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CASE STUDY: green funerals

Laura Sevier

22nd May, 2008

Why mourn a death when you can celebrate a life? Laura Sevier meets a pioneer in his tranquil and tree-filled field, determined to take the fear and formality out of funerals

With not a headstone in sight, it’s hard to believe that this green oasis of small fields, grassy meadows and overgrown hedgerows bursting with wild flowers is quite what it professes to be. Just 10 minutes drive from the noisy, built-up bustle of Bristol, the only sound is of leaves rustling in the sunny breeze and the distant drone of a lawnmower. Scattered all around are trees: young trees, old trees, clusters of trees. I had been expecting somewhere grim and depressing, but this place is stunning, even uplifting. Welcome to Memorial Woodlands, the cemetery that doesn’t feel like a cemetery at all.

‘The key is not having any standing headstones or grave edgings,’ says owner and founder Christopher Baker, who is giving me a guided tour. Instead, the burial ‘plot’ is marked with a tree, a shrub or a flower and, if desired, a flat memorial stone. ‘We only use one type of stone here: a pervaic Portland stone from Dorset, which weathers down to an unobtrusive grey colour.’ He points towards a stone beneath a pear tree: ‘This is five or six years on.’ Sunk into the ground and framed by grass, it blends in pretty well.

‘Lately I’ve realised I’ve become a cemetery tour guide,’ he jokes as we amble along the path. It’s an unlikely choice of career for a man who used to fly planes and race cars, and who spent five or six years working on the next generation of motorcycles. ‘I love speed,’ Chris admits, but – apart from skiing – ‘most fripperies have been given up. This place has absorbed any surplus funds.’

From dairy farm to woodland burial it seems quite a U-turn for Chris to have ended up working in the death industry, so what inspired him to start up a woodland burial site?

‘Up until the 1970s the site used to be a hobby farm owned by my father, and when he died I inherited the land. But a hundred or so acres isn’t remotely a working farm. Plus, I did a bit of dairy farming when I was about 16 and I’m not remotely a working farmer,’ Chris admits. ‘I like trees, though. The whole project came out of a desire to create woodland.’

What really shocked him into action, however, was attending a funeral 12 years ago and ‘seeing how grim it all was – a half-an-hour conveyor-belt service at the local cremmie. As far as I’m concerned I would much rather be buried in a field under a tree. I knew there had to be a better way to say goodbye to a family member or friend.’

So he applied for planning permission to turn 20 acres of the site into a burial ground and the old farm buildings into funeral facilities. Getting planning permission took five years. ‘The neighbours got extremely upset,’ Chris recalls. ‘All the lanes round here had orange signs on them saying “No Cemetery!” I was not Mr Popular in the neighbourhood. But I had faith it was going to work.’

How times have changed. There are now signs that the locals accept and even appreciate what Chris is doing. ‘Various neighbours are buried with us and some who attended the funerals came up and said, “We objected strongly but now we see what you’re actually doing and we think it’s great”.’ Equally encouraging is that much of his business comes from referrals and recommendations. Since Memorial Woodlands opened in 2001, approximately 450 people have been buried here – mostly locals from the Bristol area or surrounding West Country – and another 400 or so plots have been chosen and booked ‘in advance’.

‘Six years ago this was an empty field,’ says Chris, gesturing towards what is now the cemetery and which is gradually filling up with trees. Those planted so far include oak, chestnut, holly and silver birch. Depending on the season they are accompanied by foxgloves, cowslips, snowdrops and other wild flowers and bulbs.

Natural life

Apart from a bit of mowing here and there, nature is largely left to do its own thing at Memorial Woodlands. The site is not overly manicured and neat – it’s well maintained, but a bit wild around the edges. ‘I think it makes people feel more relaxed,’ Chris says.

For the past 15 years the hedges have simply been allowed to grow, which has increased the amount of wildlife ‘remarkably’. There has been no use of pesticides or fertilisers, either. If the site has become a sanctuary for owls, pheasants and field mice, it is also a sanctuary for the people who visit. Most cemeteries are regarded as functional, rather spooky places for the dead, rather than places to be enjoyed by the living. Here there’s a temptation to linger. It’s the kind of place you can bring a picnic or a dog, providing you clean up. I spy what looks like a cow’s drinking trough. It turns out to be just that. ‘As we had plenty of them we thought they’d be useful for people watering flowers,’ says Chris.

Flowers are the only thing allowed beside the graves and, because everything that is done here is set in the context of creating an indigenous woodland, they have to be meadow or woodland bulbs and flowers. The coffin policy is a little more flexible. The cemetery accepts eco-friendly coffins of willow and bamboo (both popular choices), cardboard and, I’m surprised to discover, conventional wooden coffins. ‘I’m much more interested in a tree being planted and a woodland being created,’ says Chris. ‘If it’s terribly important to the family that a coffin should be solid oak with brass handles, as far as we’re concerned that’s exactly what they should have.’ He is keen to point out that not all ‘eco’ coffins are equal – ‘Shipping in bamboo coffins from China is hardly very ecological’ – which is why he promotes locally sourced coffins made by the Somerset Willow Company. Chris chose one for his father, the first person to be buried on the site. ‘I think they’re very comforting and protective somehow,’ he says. As for the bodies themselves, embalming with highly toxic formaldehyde is only done once or twice a year: if, for example, a member of the family ‘wants to say goodbye to Dad’ but needs to fly across the planet to do so.

