Category Archives: burial depth

The depths they go to

Tuesday, 30 October 2012


In Palmerston, New Zealand, permission to inter ashes in a new natural burial ground has been put on hold. The council wants a period of consultation in order to arrive at a “a better understanding of what sort of natural burial ground people want” in the light of the assertion by a councillor that “cremation is one of the most unsustainable practices you could have.”

Well, well, what a pertinent question! What sort of natural burial ground do people want? What price consensus on that — anywhere? You can tell New Zealand is new to all this. 

In one important respect, the regulations for this NZ NBG are going to be a lot more enlightened than we see at almost every NBG in the UK. They’re going to change the bylaw requiring six-feet-under burial and require, instead, burial at a max of 1 metre, with a covering of 40cms (ie, around 15 inches). This is to ensure rapid, vibrant, aerobic decomposition. 

Way to go, good people. But don’t stop there. 

Yes, you can do even better. Turn your minds also to re-use of graves. What do you say to 30 years?

A burial ground that’s ever-active, 100% financially sustainable — there’s the goal of natural burial. 

Story in the Manawatu Standard here


Dig it shallow. They don’t.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Filming the Good Funeral Awards with Sharp Jack Media, the production company making the documentary for Sky, entailed going all over the country to shoot people in action and get their backstories. It was fun. Perhaps the most fun was watching the crew on ‘just another job’ become emotionally enmeshed by the loveliness of the people they met. It was a life-changing process for them.

It was also exhausting and, from time to time, nailbiting.

Perhaps the nailbitingest moment came as they filmed a funeral in Devon followed by burial in Bidwell Woodland Burial Ground, a lovely place where you have to tote the coffin a good way to the grave. It’s hard work just trudging after it.

All went well at the outset. The funeral was in a village hall and it reduced one of the crew to tears even though it wasn’t an especially sad funeral because it was for a very old man who had led an incredibly rich and generous life. We set out for the burial ground in bright sunshine. It was a timeless sight.

The nailbiting bit came after the coffin had been lowered and it became evident that there was just a little over a foot between the top of the coffin and the surface. Local authority rules (not the law) prescribe a minimum of 2’ 6”, or 2’ where soil conditions allow. I had to have urgent discussions to determine whether it was wise, politic and in everyone’s best interests to film this. There could be protests and all sorts from them as knows best.

All agreed that it should be filmed. The owner of the burial ground, the richly characterful, serenely resolute and intelligent Andrew Lithgow, knows his law and believes that human burial must make good environmental sense. You don’t get the customary dark, cold, inert six feet under at Bidwell, you go back to nature usefully.

What about foxes, badgers, all sorts of foragers digging up the body? That’s what they all say happens, everybody says it. What do you do about that?

They don’t. As Andrew has it, why in heaven’s name would they want to dig up dead bodies? They’ve far better, fresher things to eat.

Another graveyard myth. So good to have that one knocked on the head. Burial depth in natural burial grounds has been, let’s confess it, a bit of an obsession here at the GFG. We are at rest now, enjoying our favourite song.



Jolly rottin

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Yuli Somme of Bellacouche in her workshop making one of her felt leaf shrouds. Find her here.


On the North Island of New Zealand, Whangarei District Council has been researching natural burial for the last three years. Three years? Yes, they want to do it as it should be done. Cemetery manager Helen Cairns says: 

“When we do get natural burial – if we get natural burial – we want to make sure that we do it right and in the specific way people want it. I’m more than happy to talk the subject over with people.”

From an impossibly badly written article in the Northern Advocate we learn that Whangerei are planning to bury at 3 feet, allowing for vibrant, aerobic decomposition and environmentally useful human compost.

If only natural buriers would make a virtue of that in the UK. When people make a whole-body donation to the Earth it is only right that best use be made of that body. 

Full story here







Monday, 27 June 2011

Bill Jordan is on a  quest to have (when the time comes) his corpse laid out on the surface where it will be able to give most back to the ecosystem. He wants “to know I’ll be going back into the air, the soil, the rain, the mist, the snow–back to the ecstasy I feel while walking–these experiences are so comforting that I almost look forward to being laid out on the festive table of a Sierra Nevada meadow, or the large rocks in the Australian Alice, or the sagebrush scrub of the Great Basin.”


Bill has featured before on this blog. If you missed his extended rationale, read this and this.

