Woodland Burials: the natural way forward?

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Woodland burial ground for outdoor funerals

Woodland Burials: the natural way forward?

As a society we are undoubtedly becoming increasingly aware of our impact on the natural world around us. So it’s unsurprising that in recent years, ‘green’ environmentally sustainable burial options are growing rapidly in popularity.

Natural burials (often called woodland burials) involve returning the body to the earth without any type of chemical preservation process such as embalming, and using only biodegradable coffins, urns or shrouds. With so many cemeteries now reaching capacity and with our growing awareness of the impact cremated remains have on our ecosystem, this type of natural burial is now the clear choice for many. As at the end of 2018, there are more than 270 natural burial grounds across the UK, 61 of which belong to the Association of Natural Burial Grounds (ANBG) and follow its clear code of conduct.

According to Laura de Wesselow, Owner of Belsay Woodland Burials near Newcastle upon Tyne, “returning the body to earth naturally, to be recycled into new life, can be an uplifting spiritual experience. The grave then becomes a living, breathing legacy and part of a protected nature reserve that can be enjoyed by both visitors and wildlife. Natural burials have minimal impact on the environment, help to look after our countryside and provide a wonderful way to remember our loved ones by planting trees, shrubs and wild flowers.”

Bluebell wood at a woodland burial ground


For those opting for cremation, natural sites allow ashes to be interred in biodegradable containers, and there are now a large number of ‘green’ urns available in the marketplace. Essex-based funeral celebrant Wanda Barnard points out that for anyone seeking a more natural, ecological option, a good choice is the ‘living memorial’. “These come mostly in the form of tree urns and are made of natural materials. One example is the ‘bio urn’ – biodegradable tree urns that come in a variety of sizes and shapes, some with a choice of seeds. The pot containing the living memory tree can then grow and move with the family. Tree urns turn death into a transformation of returning to life, through nature.”

“Woollen, wicker, cardboard urns, scatter tubes and boxes also add to the list of environmentally friendly products,” says Wanda. “There are paper mache urns ranging from the basic unpainted versions to products that are beautifully sculpted and decorated. And for those looking to lay their loved one’s ashes to rest in water, biodegradable, soluble urns are a great way of ‘being at one’ with nature. When submerged, or buried along the shoreline, these environmentally friendly urns gently dissolve.”

Woman sits by stream with biodegradable soluble urn


Another advantage offered by most woodland burial sites is the option to hold the committal and/or funeral service outdoors at the graveside and giving those close to them the time and space to say goodbye in their own time. This serves as a contrast to traditional crematoriums, where many services are subject to time constraints and families can often feel rushed.

“Here at Belsay, our experience is that relatives find great comfort in attending the burial,” explains Laura. “We have had all types of services, featuring religious ministers, celebrants or just members of the family, using their own words and music. A lot of people have chosen to use our pony, Sam, with his coffin cart to transport the deceased to the burial site. Sam is extremely popular with old and young alike, making their experience so much more memorable and charming. Most families have come back to attend our tree plantings as well, and that has been extremely cathartic for them.”

Trees with castle in the background at Belsay Woodland Burial ground


Worcestershire-based celebrant Peter Billingham finds that families are increasingly choosing outdoor alternatives to crematoriums to celebrate the life of someone they have lost. “I’ve led celebrations of life at woodland burial sites, among the tall trees in a forest filled with the redolence of pine, and most recently in the back garden of a home,” says Peter. “The trend is growing to bring personalisation into funerals as much as every other area of life.” He quotes from the Christina Georgina Rossetti poem Let Me Go, and says he has frequently found himself reading those beautiful lines standing in a sombre, gothic crematorium, when they are arguably far more suited to an uplifting and meaningful ceremony conducted in the beauty of the great outdoors:

When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no rites in a gloom filled room
Why cry for a soul set free?

“Why be constrained to gloom-filled rooms,” asks Peter, “when you could be outside or at an alternative location? Natural and woodland burial grounds are seeing the growth in families choosing to have their outdoor ceremony under pagodas or in their woods, feeling like a cathedral of the skies is more suitable for their loved one than a crematorium chapel.”

Trees and wild grass at a natural burial ground


According to Peter, “there is a quiet revolution taking place in the funeral industry, and though the time-held traditions of black hearses, frock tailed coats and top hats will not be disappearing soon, change is coming. The shoots of those changes are appearing as more families plan and attend outdoor ceremonies. When I ‘come to the end of the road, and the sun has set for me,’ I’ve told my family I want my life to be celebrated outdoors, surrounded by the nature I loved to walk through… oh, and dogs! I want dogs to be at my funeral, and you can’t do that in a gloom-filled room!”

If you’d like to know more about natural burials, visit our directory of natural burial grounds or view our funeral guides and blogs. And if you’re looking for a celebrant to conduct the ceremony, look no further than our comprehensive directory of professional funeral celebrants.


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