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  • Nicholas Wibberley

What on earth is a green funeral? - Sustainable ways to save the planet from beyond the grave.

How many times have you jumped into the car for a short journey because it’s easier than walking? How often do things like buying reusable metal straws get placed in “tomorrow’s” to do list? Do you ever say to yourself when buying yet another bag for life at a checkout that “next time” you’ll remember to bring one with you from the massive stash in the cupboard under the stairs? Does next time ever come? What if we're talking about something with no tomorrows?

In the age of organisations like Extinction Rebellion, it is easy to think that drastic life choices to do with ‘saving the planet’ are the domain of extremists; people for whom the climate emergency is a crusade which they make their primary focus. For us ‘normal’ people, it is so easy to continue with our daily lives (too-often including wasteful convenience) thinking somewhere in the back of our heads that it would be great if humanity as a whole could find a way of ‘sorting out the climate problem’, but doing nothing in particular ourselves to make any real difference.

‘Green’ funerals are also wrapped up in this imaginary divide.

As an experienced funeral director on a mission to bring natural burials into the mainstream of the funeral conversation, I have seen first-hand that people have often never considered a woodland/natural burial. When we discuss with our families, it is often only those who had already considered it who take it forward. There is some kind of block in the psyche of the majority of people. A bit like the climate debate as a whole, natural burials are seen as a nice idea, but something that ‘other people’ might do; people who are ‘more into the climate stuff then us’.

Earlier this month, my elderly uncle passed away after a short illness. Although not unexpected, the death was still a shock to the family and a cause of sadness. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to learn from my aunt that Uncle Tony had pre-arranged his own funeral, and it was to be a woodland burial. I was extremely impressed that this had been his choice. It was inspiring to me, and I felt very proud in that moment that he had the presence of mind to make this choice. It said a lot about his view on death, dying, and the environment. If only more people could be like Uncle Tony.

So, how can we make woodland burials more mainstream? A good place to start, perhaps, would be to talk about it more; to think about it more; and to start to understand what it really is.

What is a natural/woodland burial?

The first thing to understand about natural burials is that they are just that, natural. Only natural articles and products are put into the earth. Everything, from the clothes the deceased is wearing to the materials from which the coffin is made must be natural materials which will not cause any harm to the environment they are placed into. In most natural burial grounds, once the coffin has been buried and the ground re-settled, a tree is planted directly on the site of the burial. Thus, overtime the cemetery becomes a new forest, hence the name ‘woodland burial’. Without wishing to be too ‘Walt Disney’ about it, I have always felt that this process is incredibly beautiful in terms of ‘the circle of life’ as the body which is buried becomes the fuel from which the new tree is given life.

This kind of burial not only causes no harm to the planet, but actually has a positive impact on the environment by helping to establish new woodland, and using the natural resources in the human body - usually wasted by non-environmentally friendly committal methods – as the fuel and fertiliser for a new generation of forestry and, in turn, wildlife.

Some key truths about natural burial:

  • There are always local options to you. Although generally not found within city or urban centres, the UK has a large number of woodland burial sites spread right across the country. It will be easy to find your closest one.

  • They are not necessarily more expensive than traditional options. Although traditional burial is often considerably more expensive than cremation, woodland burials are often not so. Woodland burials are usually considerably cheaper than normal burials, and depending on the prices of your local crematoria, they can even be cheaper than this. For example, our closest crematorium charges £1070, and our closest woodland burial site in Edenbridge costs £770 for the purchase of a grave (owned in perpetuity).

  • You are allowed a full and bespoke service, both beforehand in a different venue, and often on site. Some burial sites are very ‘natural’ and have no facilities or chapels on site at all, and others have more conventional gathering spaces on-site to allow for full funeral services. Either way, a full bespoke funeral in a church, chapel, or alternative venue can just as easily proceed to a woodland burial as it would proceed a cremation or traditional burial.

  • Becoming the new normal This beautiful, readily available, and easily affordable way of doing funerals is none-the-less still extremely uncommon in the UK today. Every funeral director will offer it as part of their services, and there are even some funeral directors who specialise in it, but generally speaking by far the majority of funerals in the UK are cremations, and these are closely followed by traditional burials. If there is to be a revolution on the number of woodlands burials in the UK, it has to be led by the consumer; that is the public.

So what can I do?

As is always the case with funerals and death generally, the best thing you can do is talk about it - as often as possible and with all your family and friends. Funerals have for too long been a taboo which we all shy away from. Be open. Talk about it. Tell people what you think and importantly tell them what you want.

In terms of the natural funerals, ask your local funeral director about the local possibilities, make use of Google, and get to know your options. When dealing with funeral directors, make sure you always get a second opinion. Finally, there are plenty of online resources, starting with the Association of Green Funeral Directors and the Natural Death Centre, so get to know your options and above all, tell people what you want!

Hopefully, we can create a natural funeral revolution, where most people want to give back to the earth which has given all of us so much. Let’s certainly hope so!

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