Here is Bill’s latest update of his pursuit of his goal. He has been working with down-t0-earth idealist and natural burier Cynthia Beal. Bill says:

Cynthia and I are agreed to proceed, in principle as well as spirit, on the assumption that it’s always later than you think. The strategy includes several plans, based on practical reality, and one of these involves planting on Bernd Heinrich’s property in Maine. Bernd is an old friend–I met him while in graduate school at UC Berkeley in the late ’60s and early 70s–and we have discussed permanent parking on his mountain. He is, by the way, publishing a new book on decomposition in nature and I am mentioned in it–also mentioned in Summer World. Slowly, insidiously, we are infiltrating the modern mind.

Bill also sent me more photos of his duck, Jacqui. He says: Note the red caruncle around her eye in the last picture–let your mind flip and suddenly you see it as a small, red creature–some primitive, amphibious ancestor, pointing backwards”.


Bill’s bones and other stories

Monday, 6 June 2011

You may have missed the comment below by Cynthia Beal on Bill Jordan’s piece about how he wants to be buried on the surface (when he dies) where he can be of most use. Read it here.

Cynthia is formidably bright and enterprising, not to mention generous and kind. She lives in Oregon. At a time when greener than green burialists over there are vying with each other in matters of purity of vision and impeccability of practice, Cynthia’s focus is sustainability and choice for all. She’s got a very exciting project under way at the moment, and I hope I’ll soon be able to tell you about it – or that Cynthia will tell us in her own words.

Here’s what Cynthia wrote:

Bill and I are going to have a go at seeing what we can come up with to accommodate his very natural wishes. We hope to cover all the bases and find some way to achieve his goals without creating any public health and safety issues in excess of those caused by conventional burials, nor caring over-much for what people think. Personally, I’ve got in mind an ornamental wrought-iron grill work to set on top of him as a sort of cage with some way to address the dirt-on-top legality. It would secure his body from large predators and let the insects he likes so well have full access. We’re going to arrange for him to have DNA tests on file in the county of his disposition, as I suggested that a drifting femur or metatarsul might give the local sheriff a headache. I’ll keep you posted!

Back to Bill, now. He wrote after his piece was published to express his appreciation of your comments. He added this:

I once wrote a piece for a now-defunct magazine called National Gardening about the compost heap in my back yard.  I likened it to an altar of energy on which the dead vegetation was piled, and the process of decomposition was pyre of renewed life.  I concluded that the process of life and death could not be separated, in contrast to the prevailing spiritualities of Western Civilization, which cling desperately to a separation of mind and body; and the attempt to propagate this belief revealed a deep, delusional denial.

But mind arose from stuff and stuff lived on in the eternal processes of life.  There was no such thing as birth I death, I concluded, only molecular assembly and disassembly, and so long at the earth lived, so live us all.  To which the editor, who was an old friend, replied in the author’s byline:  “William Jordan is a collection of molecules currently living and writing in Culver City, California”  I never have been skewered before or since with such gleeful appreciation.

One thing I forgot to mention; I hope this is appropriate on another man’s blog–but could you mention that I am the author of the books, Divorce Among the Gulls and  A Cat Named Darwin?

I am currently working on what I hope will become the culmination of my life’s work–what the writer, Edward Abbey referred to as his Fat Masterpiece–a fat masterpiece with the working title of The Book of Jake.  It is built on the true story of a duck I rescued from what is known in LA as a “flood control channel”–flood control channels are almost invariably former streams, creaks and their tributaries which have been paved with concrete.  Their purpose is to lead away the lakes of water heavy rains leave behind, and they work with spectacular efficiency. They are also a sentence of death for the stream.  Or so it might seem.  The stream bed is now a street bed, a flat plane without any impediments to obstruct the flow of water.  When the weather is sunny, as it usually is in southern California, the flood control channels serve to lead the runnoff from yards and streets, with their toxic loads of pesticides, oils, heavy metals, and whatever else our civilization bleeds into water.  Yet it’s remarkable how life rises up in these polluted channels, with algae growing into great, streaming mats of life, which support midges and other aquatic insects, which support swallows and ducks and all sorts of migratory wading birds.

It was from this foul sump of life that I rescued Jake.  It turns out, however, that Jake is no mere duck.  He is the voice of nature–an oracle duck–and he allows me to say things about our species that could not be said without some sort of literary shape shifting.  This is crucially important, because I contend that in order to understand the ecological mess we humans have made of the world—to understand the human being in proper context with nature–any meaningful assessment must begin in misanthropy.  This is necessary to disable the innate species narcissism that wells up from the human genome, along with an obsessive-compulsive species allegiance.  If you cannot get beyond these traits, you can do little except praise and admire us and spin our transgressions as some form of good, usually with the help of God.

