Category Archives: natural burial

I never met a raven I didn’t like

Wednesday, 16 January 2013



Dr. Berndt Heinrich, 72, emeritus biology professor at the University of Vermont, spends much of his time in a cabin in the woods with no electricity or running water, studying animals. His latest book, “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death”, is about how animals die and how they recycle each other:

It’s not so much about death as life. The carcass provides a huge amount of concentrated food for the animals who are recyclers.

I first started thinking about it when a former student, Bill, wrote saying he was terminally ill and what would I think about his having a “sky burial” on my property in Maine? He wanted to leave his body to the ravens. Bill did not want to be cremated or buried in a sealed box. He wanted to be recycled and have his body provide food for other creatures.

Does that name Bill ring any distant bells? No? It ought to. Bill Jordan? Still not with it? Okay, you give in. You first read about him here, on this blog, in May 2011, when he broached his (some would say eccentric) desire that his remains ‘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.Do go back and read it; it’s one of the best things we have ever published.

Dr Heinrich addresses the bad reputation enjoyed by scavenger species, vultures and ravens particularly. He says ‘It’s because of their association with death — they are blamed for it. Ravens get blamed a lot for killing a lot of things when, in fact, they mostly eat the dead and the nearly dead. It’s an illogical association that comes from a lack of understanding of what these animals do. Consider what would happen in the ocean if nothing ate the dead fish. Eventually, the ocean would be up to the top with dead fish. If there were no recyclers, nature would stop.’ He adds: ‘Ravens are very appealing. I’ve never met a raven I didn’t like.’

There’s an insight here into the public perception of undertakers. 

Interesting isn’t it that of all species, humans go out of their way to avoid being recycled in this way? 

Read more about Dr Heinrich in the New York Times here




Fuss-free simple burial in Cambridge

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Woodland Wishes



We send our best wishes to Tracy O’Leary as she launches her simple, fuss-free burial service, Woodland Wishes, for the people of Cambridgeshire. Her service allows for as much involvement by families as they want. We like the unstuffy text on her website

Tracy’s an old friend of the GFG. She heads up the Winterwillow coffin enterprise, an initiative of the Wintercomfort charity, which supports those who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes by offering them basic amenities, opportunities for educational development and recreation, and a range of services designed to help them achieve greater autonomy.” 



Roger Fowle, a Winterwillow tutor


Tracy OLeary

A new natural burial ground in the Surrey Hills

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Our congratulations to Simon Ferrar, a good friend of the GFG, on the opening (at last!) of his natural burial ground at Clandon Wood. 

We don’t think it was the official, ceremonial opening, which is set for the new year.  He’s invited us to come along. We’ll be buying a new hat for that. 

Wild grasses and flowers were sown across 25 acres in June and there will be flower trails through the woods.

“As a business it should look after itself. The meadow in winter will be grazed by sheep and goats so we don’t have to run a tractor over it,” he said. “We’ve also got a burgeoning wildlife population. We have had deer, a badger, foxes. The wetland has got ducks, geese and heron. There’s nothing for them to eat yet so they don’t stay but they know where the water is.”

As well as environmental responsibility, Mr Ferrar said more people are taking emotional responsibility for their own deaths.

Mr Ferrar came up with the idea for the business when he attended the natural burial of his aunt in November 2005 and found the experience comforting. Change of use planning permission was required to put a burial ground on the site. Mr Ferrar said there were no objections and more people were concerned the land would become a huge housing development. Instead the property, which is in the green belt in the Surrey Hills, will be protected as a nature reserve. A timber and glass pavilion is to be completed next year to be used for services.

Full story here.

Clandon Wood website here

Well done, Simon!


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


All will be well

Wednesday, 10 October 2012



I am filming with Bernard Underdown, Gravedigger of the Year, at Deerton Natural Burial Ground. We are standing beside one of Bernard’s freshly-dug graves talking with ever-so over-egged animation about graveyard myths and superstitions. We exhaust the topic, look over to the camera, and the cameraman says, “Lovely. Perfect.  Again, please.” In answer to our mildly miffed expressions he explains, “Car. That car. Sorry.” The noise of a passing car has intruded on the microphone. Bernard and I dig deep into our reserves of flagging spontaneity and reprise. 

On the other side of the burial ground I see five people arrive, then stand and survey the ground and chat contemplatively. It is starting to rain and they put their umbrellas up. 

One of the group detaches herself and comes over to us. It is Wendy Godden-Wood, the owner. Bernard and I come to the end of our re-take. We’re on a continuous loop now, we ready ourselves to start again. The cameraman says “Great. That’ll do.”

Wendy explains that the four people have come to buy plots. They are mooching, looking for the spot they like best, the spot where they’d like to spend eternity. 

People say we’re a death-denying nation. Don’t know about that. 


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.



Whither consecrated woodland burial sites?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

St Albans Woodland Burial Ground


Posted by Richard Rawlinson


Back in 2001, The Telegraph ran a story about the Church of England opening its first woodland burial site, Arbory Trust, a consecrated 40-acre plot in Cambridgeshire with trees and flowers replacing gravestones.

‘Other sites cater for pagans and ‘New Age’ followers and do not offer a Christian burial,’ claimed the newspaper in its indomitable way, adding. ‘Unlike other woodland sites, the trust does not plant trees on top of coffins because of the implication, which is contrary to Christian teaching, that people are reincarnated in the tree.’

