The growth of eco-funerals

words: Tim Power

Until very recently to be an environmentalist was to be a radical, but now it’s mainstream. Growing awareness of issues such as climate change, recycling and the impact of plastic waste on marine life – thanks to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II documentary – means most people know how their actions affect the environment… and want to minimise their impact.

Many organisations, including funeral directors and suppliers to the profession, are keen to do their bit and provide environmentally friendly choices for consumers. Indeed, for the funeral profession it’s never been a fad or fashion, but part of a truly personalised service that meets the needs of the families they serve.

In part one of our review of the ‘green’ funeral market, we look at the recent growth of woodland burials, and how different sites help meet the environmentally friendly requests of families as well as provide a beautiful natural setting for their loved ones.

According to SunLife’s Cost of Dying Report 2017, the number of eco, environmental and woodland funerals has increased over recent years. In 2016, funeral directors in the survey reported just one in 14 (7.2%) funerals were eco, environmental or woodland funerals; in 2017, the number increased to one in 11 (9.1%) – a growth of 26%.

Many woodland burial sites have been developed over the years to supply local needs. These include meadows converted to cemeteries by land owners, funeral directors purchasing their own woodland, and the emergence of large-scale fully integrated woodland burial site developers. Some are dedicated to natural burials that adhere to strict environmental standards, while others offer a range of burial options that have at least a minimal effect on the environment.

To qualify as a ‘natural burial’ a funeral must have no impact on the environment. Cremation (which uses fossil fuels) and embalming (which uses chemicals) of the body is not acceptable. The grave must be hand dug to a single depth, and the coffin must be made of biodegradable material such as recycled paper, cardboard, wicker, willow, banana leaf or bamboo. However, shroud burials are also encouraged.

The graves are not marked with a headstone, but in many woodland cemeteries a tree sapling can be planted over the grave.

The Natural Burial Company specialises in natural burials at its three woodland and meadow locations in the Midlands.

Managing Director Christopher Doggett said: “While burial is more environmentally friendly than cremation, we further develop this process by requesting the deceased is not embalmed, using environmentally friendly coffins and shrouds, digging all graves by hand and at single depth only.

“Although our natural burial grounds do not have traditional headstones, graves can be planted with a tree to create a natural, living memorial and marked with a post and simple slate plaque engraved with an appropriate inscription.

“The burial ground is managed to the minimum to allow nature to thrive and, once the burial ground is full, the area will be returned to nature to protect the greenbelt and ensure woodland is available for all to enjoy. What more fitting way to complete the cycle of life?”

The burial grounds conduct only one service a day to allow plenty of time for a funeral event to be personalised, and recent funerals have included live music concerts, picnics and various other bespoke celebrations. Christopher added: “Word of mouth and personal experience also play a major role in attracting people to natural burial. In many cases those who have attended funerals then request information themselves when they compare a natural burial, the personalisation of the service and the beautiful surroundings to traditional funeral service locations.”

One of the UK’s first woodland burial sites was created 20 years ago at Colney, Norfolk, by a funeral director, and today is owned by GreenAcres which now has six large sites, four around London, one in Norwich and one in Merseyside.

GreenAcres Chief Operating Officer Andy Tait has seen demand grow over the past 10 years. This is in line with a general increasing awareness of environmental issues, but he said it is mainly driven by the growing popularity of personalised funerals where people are looking for a different experience.

Andy said: “The current woodland burial market is generally dominated by individuals who have a small plot of land or a meadow in a rural area, so we are very much the exception to the rule in this sector as we have large acreage woodland sites with integrated facilities to hold a wide range of funeral services.”

While GreenAcres has good environmental credentials – buildings are constructed from sustainable timber, electricity is supplied from a renewable energy source and all waste is recycled or composted – it does not consider itself a ‘natural burial’ provider as it caters for cremations also, and this is where it sees the growth coming from.

He explained: “While we do perform natural burials at our sites we are focused heavily on our cremation services offering. With our woodland halls and bespoke services we can provide a beautiful send-off for our families in a much more relaxed and flexible manner than can be achieved in a busy crematorium.”

GreenAcres provides a wide range of options for burial and cremated remains in its woodland settings, from woodland plots and lawn graves to options for scattering ashes and interment with features.

“A woodland grave would typically be a plot in a circle around a tree, but if families prefer something more exclusive, then we have the option for them to choose their own tree. Our Prestige options include Family Trees and Private Gardens for multiple members of a family, as well as Living Memorials, where ashes are mixed with the root ball of a tree sapling.

“With our recent partnership with the Kemnal Park site in south-east London, we can now offer traditional headstones and kerb sets for burials, but it looks nothing like a traditional cemetery as carefully landscaped hedges and trees hide the gravestones.”

The 25-acre Herongate Wood burial site in Brentwood, Essex, is different from many other woodland burial sites as it was developed by a local funeral director. Adam & Greenwood bought the site in 2003 to offer its customers a more pleasant place of rest for their loved ones. The firm was also concerned about the erosion of natural habitats in the local area by developers.

Senior Manager Lorri Turner explained: “We felt that too many green spaces were being taken up for housing so we wanted to protect these beautiful Essex fields and meadow for the future. That’s how we joined the natural or ‘green’ burial movement: it allowed us to create a cemetery from very much a blank canvas to provide both ‘green’ and traditional funerals while also preserving some of the existing countryside and habitat for future generations.”

A Hall of Remembrance has been built to provide a venue for personalised funeral services for burial or cremation and there is a patio area overlooking a pond, which is popular for outside funerals in the summer.

Like other woodland cemeteries there is a commitment to minimise impact on the environment with a restriction to one person per plot and remembrance items limited to a granite plaque or vase.

There is a tree-planting programme across the site and a long-term plan to create new woodland to provide a haven for wildlife. Lorri added: “Our aim is to create a tailored and bespoke funeral service with an unhurried feel in a beautiful and tranquil setting.”

The growth in woodland burials looks set to continue, but may be tempered in some areas – the recent SunLife report suggested the increasing popularity of woodland burials is putting pressure on the limited number of sites. In 2017, 77% of funeral directors said they have access to a woodland burial site, down from 82% in 2016 and 90% in 2015, but up considerably from 60% in 2014.

GreenAcres certainly sees woodland burials as a growing part of its business as it is looking to expand beyond London. The Natural Burial Company also sees potential for growth, as Christopher explained: “We are currently assessing the areas where there are insufficient natural burial grounds and will be looking to open additional sites to meet public demand.

“Our expectation is that funeral services will continue to be increasingly personalised and there will be greater demand for environmentally friendly services.

“Eco-friendly coffins in particular are becoming increasingly popular and it is clear that many funeral directors are offering a wider range of environmentally friendly options and services. As with many aspects of funeral service, change may be slow, however, there are clear signs that such products and services are becoming increasingly mainstream.”

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