A Guide to Natural Burial by Ken West

Charles Cowling

That the natural burial movement began in the UK may be a source of pride if patriotism is your thing. That there are now more than 200 natural burial grounds in the UK compared with, say, around 20 in the USA, may serve to augment that pride. But if you could see some of the burial grounds in the UK that badge themselves as natural and where, you might conclude, the dead look as if they have been fly-tipped, your pride might shrink sharply. It might desert you entirely if you discovered that this nascent movement has already spawned two villains who have had to flee the country. Having considered the range of natural burial grounds, their locations, their avowed environmental purpose and their actual practices, you might find it very difficult to answer the simple question, What is natural burial?

The answer to that and a thousand other questions is answered in a timely new book, A Guide to Natural Burial. Because it is written by Ken West, the man who started it all, the only person employed in Bereavement Services ever to be awarded an OBE, it will do more than merely command respect.

Ken is much more moderate than me in his choice of vocabulary (except perhaps where he mentions Margaret Thatcher). Wherever his own feelings and preferences may lie in such matters as memorialisation, he is keen that natural burial should accommodate as many different tastes as possible so long as they can be accommodated in an environmentally principled way: “I accept that natural burial can be developed under different guises.” Though he sometimes records cases of unprincipled or simply incoherent practice, he does not dwell on them nor does he grow polemical. He prefers instead to accentuate the positive, look ahead and give natural buriers the knowledge and tools to get it right in the future; to do it well and thrive.

This is an important book because no one else is as well qualified to have written it. Ken has been burying people since he was a lad just out of school in 1961. As a lifelong local authority employee he has close on fifty years’ hands-on experience to draw on. As a balancer of budgets, he has thought long and hard about financial sustainability. As an environmentalist, he has thought urgently about ecological sustainability. He is the pioneer, the man who, against the odds, made it happen. He has mud on his boots, knowledge in his head and passion in his heart. He has everything to teach us.

For those who own and run natural burial grounds, this book will be the bible for years to come. Writing it must have been a herculean task. It covers absolutely everything: understanding the market, habitat creation, mowing, infrastructure, memorialisation, management, financial issues, planning issues, gravedigging and marketing. Each topic is dealt with in minutest detail. Ken covers all the nitty-gritty practicalities. In the hands of a natural burial ground owner, this book will become as thumbed and dogeared as any cook’s favourite recipe book.

Although much of what Ken writes about may be reckoned dry, I found even the driest parts compellingly interesting. The section on mowing is strangely unputdownable and Ken has a way of livening things up with personal reflections: “The English striped lawn has become a modern day icon representing the sheer absurdity of our relationship with nature.” The how-to section on gravedigging is similarly enthralling. I was especially pleased to read his exhortation to potential natural burial ground operators to “select a site containing fertile soil and to inter as shallow as possible … work to 24” (61 cm) depth of soil over the coffin.” I was interested to learn that he assumes that re-use of graves will have been legalised within 75 years.

He concludes by revisiting a cause dear to his heart, what he calls an “integrated funeral service,” a version of a scheme he initiated at Carlisle whereby the local authority contracted with a local funeral director to provide a lowest-possible-cost funeral. It came apart when the contracted funeral director subverted the spirit of the arrangement by upselling coffins. In this evolved version, Ken suggests that natural burial grounds might act also as funeral directors: “With minimal staff, no need for a hearse … reduced road travel and dual use of site staff and their offices, overheads are kept to a minimum.” This would ensure that “the total funeral income is retained by the natural burial site, and not shared with a conventional funeral director.” This is unlikely to endear him to the Dismal Trade, but it shows you that he has written this book as much with his head as with his heart. Ken has a strong sense of social responsibility.

This is a dense work which I defy to you to devour in a single sitting. And it fulfils its purpose: to inform anyone wanting to understand the funeral market; anyone wanting to understand the commercial, environmental and social impact of funerals; and those wanting to take control of their own funeral arrangements.

At an economics-driven £39.50 it’s by no means a low-cost option. Except that it’s not an option. It’s the only one there is.

11 thoughts on “A Guide to Natural Burial by Ken West

  1. Charles Cowling
    archie Marshall

    I am considering setting up a natural burial site here in Western Australia. can I buy a copy of Ken,s book ?
    please advise and any other helpful info or suggestions very much appreciated.

