Several of our provisional Association of Natural Burial Grounds, ANBG members have gained planning permission to open new sites this year.   Here, Rosie asks some of them why they have been moved to get involved with death and nature in this way.

53In Doncaster, Eleanor Parker from the Meadow Cemetery, tells me that it was husband Jamie’s idea! “He read about it somewhere and was inspired.”

How did you find the land?

“We already had it, I provide a home for retired race horses too.” That will work well, I tell her. My site in Kent has a paddock on one side; the plots near the horses are always chosen first.

How are you getting on and how do you find dealing with the sadness you encounter?

“Well, I enjoy it, I am here with the kids every day, it is a bright place, there is nothing to be sad about. It is my life’s work now and I hope to be good at it. I want people to share in the excitement of our venture and to appreciate our vision. We have built a wildlife pond area and planted many trees; the site is transforming already.”

What do your friends think?

“I have some leaflets in my car window and some Mums on the school run were horrified, they couldn’t believe it when I told them that, yes, of course I have to be there on the day when the coffin and family arrive. When I explain all about it, they start to see how beneficial and helpful it all is. Our family are fully behind the project – they have booked plots!”

How nervous did you get before your first funeral?

“Very! I had awful nightmares – arriving to find that the gravediggers had fashioned the grave into a pyramid was one; I was glad to get up that morning!”

How was the planning process?

“Painful, we had to go to appeal, the council knew so little about it and one consultee was irrational, almost hysterical.”

54Nearly three hundred miles away near Oakhampton, Devon, Christopher Voden from Beer Cross Woodland Burials tells me that his motives were more life changing and radical. “I wanted to do something different from my previous career as a lawyer and the diversification of my lovely field is what has motivated me.”

“The site has been owned by my family for years and as far as I know it is the closest green burial site to Dartmoor. I want families to feel relaxed here, it is such a beautiful setting which I hope they find informal, not stuffy. I also hope they will love the developing deciduous wood, as I do and that they find every visit brings something different”

What do your family and friends think?

“That it’s a bit weird, so different to law. Some are confused as to why I would give up a safe career. They know me though and I think they were not too surprised!”

How was your first funeral?

“I think I spent four days preparing the site, considering its appearance and function from every angle. Very nerve racking, I just don’t want to mess it up.”

55Back, up north, in Durham I spoke to Jonathan Elmer from the Woodland Burial Trust.

“As an ecologist, I saw the opportunity to use natural burial as a mechanism to fund ecological improvements to the land,” he explained. “The site is owned by the council and we negotiated with them to find somewhere suitable. It is in the green belt outside Durham City, which is a world Heritage Site. We are creating a range of diverse habitats, flower meadows and woodland.”

“Collectively we have the skills to give a great service and I would like to think that we have plenty of empathy. We don’t see it as a business, that is why we are a community interest company. When I told my family about the project it raised a few eyebrows, I had to reassure some that I would be able to pay my mortgage. I had a good laugh with friends though, they thought it was well timed considering the ageing baby boomers”

“The first burial was difficult as we were not really ready but the family were insistent that this is where they wanted to have the funeral”

52On the other side of the Pennines just off the M6, Susan Gutierrez a diversifying farmer, who knows her way round the planning system, has gained permission in record time, a few weeks from conception to permission – unlike most other sites who are averaging two years.

How is everything going Susan?

“We hope to open in the spring but are waiting for the erection of a wind turbine and for the car park to be constructed. We have already planted 3,500 trees and my vision is that the site will become a sanctuary for wildlife; we have plenty of hares and partridge here already. On a clear day you can see Blackpool tower and I think families will appreciate the beauty of the land which lies in the foothills of the Trough of Bowland.”

What gave you the idea?

“It is quite personal actually. I had a stroke a while back and for the first time it made me focus on my own death and what I wanted. I decided that I wished to be buried on my own land, then I thought how nice it would be for others to have the opportunity too.”

What do your family think and how will you cope with the sadness you will undoubtedly meet?

“I have been through quite a lot in life and my experience of bereavement has taught me that it is not a permanent state. My family? Well, a mixed reaction, some wonder why I would want to live next to a field of dead bodies!”

On the North Norfolk coast retired barrister David Oliver has gained planning but is yet to discharge all the planners’ conditions. Delay due partly because his site, unusually for a new green burial ground, is heavily wooded. “I have to agree a revised woodland management plan and finish some routine thinning” he tells me.

What made you think of doing this David?

“It was a fellow committee member on the board at Cromer Hospital that asked me one evening whether I owned the woodland and would consider opening a natural burial ground.”

“My wife hates the idea but I think she will come round! It is a splendid woodland, part of the Norfolk coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I think families will find a wonderful sense of tranquillity within it. Most people think it is a good idea and I have had a lot of local support”

So, contrary to the worrying BBC reports back in October, the UK is not running out of burial space, it is just that councils are running out of burdensome conventional space. The Natural Burial Grounds are beautiful and spacious. If you don’t know where your local ones are, check out the list on the NDC website.

Two things to remember

  1. Not all sites who describe themselves as ‘woodland burial sites’ are environmentally careful. They can usually be identified by a lack of terms and conditions appertaining to acceptable coffins, non-embalming and low impact land management etc. Here is a link to a pdf ‘questions to ask a burial site’.
  2. Remember, natural burial grounds are as different as their managers and owners, they offer varying services and facilities. They are lovely places run by caring people.