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Woodland burials

Environmental concerns about the eco-damage done by traditional funerals – both burials and cremation – over the past 30 years have led to a rapid expansion of what is known as ‘woodland burials’. 

There is concern about CO2 emissions resulting from cremation (which also account for 16% of mercury emissions in the UK due to the deceased’s dental fillings), quarrying for memorial stone and its transportation from Europe where much of the stone comes from adds to environmental damage. Then there is the issue of the carcinogenic formaldehyde which is used in the preservation of bodies.

Add in the matter of limited cemetery space, with some 45% of cemeteries expected to be full within the next 20 years, the Government has not been slow to encourage woodland burials.

What are woodland burials grounds?

Also known as ‘green burials’ or ‘natural burials’, the concept of woodland burials was pioneered by Carlisle City Council in the early 1990s. There are now some 270 natural burial sites in the UK, adhering to government guidelines and many members of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds (ANBG), a professional code of practice instituted by The Natural Death Centre (NDC) which provides advice and support to its members. 

The government document Natural burial ground: Guidance for operators defines ‘natural burial’ as ‘the burial of human remains where the burial area creates habitat for wildlife or preserves existing habitats (woodland, species rich meadows, orchards, etc), sustainably managed farmland, in-situ or adjacent aquatic habitats or improves and creates new habitats which are rich in wildlife (flora and fauna).’ 

There are more than 270 natural burial sites across the country, operated by local authorities and private companies and/or landowners. The sites range from meadowland to woods.

Woodland Burials FAQs

  • How can I find my nearest woodland burial ground?

They can be found through England, Scotland and Wales. As yet there is no provision in N Ireland. For a comprehensive list visit naturaldeath.org.uk and search for find-a-natural-burial-site.

  • How is the grave marked? 

All sites are different. Most prefer a tree or shrub, say a fern, planted to mark the grave. Some sites allow a flat marker. By law, the site cannot ‘lose’ a body so the coordinates of each grave will be recorded, some using Radio Frequency Identification on a grave marker.

  • Who digs the grave? 

Each site has its own gravedigger creating a bespoke grave. It is usually dug to a depth of 2ft from the top of the coffin or shroud, shallower than local authority graves which are 4’ 6” deep. A body buried any deeper than 2ft will result in the release of methane as the body decomposes.

  • Can you scatter ashes instead of a burial? 

Most natural burial ground will have reservations about ashes being spread due to the phosphate and calcium-rich nature of the ashes which can affect the quality of the soil. 
Obviously, spreading them around a tree in your back garden is one thing. However, consistent strewing of ashes on a popular spot, a mountainside or public greenery, for example, can lead to soil damage. There have been reports of changes to alpine flora where there has been a build-up of scattered human ashes.

  • What sort of coffin can be used? 

It must be biodegradable. These range from woven (wicker, bamboo etc), cardboard (not the flimsy shoebox cardbox type, of course) and even papier mache. These are ideal for woodland burials. 
Rosie Inman-Cook of the NDC advises, ‘If making environmentally responsible choices is something that is important to you in life, then it makes sense to carry those values through to decisions made concerning death. If the public chose to find out more about the coffins offered to them in the glossy brochure, their provenance and true environmental credentials, the high number of varnished MDF chipboard coffins that are daily delivered to crematoria around the UK might gradually begin to diminish.

Rosie suggests that questions you should ask a funeral director their coffin range include:

• Where is this produced?
• Which company produces it?
• Do you know what process is involved in the manufacture?
• Is the entire coffin and the fixtures and fittings (handles, decorative trim and lining) made from biodegradable material?
• Are all of the materials used in the production of this coffin sustainably sourced?

A burial shroud, such as the Respect Everybody Shroud is proving increasingly popular. Woven from bamboo fibre, the shroud costs £150, with body boards extra. http://shrouds4all.blogspot.co.uk/

What’s the cost of a woodland burial? Prices vary around the country but on average it will cost under £1,000, which includes grave preparation and supplying a tree as a marker.

Rosie warns, ‘Not all sites who describe themselves as “woodland burial sites” are environmentally careful. They can usually be identified by a lack of terms and conditions appertaining to acceptable coffins, non-embalming and low impact land management etc.’Download a ‘questions to ask pdf at ‘questions to ask a burial site’.

For more on woodland burials visit www.john-edwards-funerals.co.uk/woodland-burials-swansea/