    A.W. Marshall, 46 Gilwell Ave
    Kelmscott W.A.6111 phone 08 9495 4023

    Charles Cowling
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  4. Charles Cowling
    andrew plume

    Hello Charles – let’s not forget that Barry Albin was awarded an OBE (too) very recently – this is, I’m sure, on behalf of the sterling work undertaken by Albin Repatriation Services (as a whole) for the work carried out for the MOD in not only assisting in repatriating our Armed Service personnel from the current conflict but also in providing the very much needed ‘down to earth’ support services i.e. they have to go out to the conflict zone to view our soldiers bodies first – strong mentalities and personalities required here but very essential for the families involved

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Ken has been a grain of sand in this field for 20 years or more; creating woodland then natural burial, the ICCM’s Charter for the Bereaved (http://www.iccm-uk.com/downloads.php – scroll down) amongst many pearls. I can’t wait to read this to see where we’re going next.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    Thanks, gentlemen. Goodness me, the expertise the GFG unearths is remarkable – but it’s an important question, isn’t it, because natural burial grounds that bury too deep run the risk of being natural (?slippery word?) but not very green (even more slippery – but I mean, of course, the threat of methane generation.)In which case, it would perhaps be such a natural burial after all! I shall ask a couple of FDs of my acquaintance – interesting to see if they think they have to go so far down.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    Worth recording, for anyone interested, that the MoJ guidance doc for natural buriers is published online here: http://www.justice.gov.uk/guidance/docs/natural-burial-grounds-guidance.pdf

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Thanks, Stephen. I reached for my Davies when I read Gloria’s comment but I can’t find the dratted thing. To dot the i’s, etc, the legal framework is the Local Authorities’ Cemeteries Order (19, er, 70-something?) but, intriguingly, it does not apply to private NBGs. Why not? It was Ken who answered this for me, and most interestingly, too, I think. A revival of burial in private burial grounds was not anticipated by the Govt, which reckoned burial to be moribund at best, given the increasing popularity of cremation, so it “rescinded the legislation that previously applied to private sector cemeteries.” It is this exemption which enables private NBGs to bury as shallow as they like, if only they would. The MoJ has the power to do no more than recommend a minimum depth.

    What is the optimum depth to ensure vibrant anaerobic decomposition? The answer is that dedicated research needs to be done. It is a vital matter to natural (low carbon) buriers because anaerobic decomposition is productive of methane, a noxious greenhouse gas. Once more, Ken provides interesting information. Referring to the West murders (he is quick to point out “no relative!”) and the Wests’ interment of dead bodies in their house, he observes: “There was no odour, neither did any occupant of the house die of noxious disease whilst the bodies decomposed within a few feet.” The potential odour problem of shallow burial is often raised. No one knows for sure what it really is. Over in the States, Billy Campbell reports no odours from his shallow burials at Ramsey Creek. An associated potential problem is that of animals digging up dead bodies. Again, more research needs to be done. Billy Campbell reports none at Ramsey Creek. Both these potential problems can be guarded against until we know for sure what we can do and what we can’t. In respect of animals, Ken ingeniously proposes wire mesh buried just below the surface. In respect of odours (what they used to call graveyard miasma), John Bradfield proposes burying a foot beneath the surface and mounding the grave.

    For Gloria, in particular, paste this link into your browser and enjoy the shallow buriers’ anthem: https://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/2010/01/burial-depth/

    For any who do not know who Stephen Laing is, he supplies microchips to NBGs for grave identification: http://www.assettrac.co.uk/index.php?pagename=aboutus Stephen is also the creator of the ICCM bereavement services portal: http://bereavement-services.org/

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Stephen Laing

    Gloria, yes it is and I quote from the MOJ guide to running Natural Burial grounds….”Burials in a municipal cemetery must normally be at a minimum depth of three feet from the top of the coffin to the natural soil level. Where the soil is considered to be of suitable character, however, coffins of perishable materials may be placed at a reduced depth, though never less than two feet below the level of any ground adjoining the grave”. In our experience the actual depth varies a lot, from 3 feet for rapid decomposition in aerobic soil to six feet or more to accomodate additional interments.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling

    Yes, and big up to Charles for an excellent review, which would grace the review pages of a respectable newspaper (a rare enough breed…) or journal. Most informative. But – is it legal to bury at less than the standard 6 feet? This actually seems to me quite an important question, as it is surely the difference between the kind of natural compost ideal many people have,and what actually happens – Thomas Hardy wrote a poem which is about a burial feeding, as it were, a yew tree, and in the old ballad “Barbary Allen” the roses grow intertwined out of the lovers’ graves. Er, not at six feet under they didn’t…

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Kathryn Edwards

    This book has been long and thorough in the making, so its publication this summer (by a distinctly non-fluffy publisher) is great news. Big up to Ken for troubling to document the work that has made him renowned in the field, and thus allowing us all to benefit from his distilled decades of wisdom!

    Interesting convergence that Felix Dennis’s plan for a substantial natural burial woodland is prominent at this time.

    Charles Cowling

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