Green funerals: the new way to say goodbye

Severin Carrell
Sunday 11 August 2002 00:00 BST

Barbara Cartland did it and Ralph Fiennes chose it for his mother. After decades of increasingly elaborate funerals, thousands of people are now going back to basics, buying cardboard coffins and planting trees in the place of headstones.

This new counter-culture became an industry last week when a Scottish farmer opened Britain's largest "green burial ground" so far, converting 37 acres of arable land into a woodland cemetery with room for 12,000 graves.

Alex Rankin's site, Clovery Woods of Rest near Turriff in Aberdeenshire, is the latest in more than 140 "green" cemeteries which have sprung up around Britain since the first opened nine years ago.

The Natural Death Centre in London estimates that hundreds of people are now being buried every month in cemeteries where headstones are replaced by native trees such as birch, oak and rowan, or discreet wooden sculptures to mark out a grave.

In contrast to the formality and blandness of modern council cemeteries, "green" burial grounds feature young forests, copses and flower meadows. Ornate polished hardwood caskets, costing as much as £2,000 each, are replaced by biodegradable cardboard coffins, or even wicker and cloth.

Woodland burials are also providing a new source of income for Britain's hard-pressed farmers and are, say enthusiasts, a romantic and practical way to rebuild the country's native woodlands.

Ken West, the director of bereavement services at Cardiff City Council and founder of Britain's first municipal woodland cemetery, believes "green" funerals will become one of the most common ways of burying the dead in Britain. Many people, he claims, are reacting against the commercialisation of death.

Urban cemeteries are running out of space and will be forced to re-use old graves, he said. Fears are also emerging about the air pollution and global warming effects caused by cremation, used in 70 per cent of the 630,000 funerals held in Britain each year.

"Suddenly we have a scenario where the commercial side is looking very good," he said. "Many of those operating woodland burials are environment enthusiasts. You have to contrast that with the negativity of running crematoria."

Mr Rankin, who carried out his first burial nine days ago, cites cost as another attraction for customers. He charges £600 for the plot, digging the grave and a native tree, although elsewhere a green burial can cost as little as £200. "We've been overwhelmed with interest," he said.

Many firms offer internet or CD-Rom based commemorative albums for the deceased, plots and trees implanted with microchips to allow easy location of the grave, and even swipe cards to allow exclusive access to the forests.

Nick Hargreaves and Christine Atkin run one of the country's most successful sites on their 100-acre farm near Rugby. They have buried nearly 360 people and have taken bookings for another 440 plots at Greenhaven Burial Grounds. "We're creating a woodland. Your DNA is going into growing a tree. Every year, the woodland is getting bigger and bigger," Mr Hargreaves said.

One of his customers, Andy Farquarson, drove the coffin holding his father-in-law Dieter on to the site in his beloved camper van. In all, the funeral cost £200, including the biodegradable coffin.

"We were saying goodbye to Dad in a very personal, non-ritualistic way," he said.

The dying game: what it costs

Traditional funerals

Funeral director's fees: £390+

Embalming: £35

Care of body: from £150

Hearse: from £150

Limousine: from £90

Coffins: £300-£12,000

Graveyard plot: £200-£2,000

Headstones: from £250

Church fees: £50-£400

Gravedigging: inclusive

Pallbearing: inclusive

Average cost: £1,200-£1,500

Green funerals

Administration fee: £30

No embalming

No care-of-body charge

Transport: from £30

Use own car

Biodegradable coffin: £55-£200

Plot and tree: £300

No headstone

No church fees

Gravedigging: £75

Pall bearers: £10 per person

Average cost: £530


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