Reasons for a woodland goodbye
Woodland burials offer a greener alternative to traditional funerals, avoiding harmful substances and emissions and contributing to a sustainable rural environment. Woodlands are central to our environment and our heritage. They’re a much-loved part of the British landscape, from the pastures of the New Forest to the pines of Scotland. They play a big role in the stories we hear in childhood, and we all remember kicking leaves and collecting conkers. As we get older, we learn to appreciate their beauty, from the brilliance of bluebell woods to the mellow beauty of the autumn leaves.
Woodlands are always there for us, yet they’re always changing. Summer must give way to autumn – but we also know that the darkest winter is followed by the light of spring. The forest is a window on the natural cycle of birth, death and renewal.
That’s why so many people find comfort in woodland environments. And it’s also why woodlands have found a new role as a place to say goodbye to loved ones in a thoughtful, environmentally considerate way.
What is woodland burial?
Woodland burials are part of a general movement towards ‘alternative’, ‘natural’ or ‘green’ funeral services, all of which offer something different from the traditional churchyard, cemetery or crematorium garden of remembrance. The first UK woodland burial ground opened in Carlisle Cemetery in 1993, and there are now 274 registered woodland burial grounds.
In woodland burial, the body is buried in a natural environment, typically with a discreet marker post that can be highly personalised, but is always made from wood. Sites are managed so as to maintain a sustainable habitat for plant and animal life, while also creating a pleasant, sympathetic place to remember the dead. To balance these two aims, the site is carefully tended so it remains as natural as possible, without becoming completely overgrown and inaccessible.
Woodland burial appeals to those who want to make consistent, environmentally sound purchasing decisions throughout their lives. They usually have a genuine enthusiasm for green issues, and take a well-informed, thoughtful approach to everything they buy. And when it comes to big decisions like choosing funeral arrangements, they’re not afraid to break free from ‘what everybody had last time’.
Why GreenAcres is different
Building on the idea of woodland burials as part of life’s process of self-renewal – ‘the cycle of life’, so to speak – GreenAcres has taken the concept a step further and is held slightly apart from other so-called ‘green’ or ‘woodland’ burial sites.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the group’s approach is based around restoring and enhancing the biodiversity of existing woodlands that are currently in poor condition, rather than planting new saplings. And secondly, a unique range of facilities is provided on site.
These high-quality sustainable buildings form an integral part of the concept, and provide a unique range of bereavement and ceremonial facilities. Specialised management techniques are used to incorporate the burial process within a long-term plan to repopulate the woodland with native broad-leaved species.
Why choose a woodland burial?
Compared to traditional funeral arrangements, woodland burials offer many advantages in terms of sustainability. The use of biodegradable coffins (or no coffin at all) promotes decomposition without contaminating the earth with any harmful substances. The aim is to let the body return to the earth as naturally as possible, while creating a memorial that’s in harmony with our environment – in fact, one that actually enhances it. In other words, it’s about leaving the world a better place.
Once the burial has taken place, the grave remains ‘for ever’ in its natural setting. The woodland continues to develop and mature, becoming a haven for wild flora and fauna. Woodland burial is about a return to nature – in every sense.
Woodland burial, cemeteries and crematoria – the green perspective
There are many reasons to choose a woodland burial – some personal, some environmental. Let’s look at the traditional options from a green perspective.
The problem with cemeteries is that they’re running out of space, and it costs the authorities millions of pounds to maintain them. Keeping them neat and tidy involves the use of large quantities of harmful pesticides and weed killers. Many local authorities in the UK are now laying down headstones because of the dangers posed to visitors and staff when they become unstable. On top of that, many people feel that cemeteries are cold, sterile places that replace beautiful natural spaces with uniform lawns, paving and cement.
Then there are the environmental implications of burial itself. Take the US as an example. Each year, 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (including formaldehyde), 180m pounds of steel, 5.4m pounds of copper and bronze and 30m board feet of hardwoods (including tropical or rainforest woods) are buried in the US – plus glues, stains, varnishes and fabrics used in the production and finishing of coffins. Many of these materials leak dangerous chemicals into the earth. The icing on the cake is the 1.6m tons of reinforced concrete used to create memorials. The impact on the environment is huge – and it continues for decades after the actual burial*.
Cremation offers an alternative, and currently 70% of the 600,000 people who die each year in the UK are cremated. But concerns are growing about toxic pollutants, particularly mercury emissions and dioxins, as well as the use of gas in the cremation process. Crematoria are thought to be responsible for around 9% of airborne mercury emissions (caused by the combustion of dental amalgam), 12% of atmospheric dioxins, pollutants linked with cancer and other illnesses, and emissions of chloride and formaldehyde used in the embalming process.
Government and local authorities are under pressure to act in an environmentally friendly way, and some progress has been made towards ‘greening’ the process of cremation. Many crematoria have upgraded their equipment to burn at higher temperatures and installed filters to collect toxic airborne pollutants. Unfortunately, they now use approximately three times more natural gas, a finite reserve, in the process, and the filters in which pollutants are collected end up as landfill. Some crematoria (such as Croydon) now offer lower prices if an environmentally friendly coffin is used, reflecting the reduction in energy required and harmful emissions. Looking at the big picture, however, it’s hard to see cremation as the answer.
