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The coffin, the hearse, the black clothes, granite memorials, burial gowns, drapes and, most of all, the job of the funeral director are all essentially a Victorian invention. More and more people are considering different sorts of funeral as an alternative to traditional religious services and cremations.
The conservationist David Bellamy is quoted as saying: "I'm planning to be buried in one of the Church of England woodland sites, where I hope to grow into a tree and where one day someone will chop me down and make me into a beautiful piece of furniture." Dame Barbara Cartland chose to be buried in a cardboard coffin under an oak tree in her garden. Woodland burial was also chosen for a young girl in ITV's series "William and Mary" starring Martin Clunes. One thing is for sure, green burial is becoming a mainstream choice for those who want something different. But what exactly is "natural burial"
Natural burial is all about keeping things as simple, natural and beautiful as possible - returning to nature in a way that will not harm the environment, but will actually preserve the landscape and enhance opportunities for wildlife it's about leaving the world a better place.
In practical terms, this will benefit from some advance planning to ensure that you get exactly what you want, and to avoid being railroaded into what is commonly a production-line funeral. Top of the list of priorities is to find the Natural Burial Ground that suits you. There are now close on two hundred around the UK. Each one offers something slightly different wide scenic views, enclosed woodland glades, wildflower meadows, bluebell woods, wild upland moors and much more. Some are located in already beautiful places, while others plant trees, shrubs and wildflowers to create beautiful places in the future. Each will have its own character and appeal some have structured walks and paths, ceremonial buildings and memorials, whilst others seek to keep things as natural as possible and to leave no trace. The variations are endless. For most people, the deciding factor is the closeness of the site, but for others, a connection with a special place or interest will be more important.
Simple, Natural and Beautiful
Once you have chosen where you'd like to be, you can decide on the type of funeral you want. All of the natural burial grounds have regulations that need to be followed. Almost all will require the use of an environmentally friendly, biodegradable coffin. This sounds as if it restricts choice, but in fact it opens up a range of wonderful alternatives to the commercially mass-produced coffins usually offered by most funeral directors. Alternatives include coffins woven from willow, wicker and bamboo, linings of padded cotton, silk or wool, or the beautifully organically-shaped Ecopod made from highly compacted recycled paper, simple pine coffins that come flat-packed for home-assembly. You could commission your own bespoke coffin made from locally grown timber from a local craftsman, finished with beeswax or linseed oil. There are even cardboard coffins of various designs and finishes. Your coffin can be decorated as you wish to reflect your personality. Flowers and plants are often threaded through the weave of the basketry coffins to great effect.
These days, alternative coffins can be purchased directly from the maker, and you will find that many funeral directors now offer a wide choice. Linda Scott, the maker of the beautifully crafted willow coffins in Ireland, recommends buying your willow coffin well in advance and having it in the house as a piece of furniture, a coffee table, bench seat or blanket basket, long before you need it so that it become a friendly and familiar object. She also suggests using the coffin as a means of carrying you from the house to the grave wrapped in a shroud, so that you can be lifted out and the coffin can be taken home again and replaced in its position. Although this is an unusual suggestion and challenges tradition, it actually makes good sense. Shrouds are something that the UK funeral trade has forgotten about since the Victorians 'invented' the coffin.
You are not required to use a coffin, unless the local cemetery by-laws or natural burial ground rules require you to do so. The cemetery at Carlisle, whose former manager, Ken West, pioneered natural burial, sell their own design of woollen burial shroud complete with pine board and cotton ropes. Others now offer shrouds in cotton, Indian wool or silk, hand-woven fabrics and padding, to cocoon the body in warm natural fibres. What could be simpler?
Leave the world a better place
Selecting your funeral director should also be high on your list. Although you are not required by law to use a funeral director, their knowledge, organisational skills and help can be of great benefit when the time comes. Some natural burial grounds offer their own funeral services, while others offer you the choice of going to whichever funeral director you choose, and allow you to do as much as you wish to do yourselves. You will soon be able to tell whether or not a funeral director is in tune with what you want to achieve - they will have details of the types of coffin you want, they will know about the burial grounds in the area and they will offer a bespoke service to accommodate your wishes. They will know that embalming the body is not acceptable to most natural burial grounds, (because it uses toxic formaldehyde chemicals that contaminate groundwater) and will offer cold storage or refrigeration as an alternative if there is a delay before the funeral takes place.
You can make whatever arrangements you want arrive by motorcycle hearse, pony and cart, tractor and trailer, Landrover, van or estate car if you wish - the choice is yours.
The reasons for choosing green burial are simple - not only are cemeteries running out of space, but the land that they occupy costs a vast amount to maintain and large quantities of harmful pesticides and weed-killers are used in the process. The instability of headstones and monuments poses great risks to visitors and staff alike. It is costing local authorities millions of pounds to manage this problem and many have become extremely unpopular by deciding to lay down many headstones, which has created an unsightly mess. Perhaps the most obvious problem with modern cemeteries is that the landscape they create is an ugly, sterile environment, which few want extended across the landscape.
So is cremation the answer? Currently 70% of the 600,000 people who die each year in the UK are cremated - that's 420,000 cremations each year. There have been growing concerns about toxic pollutants from crematoria with mercury emissions and dioxins high on the list. Many crematoria have upgraded their equipment to burn at higher temperatures and have added filters to reduce airborne pollutants. But they now use approximately three times more gas, a finite reserve, in the process, and the filters in which toxic pollutants are collected end up as land-fill.
Act locally - think globally
According to one source "Crematoriums are thought to be responsible for approximately 9% of airborne mercury emissions, caused by the combustion of dental amalgam, 12% of atmospheric dioxins, pollutants linked with cancer and other illnesses, and emissions of the chloride and formaldehyde used in the embalming process." There is growing pressure on government and local authorities to behave in an environmentally sustainable way -cremation is definitely not the answer.
By planning your funeral in advance, you are able to steer things the way you want them to go and have time to research options and reflect on the advice you receive.