We now lie within the new South Downs National Park not far from Petersfield in Hampshire. The site opened in 2000 and there are currently close to 1500 people buried here.
Our 55 acres had been planted with conifers by the MOD who owned it previously. We remove these non native trees, compartment by compartment and use the cleared areas for the burials. Once occupied, these areas are then replanted with native broadleaf species, on or near, the graves. This approach converts an otherwise quite sterile environment into an area of high value biodiversity.
The removal of the conifers allows light to penetrate to the ground level and encourages natural regeneration of long dormant seeds. This is complimented by some inventive planting of native floral species by staff and families.
This programme has been hugely successful and the burial site is now teaming with native flora and fauna. Our customers take great pride and comfort from seeing how the burial ground has become a haven for wildlife. It boasts a healthy population of stoats, weasels, deer, owls, adders, grass-snakes, buzzards, red kites and an array of butterfly species – some rare. There are also bee-hives on site whose occupants thrive on the varieties of flora within the grounds and on the burial site.
As a deeply green Natural Burial Ground we dig all of the graves by hand. The exact size and shape of each individual coffin is noted and the graves are bespoke, neatly dug to size by our expert team of grave diggers. Many of our families come and engage with them whilst they are working and are impressed by the love, care and time invested in each resting place.
The grounds are also managed by hand. During the summer months, the pathways are kept open and the whole site is hand-scythed in the autumn. This approach not only keeps the site’s carbon footprint to a minimum but is also far more selective and friendly to invertebrates, amphibians and small mammals.
The burial team is involved and witness all manner of funerals. Approximately half of the burials performed each year are organised with a conventional funeral director. However, many of our families prefer to be more “hands-on” and decide to perform much, or all, of the process themselves.
It is quite normal for a funeral director to deliver the coffin to the site whereupon the family and our team assume the directing. Sometimes the family decide to transport the deceased to us in their own vehicle. Once on the premises there are two methods of conveying the coffin to the actual burial ground, which is nearly half a mile down into the woods. There is our replica Victorian hand-bier or a horse and gaily painted cart that some families elect to employ.
This has all become quite standard practice here.
Our team has now grown to four and on average we carry out around 135 burials per year. Only full burial is performed at the site, we do not accept cremated remains for interment. As part of a larger environmental, education centre it is felt inappropriate that the we should encourage the cremation process in view of the current environmental impact associated with this practice.
The burial site is part of the Sustainability Centre, an environmental education centre. Both the burial site and education centre are owned by a charity – the Earthworks Trust.
The Trust’s raison d’etre’ is education. Some sixty different schools visit us each year. Many of these schools make multiple visits and some come on residential visits, staying in our 38 bed hostel. The education team deliver their programmes at any level – engaging with toddlers through to adults and environmental science students to those with acute learning difficulties. Excess funds generated by the burial business support these education programmes.
The wide variety of activities organised for schools is increasingly being based on Forest School principles and the education team are Forest School trained. The Sustainability Centre is developing as a training and support hub for teachers and practitioners. The first Level 3 Forest Schools Leadership Programme course started in early 2014. The education team also teach bush-craft, food growing, outdoor cooking and skills for low impact living. What is really cultivated here is trust, respect, hope and a real love of the outdoors.
Many of the families who choose the South Downs site as a resting place really love this dual usage and feel that their lost relative or friend would really appreciate the positivity of having so many young people buzzing around the place, learning, laughing and engaging with their environment. Positive projects being supported and coming from something that most folk would, in normal circumstances, consider negative and sad.
article by Al Blake
South Downs Natural Burial Site