Woodland Burial

Woodland or natural or green burial, is one the fastest growing environmental movements in the UK helped by such slogans as “giving the body back to nature” and “leave the world a better place” Families often choose woodland burial as they see death as a source of life and view the body as a gift to the earth rather than as waste that has to be disposed of.

A woodland burial ground is not a “cemetery in a wood” that would be missing the point. A woodland burial ground should, in time, look no different from any other woodland in the local area; in all probability it should look better as it is actively managed to encourage flora and fauna and to enhance biodiversity. There is no such thing as an unkempt grave in a woodland burial ground and the graves that are marked are done so with a discreet stone plaque set almost flush with the forest floor.

Most of Britain was once covered in broadleaved forest but today only around 12% of our landscape is wooded; woodland burial grounds are doing their bit to reverse this trend.

Which is greener, burial or cremation?

The earliest known burials of anatomically modern humans date back at least 100,000 years and recent findings at the Sima de los Huesos site in northern Spain indicate deliberate burial practice in an early human ancestor species around 430,000 years ago.

Burial was the traditional method of disposing of bodies in Britain for the past 5,000 years until cremations exceeded burials in the 1960s. The first official cremation since the Romans was in 1885 and by 2000 over 240 crematoria were operating accounting for over 70% of the deceased.

In the UK cremation was originally pushed as the environmentally friendly option with the anti-burial slogan “keeping the land for the living”. In practice churchyards and cemeteries have helped protect the land from the living and in certain metropolitan areas they are a major contributor to green space.

Crematoria consume large quantities of finite fossil fuels, total cremation times vary considerably, ranging from as little as 50 minutes up to in excess of 2 hours depending on body size and cause of death. They contribute to the greenhouse effect and global warming and they produce significant amounts of atmospheric pollution from coffin glues, coffin liners, dental fillings and from plastics in artificial joints and implants. An average cremation uses the equivalent fuel as a 500 mile car journey (roughly the distance from Dalton to Paris) and releases 400kg of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Approximately 350,000 coffins are burnt in the UK each year, which, with the bodies they contain release some 140,000 tons of CO2 and pollute the atmosphere with particulate matter, hydrogen chloride, nitrogen oxides, sulpher dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (from methane to polyaromatic hydrocarbons) mercury compounds and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and furans (often simply referred to as dioxins) which even in very low concentrations can cause cancer and other illnesses According to a DTI / EU ‘Guide for Household Waste Management’ 12% of the UK’s atmospheric dioxin, resulting from combustion, comes from crematoria.

It is a fact not an urban myth that if we eat fish from the waters surrounding the UK they contain traces of mercury originating from the cremation of amalgam dental fillings.

Woodland or Natural or Green burial grounds are providing the solution to a number of problems:

  • Cemeteries in many areas are nearly filled to capacity and the need for regular mowing to maintain neat lawns expends considerable quantities of fossil fuel
  • It is not desirable to fill churchyards and cemeteries with row upon row of headstones which can be costly to maintain and can become dangerous
  • Cremation causes harmful atmospheric pollution and adds to the greenhouse effect
  • Crematoria are pretty bleak places in which to hold funerals
  • People are seeking ‘greener’, simpler and less expensive funerals
  • Natural burials organised and controlled by family and friends, without necessarily using funeral directors or clergy can be more therapeutic and cathartic for those grieving than the short impersonal production line feel of  many crematoria
  • The UK needs more woodland
  • Woodland burial grounds provide a haven for flora and fauna

“Only when the last tree has died and
The last river has been poisoned and
The last fish has been caught,
Will we realise that
We cannot eat money”

19th Century Cree Indian

“Thou know’st ’tis common; all that live must die,
Passing through nature to eternity”

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)


Don’t lay me in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall
Where the dust of ancient bones has spread a dryness over all,
Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold
Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.
There kindly and affectionately, plant a native tree
To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.
The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way
To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.
To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done
I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the sun.

reproduced by kind permission of Pam Ayres – ‘Surgically Enhanced’