From cradle to grave

Julia Goodfellow-Smith asks: is natural burial the ultimate sustainable business?

There is only one certainty in life, and that is death – it comes to us all, sooner or later. Around 600,000 people die each year in the UK, and more than three quarters of their bodies are cremated, which uses a lot of energy and releases pollutants into the air. Most of the rest are buried in cemeteries. However, one option now available is becoming increasingly popular – a natural burial. 

There are more than 270 natural burial grounds in the UK, a couple of hundred in the US and Canada and a few in Europe. Natural burials are a greener option, and can, in fact, be completely sustainable – restorative, even. 

Some of the environmental impacts of crematoria are obvious. They generate emissions to the air, which are controlled via the Environmental Permitting regime. Of particular concern is mercury from peoples' fillings. Other pollutants include sulphur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and persistent organic pollutants. Pollution abatement technologies may be needed to keep emissions to an acceptable level. One way to reduce air pollution from cremation is to increase the temperature of the furnace to 850ºC – which of course means that a lot of energy is used, adding to the process’s carbon footprint.

Some environmental impacts are less obvious and also apply to cemetery burials. Many coffins are made from composite material such as fibreboard or chipboard and are held together with formaldehyde or other glues. Wooden elements may not be from sustainable sources. Many linings are made from polyester and other synthetic fibres. Some bodies are embalmed, particularly when they are to be viewed or have to be transported across country or state boundaries. Embalming fluids include formaldehyde, methanol and other chemicals and dyes. All of these place a burden on the environment, whether the body is cremated or buried.

For cemetery burials, the metal from the coffin handles will never be recycled, and stone is often imported from around the world for memorials. Sites are intensively maintained to keep grass short and the graveyard tidy. 

Natural burials, on the other hand, insist on biodegradable coffins or shrouds, and will not routinely accept embalmed bodies. The only energy used is in the digging of the grave and in any buildings on site, such as ceremony rooms. Most natural burial grounds are creating nature reserves, with trees being planted or meadows being maintained over graves. They are improving local habitats and increasing biodiversity. Some, such as Clandon Wood in Surrey and Westall Park in Worcestershire, work with their local Wildlife Trusts and other conservation bodies. They are a perfect example of a circular economy – returning bodies to the earth, where their nutrients can be used to generate new life. 

Memorials are usually small and often (although not exclusively) made from UK-sourced natural materials, such as slate or wood. Part of the payment made for a burial is sometimes put into a fund to ensure the future management of the site, and some natural burial grounds are even being planted as productive woodlands to create long-term economic value in the site. In terms of the burial itself, natural burial grounds tend to give people plenty of time to do whatever they want, whether that’s Stairway to Heaven played at full volume or a small procession with a flower-decorated wooden funeral bier. 

Natural burial grounds can also have a significant social benefit. David and Emma Orr at Sun Rising Burial Ground in Warwickshire have both commented on how the nature of the site helps families with their grieving process, having seen families recover as they have visited the site and spent time surrounded by nature. They invite families back to place a small slate plaque, and again in winter to plant a tree if that’s the option they have chosen. The burial ground’s ‘Friends of Sun Rising’ charity, which families and friends can join, provides occasional social events and opportunities to help with site activities – as well as having long-term responsibility for the management of the nature reserve once the site is full. These activities help people move through the grieving process.

In the longer term, natural burial grounds are often designed to provide a nature reserve for the local community to enjoy. Instead of a headstone, people buried in natural burial grounds have a nature reserve as their memorial – a refuge not only for wildlife, but for local people, too.

Managed well, a natural burial site could also provide significant financial benefits to a local community. Mourners may choose coffins or shrouds made from natural materials by local craftspeople, rather than cheap chipboard imports. A wide range of options is available, including woven willow and wool felt. UK-made cardboard coffins are also popular, with some families and mourners adding personal decorations before or during the service. Tree-planting supports local nurseries, and, of course, grave-diggers are employed. For the bereaved, natural burials are often a little cheaper than traditional burials. 

One of the concerns people have about natural burials is space – after all, the UK is a small island, and cremation has been encouraged primarily to reduce the space needed for burials. With around 600,000 people dying each year, we would need to set aside around 250 hectares a year to bury them all. On average, between 2006 and 2015, a greater area of woodland than this was permanently built on each year. Natural burials could be a good way to offset some of these losses.

Another concern people have is religion; some religions mandate cremation. For people belonging to these faiths, natural burial is unlikely to be seen as a positive option. However, for people of other faiths, it could be looked upon favourably. Individual graves can be consecrated, and ministers or celebrants from any religion or none can conduct a graveside ceremony. Most natural burial grounds also accept ashes, so even when a cremation has taken place, there’s an opportunity for a long-term, restorative memorial. This means that natural burial grounds can bring together a whole community, whatever their religious beliefs.

Well-managed natural burial can provide a truly sustainable and restorative business model, offsetting some of the damage done to the natural environment by other human activities and creating both social and economic benefit. Local economies are supported, people are helped through the grieving process, and a long-term asset is created for everyone in the community.

Julia Goodfellow-Smith MIEMA CEnv is a director of Quest for Future Solutions, specialising in Environmental Management Systems. She is also a freelance writer.


Image credit | Emma Restall Orr/Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground and Nature Reserve.
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