Making your choice
Before you arrange a woodland burial, it’s worth selecting a funeral director; their knowledge and organisational skills can be very helpful. When you talk to them, you’ll soon be able to tell whether they’re sympathetic to what you want to achieve. Not all woodland burial grounds are the same, so ask your funeral director to explain the differences between the sites in your local area.
The first and most obvious point is the character of the landscape. Some sites are open and expansive, with meadows, moors and panoramic views, while others are more intimate, with woodland glades or bluebell woods. Some have structured walks, ceremonial buildings and memorials, while others aim to stay true to nature.
Some, including GreenAcres, offer full facilities, including heated buildings for your exclusive use on the day of the funeral, on-site catering and buggies providing access for the less mobile. Others take a far more bare-bones approach.
For many people, location is the deciding factor. But for others, a connection with a special place, or a particular hobby or interest is more important.
Methods of burial
Once you’ve chosen a site, you can decide how you want to be buried. Make sure you check with the burial ground, since they all have regulations that must be followed.
Most green burial sites will stipulate that your coffin is made from a biodegradable material, and does not include any environmentally unfriendly substances such as plastics, metals and MDF. Fortunately, there’s no reason why choosing a greener coffin should restrict your choice.
Standard coffins from funeral directors’ ranges can be used as long as they are made from wood; you could ask a local craftsman to make you a bespoke coffin from local timber and finish it in beeswax or linseed oil, or order a simple pine coffin for home assembly.
However, many people choose basketwork coffins woven from willow, wicker or bamboo, perhaps lined with fabric. The beautiful, organically sculpted Ecopod is made from highly compacted recycled paper, and cardboard coffins are available. The coffin can be decorated as you wish; flowers and plants are often threaded through the weave of basketry coffins to great effect.
However, you don’t have to use a coffin at all, unless local by-laws or the rules of the burial ground require it. The cemetery at Carlisle, whose former manager, Ken West, pioneered natural burial, sell their own design of woollen burial shrouds complete with pine board and cotton ropes. Others now offer shrouds in cotton, Indian wool or silk or hand-woven fabrics. It’s a beautifully simple, natural way to commend the body to the earth.
Embalming, marker posts and forest management
Embalming the body is not essential, and is usually down to individual circumstances and personal choice; some people regard the process as intrusive. However, some green burial grounds won’t take embalmed bodies, on the principle that embalming fluids are harmful to the environment. Based on our experience of carefully managing woodland sites for 15 years, and observing the effects of burial, we at GreenAcres are happy to accept embalmed bodies. And as it’s all about choice, we also take care of those who have decided that cremation is for them as we provide plots for the burial of ashes too or a scattering if that is what is required.
Graves are marked with wooden memorial posts, not headstones, and toxic oils, wood stains and varnishes are forbidden. Marker posts can be plain and modest or more elaborate (within the rules of the burial ground).
Depending on which site you choose, the management of the woodland may be a factor. For example, some sites propose a ‘one for one’ approach to forestry, where a tree is planted for each burial carried out. While this is certainly laudable in principle and an attractive proposition for the family of the deceased, there are serious drawbacks in practice. Over the long term, overcrowding will stunt the trees’ growth, while the sites’ managers are committed to adding more and more trees. It simply isn’t sustainable.
Ceremonies and prices
A natural burial can be part of a traditional funeral, or form part of an individual celebration that reflects someone’s character, way of life and beliefs.
Bespoke ceremonies are often chosen, with more and more people preferring a personal, dignified approach. There may also be the opportunity to adapt the arrangements to your own needs – for example, by having a longer, more relaxed and reflective ceremony than would be possible at a church or crematorium.
Prices vary based on the service provided, but are generally comparable to a traditional service – an important point to keep in mind if you are concerned that you might not be able to afford a woodland ceremony or burial.
With such a wide variation in price, it’s crucial to understand exactly what you are paying for. At GreenAcres, you are buying the right to be buried in your chosen area of the burial ground at any time during the next 100 years. This is the same as the Rights of Burial that you would purchase from the council or church – however, they will usually only offer 25-year rights, due to pressure on cemetery space.
Helping them move on
It would be great if everyone would embrace woodland or natural burial as an environmentally sound decision but at GreenAcres we also appreciate that sometimes people consider the woodland as a place to help in their bereavement journey rather than a place to lay their loved ones to rest.
With that in mind we also have special places under our burial trees for ashes or an area that is specially put aside for scatterings too. After all – even though we can encourage and educate about the benefits of woodland burials we also appreciate that it’s a very personal choice.
It’s so important to remember that bereavement and grieving do not end when the funeral is over. Friends and family will want to visit the grave (or just the burial site) to spend some time reflecting on the life of the individual, their memories of them and their changing feelings about their death. So the ideal burial site is a pleasant, accessible place to return to, with all the facilities visitors are likely to need. Choose wisely, and you can provide a valuable support to your loved ones as they find their own way to start afresh.
* Figures from the Casket and Funeral Association of America, Cremation Association of North America, Doric Inc., the Rainforest Action Network, and Mary Woodsen, Pre-Posthumous Society