You can buy Divorce Among the Gulls here

You can buy A Cat Named Darwin here

Bill’s photos of flood control channels below











Absolute rotter

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Here is the best post this blog will ever publish, so don’t glance at its length and give up. Read on!

Today is all about Bill Jordan. I first heard from Bill back in December 2010. This is what he said:

I am an aging reformed biologist, now more or less a writer, but more accurately a philosopher-poet-canary-priest, and I have come upon some uncommon conclusions on the proper relationship between man and nature in the course of my time on this remarkable planet. These will be set forth in more detail in a book I am writing, presuming I have the time to complete it. But considering my age (66) and heart condition, I must be realistic and plan for my return to the liberated molecules.

I have found my own spirituality in biology and this now sustains me with remarkable equanimity. It is based on how the natural world functions–how it lives–and I wish my remains to return to the living molecular plasma that the surface of the earth nurtures and maintains. Consequently, I am almost obsessed with having my corpse laid out upon the surface, to fulfill the needs of the natural world. I am attaching a short musing on the subject.

Anyhow, such a disposition is simply blasphemous to normal, traditional societies, and I will have to work hard to fulfill my wishes. My question to you is simply to ask your initial reaction to such an odd request. Of course if you have any notions of how my wishes could be carried out, I would be most grateful to hear them. I live in California, USA.

I suspect my body would be willing to travel.

I directed Bill’s attention to the example of Bernd Heinrich and William Hamilton here, and I touched on the difficulty of finding unpeopled wilderness on our crowded planet. I suggested the body farm in Tennessee. All the while, I chuckled at Bill’s developed rationale, which he attached as a Word document. I asked him if I might post it. He told me he wanted to redraft it first. He’s just sent it back to me. He also sent me photos of his cat, Brutus, his duck, Jacqi, his neighbour, Polistes exclamans (a paper wasp) and his back yard (garden, we’d say in Britain) unmown for four years because “I was interested see what the poor, craven, downtrodden grasses of a typical yard would become, if liberated from the obsessive-compulsive human urge to manipulate and control all that which surround them.”  These photos illustrate his text.

Green Departures — Das Lied zu der Erde

William Jordan

Having come to a point much closer to the end of life than the beginning, having survived a close call with my mortality, age having its inevitable way, it seems time to get my affairs in order….. Or more specifically, to make my bed. If you know your bed is waiting, the sheets turned down, climbing in is a formality, maybe even a pleasant one.

When I go, I want my body laid out on the ground, so the insects and other small scavengers can participate in their rightful and overdue feast. Human civilization is based on the deepest, most cardinal of ecological sins–burial–because for the vast majority of terrestrial life you lie where you die, and the entire ecology depends on the unfettered redistribution of nutrients. This means there can be no such thing as “green” burial, because in nature there is no burial at all. The corpse is the groceries of a living system; a corpse represents a health-food supermarket stocking the nutrients, minerals, etc., that we have gathered and assembled in our bodies during the course of living. When we die, nature wants the ingredients back, because they are only on loan, and all living things excepting the human being, are happy to oblige. The custom of burial, however, seals the nutrients off, slowing the redistribution, if not outright arresting it. But, because of the incalculable stench of a decomposing human corpse, particularly that of a right-wing conservative, we simply cannot obey the normal, physiological ways of nature. Civilization –which requires existence in one place–also requires us to stuff our cadavers under its synthetic rug, starving the world that nurtures us through life. The same principles hold true for the turd. A turd is a vital repository of essential vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, oils that represent the expenditure of much time and energy to concentrate–but civilization cannot long endure without the nihilistic practice of burial and sewage disposal–or at least that’s the way its values are currently structured.

I would offer myself back. My god is in nature, although I don’t think of it as a god, just a vast, all-pervasive, incomprehensibly nuanced reality from which I have bubbled up like hot-springs mud and will subside back, only to bubble up again in some other molecular form. So for me, to know I’ll be going back into the air, the soil, the rain, the mist, the snow–back to the ecstasy I feel while walking–these experiences are so comforting that I almost look forward to being laid out on the festive table of a Sierra Nevada meadow, or the large rocks in the Australian Alice, or the sagebrush scrub of the Great Basin. I would like to delay my departure, of course, because the essence of life is procrastination. Those live longest, who procrastinate best. But, like everyone else, I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see how much I can delay things.

