A natural place to be buried: Forget cemeteries, you can rest in peace with the environment. Marina Cantacuzino learns more

John Acton has an aversion to Victorian cemeteries: he spent 16 years in the army, many of them on stake-outs in a graveyard on Belfast's Falls Road. As a result, he is determined to become one of the first farmers in Britain to establish a green burial ground. 'There will be no gravestones,' he says, 'no vases and no marble slabs.'

Mr Acton has always been interested in the environment. When he bought Wrabness Farm on the banks of the Stour estuary in Essex seven years ago, the land was a desolate prairie. An attempt at conventional farming proved financially unviable, so he turned some of his land over to the EU's set- aside scheme, by which it is taken out of production in return for subsidies. During the next three years he planted several 12,000 hedges and three new areas of broadleaved woodland.

Soon kestrels, barn owls, butterflies and wild flowers returned to the land, convincing Mr Acton that it would be criminal to revert to modern farming techniques. Instead he has decided to make his 100 acres of set-aside land into a nature reserve, incorporating three burial plots linked by green lanes, similar to those once used to drive cattle to market.

For each burial, a tree will be planted with a plaque dedicated to that person's memory. Those who wish to be cremated can have their ashes buried, but Mr Acton is against cremation, with its heavy use of fuel and resulting fumes. Green graveyards, he feels, give back to the natural environment in the long-term. But his first hurdle is to get permission from the district council.

Whatever the council decides, burials in places other than cemeteries are here to stay, according to John Bradfield, author of Green Burial: the DIY Guide to Law and Practice, published today. He says people who want a DIY burial should not be deterred by the lack of clear law and policy guidelines: 'Don't be put off by sceptical or discouraging officials.'

In the course of his research, Mr Bradfield has uncovered a great deal of misinformation on the subject. For example, it is not true that for garden burials you require permission from your local planning authority. 'That's rubbish,' he says. 'The minimum anyone needs for a garden burial is a certificate from the registrar of births and deaths or an order from the coroner.' Nor is it necessary to have a religious service, use an undertaker, be buried in consecrated land or a formal cemetery, or use a coffin.

'We need to know,' says Mr Bradfield, 'that the law does not stand in our way.' Indeed, some councils are already taking the initiative: Brighton, Carlisle and Harrogate are offering burials in parts of cemeteries which are to be developed as woodland.

As well as a conservationist, Mr Bradfield is a bereavement counsellor; he sees the subjects as inseparable. 'Research shows that contact with wildlife can promote physical and emotional well-being,' he says, 'yet even conservationists have still to wake up to the implications of this.'

To coincide with the publication of Green Burial, comes the launch of the AB (named after the anonymous benefactor who inspired the fund) Wildlife Trust Fund. As well as funding and promoting the protection of wildlife in general, it will provide a free bereavement support service to those who want to dig a grave for a friend or relative in an area that will benefit wildlife - even in their own back garden.

'There will be no gravestones and land management will be governed by sound ecological principles,' says Mr Bradfield. 'People will be encouraged to use shrouds instead of coffins. Stretchers could be made from coppice poles cut from woodland, which would allow friends and relatives to do something physical and creative together.' The idea is that more personalised ceremonies help people to work through grief in a practical way.

Mr Bradfield dislikes the way many cemeteries are on busy roads, making it hard for visitors to focus attention, memories and emotions. He also dislikes the tidiness of modern cemeteries where people are buried in straight rows and where the message for visitors is 'Don't touch' and 'Don't talk'. He feels people should be able to bury their dead in a setting they can keep as tidy or as untidy as they please.

One couple who feature in Green Burial are Arnold Warneken and Alex Marsh, organic growers in Yorkshire who have set aside a piece of their land as a burial site. It was the death of Mr Warneken's father that turned him against civic cemeteries. 'Six months after he was buried, the grave was overshadowed by a new supermarket with neon lights. It made me change my approach to burial. I've planned exactly how I want my funeral conducted and want my family to be involved.

'I'm not challenging the ethics of undertaking, I'm just saying undertakers are complete strangers. In the old days we didn't allow people just to come into our life at such a vulnerable time and take matters out of our hands.

'People seem to be reluctant to talk about this subject . . . the physical side - the body, the grave, the container - seems too morbid to them. But my view is that if you put a lid on all of that, you won't be able to handle death.'

But others are more cautious of green burials. One woman quoted in Green Burial warns people to consider carefully before taking such a course of action. 'I think it depends on how you look upon death. If you look on it as final you must remember that having the grave in the garden is a constant reminder that the person has gone. If, like me, you would like to think that person is still with you, then it is wonderful having them there because you never have to say that final goodbye.'

Meanwhile, John Acton is thinking big: his plans go beyond just planting trees. His farm is next to a railway station and he hopes that one day it will be possible for bodies to be transported by train and then driven to the burial site by horse and wagon.

He sees his project as both an asset to wildlife and a boost to the local economy, since families, burial parties and plot purchasers will come to the area. Eventually he hopes to have customers from all over the country, as well as expatriates who want a final resting place in England. 'This is just the beginning,' he says.

'Green Burial: the DIY Guide to Law and Practice' is available from the Natural Death Centre, 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA (081-208 2853), pounds 9.85 incl p&p.

(Photograph omitted)

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