in initiative where trees that are cut to make coffins are replaced by new trees.”
The Ivry-sur-Seine green burial area is landscaped in a more natural way than many French cemeteries, which tend to have densely arranged tombstones, gravel, and concrete pathways, often with little greenery. “We often have pretty ugly, massive tombstones, all tightly packed,” said Strozecki. “Physically, French eco-friendly cemeteries will look more similar to traditional American cemeteries.”
Green burial will also offer a financial incentive. According to the city, the 10-year cost of a burial spot will be about 20 percent lower than in a regular cemetery. The city will also provide the wooden markers.
Feret is skeptical about the lack of tombstones: “If you’re thinking about keeping the memory of a person alive, the wooden markers probably won’t be maintained well, since the wood is exposed to bad weather,” he said. (The city says it will replace the wooden markers every 10 years.) Feret also wonders how many Parisians will want to let go of traditional burial practices. According to his organization, more than 45 percent of French people are emblamed after death.
Komitès said the city plans on opening 2,000 more green burial plots in coming years.