Two years later, The Telegraph revisited the subject, this time stating ‘Churches across Britain are to set up woodland burial sites because many of their existing graveyards and cemeteries are full’.

It quoted the Rt Rev Anthony Russell, then the Bishop of Ely, saying he believed that such burials would prove popular. ‘The woodland burial sites not only provide extra consecrated space, they also meet the wishes of people who want to be buried in an environmentally friendly setting which is close to nature,’ he said.

Almost a decade later, I searched the list of UK natural burial grounds on the website of the Natural Death Centre, and found just two consecrated sites: the aforementioned Arbory Trust and Bedfordshire’s St Albans Woodland Burial Ground, consecrated by the Diocese of St Albans.

Does anyone here know if there are more consecrated sites not registered with the NDC or if the CofE’s bid to unburden graveyards has not yet taken off—beyond people choosing cremation?

Meanwhile, traditional cemeteries from Clitheroe Cemetery in Lancashire to London’s New Southgate Cemetery have established wooded areas for people who wish to have more natural surroundings. Here.


 The Arbory Trust

Lairs – time for re-evaluation?

Monday, 16 April 2012

Posted by Vale

Have you ever thought about the rateable value of cemeteries and burial grounds?

The Scottish Assessors Association have. They offer information about how sites and locations should be valued and have some fascinating guidance for cemeteries, churchyards, graveyards and necropolises.

A guidance note advises that:  

The recommended rate is £110 per coffin lair. Where casket lairs are provided they should be taken at £45 per lair.  (see more here)

Lairs. Wonderful!

But there’s more to this tale than old fashioned language. In February the Bournemouth Echo reported here  that:

WIMBORNE Cemetery has scored a landmark victory in a two-year battle against a 150 per cent rise in its rates.

Thousands of chapels across the country could escape similarly steep costs after the cemetery won an appeal based on an historic act that the Church of England cannot own anything.

Rather than accept the Valuations Office hiking the picturesque cemetery chapel’s annual rateable value from £3,250 to £8,000, clerk and registrar Anthony Sherman took the matter to Parliament, enlisted barristers and even threatened a judicial review. Now the rise has been overturned, they’re looking to claim the money back.

It seems there could be wider implications too, particularly for Natural Burial grounds. A local company,  Tapper Funerals which also operates a natural burial ground congratulated Wimborne on its win and commented that :

Valuations of cemeteries have always been extremely low due to the low financial turnover and the high maintenance costs relative to the large expanse of land (similar in some ways to farming). Strangely, as private businesses embarked on cemetery provision, the Valuations Office has started to view them completely differently with increases, in some places, of many 100s of percent. It is difficult not to be cynical over the timing of such changes!

You can read more here.

Is there a wider issue out there? Are other natural – or just non-religious – burial grounds fighting local battles about rateable values? It would be interesting to find out.

They fit into a spread hand, yet reach into eternity

Monday, 5 March 2012



Posted by Rupert Callender, owner of The Green Funeral Company.


As human beings, we look for meaning everywhere, superimposing it over everything that comes into our lives. The Australian aborigines believe that the world was vocalised into existence, literally sung into creation, and that the song needs to be continued so that reality can flourish. We are no different, giving identities to our household objects, cursing our computer when it misbehaves or urging our spluttering car toward home. We see patterns where, without us, there are none. A world that responds to our awakening gaze, and freezes again as we look away.

As undertakers, we work in an area where meanings blur and identities become less certain. For us, a body is just that: a body. Something awkward and heavy to be treated practically between us, to be lifted and moved, dressed or washed. But when they are in the presence of those who loved them, they become people again, suffused with personality and history, mute vessels for love and longing, themselves but changed. It is to witness this change that we gently lead the living toward, no more certain as to what it means than they, only sure that it is as important as it is painful.

The picture above is of one of our lowering straps, part of our meagre collection of professional equipment. We have two of them, simple strips of furniture webbing to reinforce chairs that we bought thirteen years ago in a haberdashery shop in Cornwall. You can see the colouration of the soil on them, their history stained into the edge. The red thread marks the midpoint. It rests over the centre of the grave, a guide for when we stretch them over before the coffin is laid on top.

They are just material, yet for me they are one of the most powerfully resonant things I possess. They have lowered old men and children, people whose deaths were a longed for mercy and those ripped from their families. They have held mothers leaving shellshocked children, people who have had terrible things done to them, and those who have done terrible things. They have slipped through mine and Claire’s hands a thousand times, and the hand’s of grandmothers and fathers, lovers and friends. They are tinged with our blood cut by the edges of coffins, stained with soil and mud and grass and sweat, and of course, with tears. The tears of people doing the bravest, hardest, saddest thing of their lives, gently lowering their beloved down into a grave.

They fit into a spread hand, yet reach into eternity. Not just bits of woven cloth, but portals, ladders to another world, or at least to the end of this one. At times they appear like mandalas, or spiraling universes. They seem to possess a patient wisdom, to have personality. We certainly have shared history.

I wonder what part they will play in my own end, whether their frayed edges will still be strong enough by then. In my secret heart, I know they will, that they are an umbilical cord reaching out into the womb of my own death, ravelling me nearer.

Hopefully, when my time has come I will be burnt on a hill. If I am, them perhaps one should be wrapped around me, the other to journey with Claire to who knows where. 

These decisions are not ours to make, and maybe they will slip through the hands of my family as they lower me down into the ground. Where ever I am going, I have confidence that the straps will see me safely to the end. They always have.

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