With the estimated amount of energy required to cremate a body having the same environmental impact as driving a car 500 miles and traditional burials involving the use of toxic embalming fluids, natural burials are becoming a more popular choice for people who are eco-conscious.
In this guide, we look specifically at natural burial grounds and why people choose to be buried in one. We also answer some common questions on the benefits of a ‘green’ burial including where in the UK these sites can be found and how much they cost.
- What is a natural burial ground?
- Why do some people choose a natural burial ground?
- Will they accept a body if it has been embalmed?
- Benefits of choosing a natural burial ground
- Are they legal and regulated?
- Do natural burial grounds keep plans of the grave sites?
- Can I visit a grave at a natural burial ground?
- How to choose a natural burial ground
- Where are the UK's natural burial grounds?
- Cost of natural burial ground vs traditional burial grounds
What is a Natural Burial Ground?
A natural burial ground is the term used to describe a burial site which minimises the impact of death on the environment.
Also known as ‘green burials’ or ‘woodland burials’, interment of this nature may include:
- Creating, or preserving, an eco-friendly habitat (e.g. orchards, woodland or meadows) for wildlife.
- Using biodegradable coffins or shrouds.
- Not allowing the use of embalming fluids in the preservation of a body prior to burial (see below).
- Using profits from burials to invest in further habitat conservation projects.
Why Do Some People Choose a Natural Burial Ground?
The interest in a natural burial which has a lower impact on the environment has become increasingly more popular over the last decade.
This increase in demand has been seen to come from an aging population of ‘baby boomers’; those people born in between 1946 and 1964 who were the first generation concerned (as a general group) about environmental and ecological issues.
The extension of these lifestyle beliefs in death is broadly seen as a logical choice.
Some people may not hold particularly strong views on the environment or take the ecological impact of traditional funerals into account when considering a natural burial ground. For others,a funeral of this kind is about having a burial that brings them and their bereaved families/friends closer to nature.
The choice for some is also about opting for a burial that is wholly free from tradition, religious ritual and formality. Natural burial grounds often allow families to conduct the whole process themselves and, in this way, can be the ideal choice of funeral for a family where they and/or the deceased lived an alternative lifestyle.
Will Natural Burial Grounds Accept a Body If It Has Been Embalmed?
In general, the use of embalming fluids used to preserve a body prior to death does not allow you to opt for a natural burial.
However, some sites are not as strict with this requirement as others and may make exceptions to this. If someone dies overseas and embalming fluids were used to safely repatriate the body then this may still allow you to opt for a natural burial.
If this is of concern, it is recommended that you discuss the issue with the burial ground staff.
Benefits of Choosing a Natural Burial Ground
The principle benefit of choosing a natural burial ground is one of making a conscious decision to reduce the environmental impact associated with a funeral, namely omitting the need for:
- Embalming: The fluids used in the embalming process, which are routinely used to delay the decomposition of a body, contain formaldehyde. This highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical is thought to contaminate soil and groundwater as well as being dangerous to animals.
- Cremation: The cremators that are used for funerals are designed to operate at temperatures of between 1400oF and 1800oF. Carbon emissions from each cremation are estimated to be around 400kg.
- Memorial Stones: Stone which is used for memorials in traditional cemeteries is often quarried overseas or, at very least, transported from remote rural areas, stored and shipped across the UK to stonemasons and then to individual graveyards. There is an environmental impact from both the initial quarrying as well as the miles covered during transport.
- Coffins: Whilst the use of more ecologically friendly coffins has become more common in recent years, the majority of caskets are still made from wood, MDF or chipboard. These can include synthetic veneers, plastic handles and toxic resin. Even if the timber used is grown from sustainable forests, by comparison a natural burial ground usually stipulate that all coffins are environmentally-friendly by design. This includes wicker, bamboo and real wood as well cardboard and natural shrouds; basically, anything that is biodegradable and/or requires less energy to be produced.
Other benefits include:
- More freedom of choice with funeral services: Most natural burial grounds will allow families to conduct their own services and there is no need for a funeral director to be involved.
- Cost: Depending on the natural burial ground you choose and the kind of service to accompany interment, the cost of this kind of funeral can be significantly lower than traditional burial or cremation (see below).
- Lasting and positive contribution to the local environment: Many natural burial sites practice ethical management of their land and use burial fees to invest in ‘green’ projects which benefit the local wildlife and landscape. These can include conservation and land-management schemes with most natural burial grounds offering protection against development.
- An alternative final resting place to a cemetery: Most cemeteries in the UK are quite formal and have a very traditional and regimented layout. Even those that are not part of a Church, such as municipal graveyards usually have headstones and memorials. By contrast, most green burial sites look, to all intents and purposes, like natural countryside landscapes. They can have a more positive and calming feel to them and do not invoke the traditional sombre mood that visiting a cemetery can bring.
Are Natural Burial Grounds Legal and Regulated?
All natural burial grounds must adhere to the relevant laws which apply to their sites which can include planning laws, environmental regulations and health and safety laws.
Municipal and ecclesiastical cemeteries must also abide by additional legislation such as Local Authorities’ Cemeteries Order 1977 (LACO).
