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Woodland Burials – a viable alternative to grave re-use



“Almost half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years”, a BBC survey suggests and many of the councils surveyed said they had five years or less before they ran out of room, while some areas have closed their cemeteries altogether because of lack of space. Although local authorities in larger cities expressed concern about dwindling cemetery space, some of the worst-hit areas were small rural councils.

But surely before we start changing the law and digging up car parks and historic buildings to make way for more burial space perhaps we should consider three key things

  1. Cemetery polices on graves
  2. Cremation is not the answer
  3. Raising awareness that burials need not only be on your doorstep

Existing cemetery management policies

If you look around your local cemetery and if you are lucky you will find a price list showing what you might be charged should you need its services? In that list might be a whole range of options, triple depth, double depth with ashes, ashes only, single depth, interment fees and out of area fees.

So if we really are running out of burial space why are existing cemeteries allowed to bury at a single depth only – in effect reducing the burial space by 50%.

If the grave was always a double depth as a minimum it would allow the grave to be used for another family member at a later date or if not for the family to give permission for the grave to be used for someone else without disturbing the remains of the person already buried there.

We have the Victorians to blame for the concept of a grave “in perpetuity” after all.

Marked with a tax payer’s liability headstone which after a few years would remain untended and eventually becoming a liability to the local church or council as it became unsafe and unsightly.

chiltern buildings colour graded web high res

Cremation is not the answer

The true extent of the environmental damage that cremation has done since it became the main method of body disposal in the late 1960s, is now only just being realised. Even though crematoriums have been charged with reducing their mercury emissions by the installation of mercury abatement equipment, the carbon footprint left by a cremation is quite significant. Burial remains the most environmentally friendly way to say goodbye to your loved ones and the lack of burial space need not lead people to cremation as the answer. Finding land, of which the UK has abundance, for use as a burial area is.

Raising awareness and consumer choice

The BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said pressure on cemetery space meant people faced having to buy plots away from their home towns and families.

But with the UK being at its most geographically mobile and growing concerns over people not tending graves after a few years then the option of not burying right on the doorstep must surely be more palatable than the option of re-using a grave after a much shorter time.

People choosing a woodland burial for example can travel from towns up to 60 minutes. Some are open and fully staffed every single day of the year like the GreenAcres model, and as well as having an active woodland management programme, the research carried out with families cite the sense of care and support they feel afterwards as a key factor in their decision to choose a woodland burial site. This is something not offered as standard in their local town cemetery and for this reason they are prepared to live a little further away.

Epping funeral coffin high res (2)Mature woodlands in particular (GreenAcres manages over 200 acres currently rising to 400 next year) and with the rise in natural burial across the UK we now have more natural burial grounds than crematorium ( 250 vs 274 ) provide an excellent alternative to the town cemetery and a viable option.

And the reasons are many:

  • We estimate that we have over 100 years left in each of our woodland areas as a minimum and in some instances its nearly double that. So if you add on all the other woodland or natural burial sites there is a significant space left
  • The woodlands are quiet and often in areas close to the town and therefore accessible but tranquil enough to be able to offer comfort to the bereaved
  • The wooden memorial posts that mark the grave can be as highly personalised as a headstone but without the negative environmental impact to create it. This means that after 15-20 years the wooden posts may have faded into the woodland environment with the exact location of the grave marked on the burial records. In some natural burial grounds no markers are allowed

Round memorial post Epping Forest

  • The graves themselves after settling will be tended occasionally as part of the woodland management programme ensuring the area is more visible than the surrounding area but after a while will also become part of the woodland landscape
  • All graves are dug as a minimum of double depth ensuring family and friends can also use the top area of the grave when needed and underneath will remain undisturbed

So if Dr Julie Rugg, of the University of York’s cemetery research unit, said the situation was “desperate” and called on the government to intervene then I would argue that there is another way before government convenes to agree on a grave re-use policy.

Creating ways to help private business such as GreenAcres, to access land and develop it for burials must be a quicker and more sensitive solution.

With over 15 years’ experience of providing award winning burial facilities AND at a price that is very often cheaper than the local alternative with no out of area fees to those wishing to use the woodland for a dignified goodbye – then surely the government should be seriously considering supporting that as a policy first.