Ken West MBE

Hero of the natural burial movement

Ken needs no introduction to anyone in the world of natural burials. He designed and opened the world’s first natural burial site in Carlisle, and over 45 years of work he improved the burial situation for stillbirths – unchanged since the 1850’s – and for foetal remains, wrote the Charter for the Bereaved, introduced the reusable coffin for cremation and created techniques for reducing pollution from cremation. 

He was awarded the MBE in 2001, retired in 2006 and wrote his first two books, publishing his third in 2019. He now has a new love, his pagan ancestor Zuri and writes about her and her world on his blog which can be found on his website Stonehenge Pensioner.

Here’s Ken explaining why he agreed to become one of our patrons:

“I am a patron of GFG because it is a community of people with an ethos committed to better funerals. I can offer them a lifetime of experience, in local government. This began in 1961 on my 15th birthday as a horticultural trainee in Shrewsbury Cemetery. In pursuit of tidiness, I had to apply horticultural chemicals, now called Agent Orange. This destroyed the haymeadow on old graves, and our barn owls disappeared.

My career expanded into funerals and then management. Ann and I married in 1971, and we moved to Sheffield and then Wolverhampton, where I managed the crematorium and five cemeteries. I moved to similar positions in Carlisle, Cardiff and Croydon.   

The move to Carlisle in 1983 appealed because we were both fell runners and loved the Lake District. As Bereavement Services Manager, I was able to create 20 acres of wildflower conservation and the owls returned. Because people sought burial amongst these wildflowers, I prepared a feasibility study for natural burial, and the Council opened the world’s first natural burial site, a ‘Return to Nature’, in 1993.

This new environmental funeral upset the traditional funeral industry. Charles Clover‘s article in the Daily Telegraph called ‘A New Way of Death’ and a BBC Countryfile feature on natural burial added to the furore. Nonetheless, my experience with eco coffins, introducing  a reusable coffin for cremation and a wool burial shroud, together with managing many funerals without a funeral director, lead to my authorship of the  Charter for the Bereaved. 

I obtained various diplomas in horticulture, management and business studies. I was awarded the MBE in 2002 and an Honorary MA from Durham University in 2013. The MA acknowledged my introduction of the first individual graves for stillbirths, in 1976, called the ‘Babies Memorial Garden. I also challenged the waste incineration of foetal remains by accepting them for burial or cremation.

Much went on behind the scenes. I worked with anti-poverty forums on funeral costs and representatives of all religions on funeral needs. I started the UK’s first wreath recycling scheme, using people with special needs. In Cardiff, I re-tendered the Municipal Funeral Service to create the lowest (2003) cremation cost in the UK. In Croydon, I introduced reclaimed graves, a way to utilise unused space in Victorian graves, to maintain a burial option. I also introduced an environmental cremation which dramatically reduced gas consumption and emissions and worked with government in preparing a pandemic plan.

I retired in 2006, after being involved with over 100,000 funerals. In 2009 the Ministry of Justice recorded me as the godfather of natural burial.  I subsequently gave an address in Australia on natural burial and wrote three books, ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’, ‘R.I.P. Off! or The British Way of Death’ and ‘My Pagan Ancestor Zuri.’ We moved to the Peak District in 2020 to continue our love affair with the hills and dales. In 1981, I won the 10 mile Kinder Downfall fell race and if we can run over Kinder again, our circle of life will be complete.”