Such a disposition would require preparation–some kind of cage or enclosure to keep bears and other large omnivores from scattering bones about. That wouldn’t bother me. My tolerance would be infinite–besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little flinging of the feast. But law enforcement would pitch a fit, and Forensic Files would produce a 2-hour special. It’s a bizarre sign of the times that when a human body is found in some natural place like a field or a forest, people treat it with horror, because most never have, and never will encounter one. If a world of 6.9 billion people were self-sustaining (impossible given the current nature of nature), bones would lie scattered everywhere, like styrofoam; you could not find an uncluttered landscape. But society stuffs its cadavers under the ecological rug, so the land shows no evidence of the human hordes that dominate it. Nevertheless, in my ideal world, all I’d need would be enough time for the soft parts to be carried off in the bodies of the flies and ants, which are the first-line distributors of the invertebrate world. The bones, cartilage, mummified skin, hair–I’m fine with burying those, but directly in the soil, not sealed in some sort of unholy canister.

The challenge becomes finding some remote land, protected, if necessary, by remote people for several summer months while the feast proceeded. At this point I am open to any and all suggestions.

Perhaps the best way to sum up my thesis is to consider the diametrical opposite of a green disposition: The ex coronation of Pope John Paul, preceded by an undertaking to make the Pharaohs weep.

First, they embalmed the Pope’s corpse, rendering him inedible. Then they placed his body inside a hand-crafted black-walnut coffin. Then, they placed that coffin inside a larger coffin made of lead and soldered it shut. Then, they placed the body-inside-the-coffin-inside-the-leaden-box inside a huge stone sarcophagus, and finally, maybe to make sure the Pope didn’t rise up like his Boss, they placed the body-inside-the-coffin-inside-the-leaden-box-inside-the-sarcophagus into a crypt, and there the pope’s remains remain, sealed off from the living earth like an old reactor with a half-life of eternity. I cannot imagine a more horrifying, claustrophobic limbo-hell. Like that of all other creatures, my distribution would cost nothing and give back to nature the nutrients essential to a living world.

Aside from all that, well, I figured it was about time for something to show up. It’s been a wonderful existence; the molecules have treated me well; there is nothing to regret….well…. maybe a little to envy in those dealt an even better hand….

Really getting real

Monday, 18 October 2010

When Americans decide to do things differently, it seems to me, they make a clean break. Brits, on the other hand, carry over a lot of familiar stuff from the past. I mean, how often does a natural burial ground witness a scene like this?

And which has the courage of its environmental convictions and buries at three feet?

Read the story in the Washington Post.

(Beautiful shrouds available from the UK here.)

Not so first as he thinks

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Stand up for vertical burial: the lowering device

From Australia’s Herald Sun:

A CANCER victim yesterday became the first person to be buried upright at Australia’s only vertical cemetery.

Allan Heywood lost his battle with cancer last Tuesday and was buried in the unusual, space-saving grave in the new vertical cemetery outside Camperdown in western Victoria.

“It’s nice to be first at something. Everybody wants their little place in history,” the Skipton man said with the hint of a laugh.

“I’ve attended a lot of funerals over the years and I’ve never attended one that I’ve enjoyed … I’m an atheist as well,” he said.

Mr Heywood paid $2750 – about half the cost of a basic conventional burial – to be buried upright in a biodegradable shroud, conveyed to his final resting place on a steel trolley which is angled vertically to lower the body into a tubular grave.

He said the lower cost and that there was no graveside service, headstone, casket or grave marker meant his children wouldn’t face any financial burden and could arrange their own memorial service at the local pub or footy club.

Mr Heywood’s body was lowered feet first into its hole by cemetery officials. When his body has been joined by 39, 999 other bodies, the space-saving cemetery will be grassed over and grazed.

Vertical burial is approved in some Asian countries and also Holland – but I don’t think any have been carried out there.

Fact: The world’s first-ever vertical burial took place in England (or, as they say in the US, England, England). It was one of two last wishes of the delightfully bonkers Major Peter Billiere who died precisely nine months to the day after predicting he would.

His funeral was held on 11 June 1800 at Box Hill in Surrey in a hole reputedly 100 feet deep. Into this, Major Billiere was lowered head first, according to his instructions, and there he will remain, according to his philosophy, until the Day of Judgement when he will be resurrected right way up in a world turned upside down. The headstone reads: “Here lies Major Peter Labilliere, with his head in the ground and his feet in the air.”

Major Peter Labilliere’s headstone

The good major was an early adopter of the celebration of life style of funeral, so his other final wish was that the youngest son and daughter of his landlady should dance on his coffin. Apparently the lass demurred; the lad larged it.

This is all true, by the way. If you don’t believe me, go google.

Not this Billiere

Burial depth

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Dave Matthews here, supporting my campaign for shallower burial.

Want the lyric? Find it here.