A natural ending

Green funerals offer an eco-friendly alternative to traditional services

When The Archers scriptwriters decide to call time on Ambridge stalwart Lynda Snell and her long-suffering husband, Robert, and send them to that great radio studio in the sky, their funerals will break new ground – literally.

The Snells have reserved their place in the village’s newly-dug green burial site (no space for the pet llamas, sadly) in a plotline that reflects the growing trend for the environmentally-friendly final resting place.

The UK’s first natural burial site was opened in 1993 and, according to the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, there are now more than 260 sites nationwide.

Natural burials minimise the environmental impact of the funeral industry by using biodegradable materials and sustainably managed countryside, while discouraging fossil fuel-intensive cremations. But how natural is natural?

There are no headstones or toxic embalming fluids, and mahogany caskets are replaced with biodegradable ones – which can be bought for under £100 (compared with pine, which costs £400, and mahogany, which can set you back up to £2,500).

If cardboard’s not your style, you can opt for bamboo, wicker or even a woven woollen fleece shroud for your final journey. A natural burial site itself costs £500-£800.

If a cardboard coffin’s not your style, you can opt for bamboo, wicker or even a woven woollen fleece shroud

“Many people want to escape the conveyor-belt crematoria and cemetery experience,” says James Leedam of Native Woodland, an organisation that owns six natural burial grounds. “Green burials allow more time and space, resulting in an altogether more personal and meaningful ending.”

Jan Willis arranged a natural burial for her partner last year and says the aesthetic values are as important as the environmental ones. “The day itself had none of the doom and gloom of my father’s cemetery burial – I was surrounded by a beautiful view, the twitter of birdsong and an overwhelming sense of tranquillity,” she says. “It was a huge comfort at an incredibly difficult time.”

The burial grounds – which are indistinguishable from any other meadow or woodland – are often taken on by wildlife trusts and continue life as nature reserves once full. But there are other factors to consider.

“Some sites are astoundingly beautiful,” says Charles Cowling of The Good Funeral Guide. “Some are not. Make sure you visit and check there’s an agreed sustainability plan that ensures it won’t be left to rack and ruin.“Not being able to tend a grave can also be an emotional hardship,” he adds. “But littering the meadows with clumpy headstones defeats the point, turning them into any other sterile graveyard.”

Ceremonies can be organised through funeral directors, use a hearse and have a blessing from a religious minister, but there is no legal obligation to. Nor is there an obligation to embalm a body. With permission, you can even use your own land for burial.

“Natural burials are as much about choice as they are about being green,” says James Leedam. “A traditional service isn’t for everyone. And now it doesn’t have to be.”

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