Private natural burial grounds are not covered the same provisions as public and Church of England graveyards and are largely unregulated.
However, natural burial grounds that are operated privately must ensure that all burials take place with official authority such as the certificate issued by the Registrar of Births and Deaths or a burial order from the coroner. They must also notify the Registrar within 96 hours of a burial taking place on their land and also keep a register of burials in accordance with the Registration of Burials Act 1864.
The majority of private landowners who operate a site for natural burial are members of the ANBG (Association of Natural Burial Grounds). This is a professional body which is run by The Natural Death Centre, a UK charity whose members support the movement of green burials.
Membership of the ANBG is not compulsory but members who do so follow a strict conduct which promotes best practice in the following areas:
- Managing a site ecologically and sustainably.
- Guaranteeing long-term security for graves.
- Allowing and promoting green coffins/shrouds.
- Allowing families to organise funerals without the services of a funeral director.
When choosing a natural burial ground (see below), it is recommended that you select one who is a member of the ANBG.
Do Natural Burial Grounds Keep Plans of the Grave Sites?
One of the benefits of opting for a natural burial ground is the less formal arrangement and setting of grave sites. However, some people worry that this means they will be unable to locate the exact position of their loved one’s remains, particularly when the environment changes over time (meadows growing over a site, trees being coppiced etc.).
This can be a concern for relatives who would like to be able to visit the final resting place with confidence they are in the right place.
Natural burial grounds must keep a formal burial register but are only required under guidance by the Ministry of Justice to put in place methods for identifying individual graves, this could include the use of:
- Accurate digital surveys of the land
- Fixed markers to allow triangulation of a grave site.
- Radio Frequency Identification devices.
Some natural burial grounds do permit permanent grave markets including plaques, tablets or wooden memorials. Many operators use a combination system of both a visible marker and a back-up system.
Whilst these guidelines are not enshrined in law, site operators are aware that the accurate mapping of grave sites is necessary as there are rare occasions when an order may be issued by the coroner to exhume a body if there is any investigation into the cause of death.
Can I Visit a Grave at a Natural Burial Ground?
All natural burial grounds that are operated by local authorities will have the same public access and rights of way that you can expect from a traditional cemetery. These are often subject to practical opening hours.
Privately operated natural burial grounds usually offer the same access rights but these can vary by site. It is also worth asking when you choose a burial ground (see below) what public rights of way run through the land.
How to Choose a Natural Burial Ground
The choice of a final resting place, whether a natural or traditional burial ground is an important decision for the family of the deceased.
It is strongly recommended that anyone considering a natural burial ground after their own death make these feelings known to family members in advance. Funeral decisions are very hard to make when you are grieving and exploring alternatives like a woodland burial may be difficult after the event.
Families who are considering making this kind of decision for a recently deceased loved one are advised to discuss the options with all those who would be impacted by the choice of a final resting place.
Principally, the choice is usually narrowed down by its location and selecting a burial ground based on its proximity, either to the home of the deceased or to surviving relatives and family is common.
However, some families may decide to opt for a burial ground that is close to a location of importance to the deceased. This could be a favoured holiday spot, important monument or beauty spot or may be in the area of their birth.
Once you have settled on a general area, you should make a shortlist of those natural burial grounds that are located around this point. You can find details of the UK’s natural burial grounds below.
Each site is different so it will depend on what is important to you in order to create a shortlist of venues to visit.
Deciding on whether to opt for a true eco-friendly burial may be more important to you than the green, or woodland, burial offered by some sites.
Whichever option suits you best, it is strongly recommend that you visit any natural burial ground you are considering before making a decision. Whilst, on paper, many sites appear to offer the same service the scenery, feel and management of a site can vary.
Some sites, particularly those that are run by local councils are actually adjacent to existing municipal cemeteries which may not be what you want.
Visiting also gives you an opportunity to ask more pertinent questions of the landowners and/or management team such as what plans are in place to protect the land for the future, whether the site allows headstones or other memorialisation and what their planting polices might be.
Where Are the UK’s Natural Burial Grounds?
Modern natural burials have been happening in the UK since 1993 when the first ceremony took place in grounds of Carlisle Cemetery. Subsequently, the Association of Natural Burial Grounds was formed by the Natural Death Centre charity in 1994.
There are now almost 300 natural burial sites in the UK with some being privately owned whilst others are operated by local authorities.
There is a good coverage of this network of burial grounds throughout the UK and you can find them in a variety of locations including those offering woodland burials to those that are run alongside more traditional cemeteries.
Cost of Natural Burial Ground vs Traditional Burial Grounds
The cost of a natural burial varies across the UK and will depend very much on the site you choose as well as what additional services and extras you opt.
The price of a single grave can range from as low as a few hundred pounds at small, privately owned, farm-run site in the north of England to those that cost several thousand pounds in and around the London area.
These costs can include the price of a memorial tree and basic interment services.
By contrast, the average costs for traditional burial in the UK are currently £4,798 with cremations being slightly lower at £3,744 (data sourced from Sun Life’s Cost of Dying Report 2018).
As natural burial does not require a funeral director nor the use of a headstone or expensive coffins, there can be some financial benefit to choosing this method of funeral.