A Charitable Trust owns the top metre of the burial site and is in charge of the long-term care and maintenance of the site (a percentage of the cost of each plot goes to the trust). ‘We did everything we possibly could to make the site as difficult and unattractive for developers,’ says Chris. The site will become a protected green belt and green lung for the local area, and a sanctuary for wildlife for generations to come.

Chris strongly believes that burial, rather than cremation, is by far the most environmental and intelligent way to dispose of human remains: ‘Humans are relatively natural and non-toxic and if you hand-dig a grave it takes two men two hours.’ As he points out, however: ‘Digging a grave with a mechanical digger… I’m not entirely sure how much less diesel you’d use than the gas in a cremator.' In the long term he’d like graves to be dug by hand. The company offers burial plots – single and double burial plots, shared tree circles and generational tree circles – and plots for ashes that can be memorialised with shrubs, a tree or located in a woodland coppice area. Has Chris chosen his own burial plot? ‘I’m not too fussed – probably close to my Dad – but I’ve got my coffin! It’s a Roman one made of stone bought from a reclamation yard.’

Slow funerals

The cemetery tour over, we sit on a bench overlooking a rectangular pond and a cluster of converted farm buildings: a non-denominational chapel and a light, airy reception building (which won a RIBA award for the best barn conversion), complete with stone terrace and outdoor tables and chairs. It’s all very Zen. Even the driveway has been designed to help people relax and slow down.

‘The planners wanted me to have a straight drive running down by the hedgerow and I said no. Having a long winding drive sets the tone, it sets the pace. All our lives we are so busy – saying goodbye to someone, you just shouldn’t be doing it in a rush.’ Which is why the cemetery has a policy of holding only one funeral a day. The chapel acts as a multifaith (or no faith) ‘blank canvas’, which can be personalised with photos. Although most families go for simple services, this chapel has seen it all: string quartets, brass bands, people dressed in pink, pagan circle dancing… ‘The existing funeral trade is very limited,’ says Chris. ‘People are not given very much time – it’s a production line. But there are other ways of doing it.’

The old farmhouse has become the general office, though meetings are often held in the garden if it’s sunny. In the early days of opening, the company relied on external funeral directors to do the directing, but after a few years decided to start doing it themselves. This is one of the few natural ‘one-stop shop’ burial grounds in the UK, where everything – funeral, burial and reception – can be arranged and take place on-site. A team of 10 people runs the show; as a farm it only employed two.

Though a world away from racing cars and motorbikes, this, says Chris, is more rewarding. ‘When a family tells me they’ve had an amazing day, it’s great.’ Most touching for him was an occasion when a couple whose child had died and been buried here wanted their next to have its naming ceremony in the same chapel. ‘That’s close-to-the-bone stuff,’ he says. ‘I take it as a compliment.’

The company has set up a bereavement group and every year a local children’s hospital invites parents here for a memorial service for children who have died. There is even the odd art exhibition for local artists. ‘It’s really working with the families and the broader communities that will make this a long-term success,’ says Chris.

Given a sneak preview of a documentary being made about Memorial Woodlands, the comments of one local said it all: ‘It doesn’t feel like a graveyard. We come to the woods and picnic here with my grandchildren. I don’t see death as a dark or terrifying thing any more. It’s made something that was totally negative for me into something alive, thriving and lively.’

‘It sounds strange but I see this place as a living entity,’ Chris agrees. ‘It’s growing, it’s developing and it carries the memories of families within it. It’s becoming a sacred place, which bodes well for its future.’

Dying to save the environment: the greenest way to go

‘Natural burial is by far the most eco-friendly way to go, without a doubt,’ says Mike Jarvis, director of the Natural Death Centre – and it’s also one of the fastest-growing environmental movements in Britain. ‘In 2006 we estimate there were around 12,000 natural burials,’ he says. ‘By 2010 our projection is that this will rise to approximately 21,000 [about 12 per cent of all UK burials].’ The first natural, or ‘woodland’ burial ground site opened in Carlisle in 1993; by 2003 there were 182. Now there are 220 in the UK, with a wide variety of styles and attitudes.

Natural burial grounds are greener than…

• Conventional graveyards and cemeteries. Many of these are full, or almost full, to capacity – which is why cremation is heavily promoted by local councils across the UK. Land is a precious commodity and conventional cemeteries take good productive land and effectively make it sterile.

• Cremation. Of the 600,000 or so people who die in the UK each year, around 70 per cent are cremated. It takes two hours and 23 litres of oil to cremate the average body. Cremation pollutes the atmosphere and ground water with mercury emissions, caused when tooth fillings are vaporised, and other toxic gases such as hydrogen chloride and formaldehyde.

For more information

The Natural Death Centre or invest in its The Natural Death Handbook.

Memorial Woodlands or tel 0800 6129513.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2007


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