Essay: Natural Death

Illustration:  Kate MacNeil

Illustration: Kate MacNeil


 

Can contemporary society afford the cost of dying, and if it can, will there be enough space left for traditional burials?



 

The funeral market is currently estimated to be worth around £2 billion annually, and serious concerns are being raised around affordability as those on the lowest incomes can spend up to a third of their annual salary on a funeral. The conventional way of handling death is neither financially sustainable or environmentally friendly. As space for burials is scarce and costs for the average funeral have nearly doubled over the last ten years, conventional practices no longer effectively reflect or support the needs of a modern population.

Like many I attended no funerals as a youngster – my grandparents simply disappeared – the adults in my life believing, like most of their generation, that they were protecting me from the realities of death. Now, attitudes to funerals are changing and have significantly reformed over the last couple of decades.

Historically, ‘leave the land for the living’ was the lobbying slogan promoted by the 19th Century Cremation Society of Great Britain. For them, this was the solution to the growing problem of urban populations outstripping the availability of city land for graveyards. City graves had become reused so often that bodies did not have time to fully decompose causing huge upset and protest. The initial Victorian solution was the creation of huge out of town cemeteries sometimes with their own railway stations and funeral trains (one in Surrey, Brookwood remains the largest cemetery in Europe). As the understanding that the expectation of permanence under a conventional gravestone, and the concept of having exclusive use of a piece of land forever, was no longer feasible for a growing population, an alternative was sought. By the 1960s, the cremation mindset had caught on and cremation was viewed by many as the socially responsible choice - the done thing.

Today, there are approximately 600,000 funerals in the UK annually and as of last year, up to 80% of residents still choose cremation, viewing it as a more ‘sustainable’ and cheaper option. In truth, many crematoria fees cost over £1000 and the process is actually damaging to the environment. According to the Environment Agency, mercury from crematoria is believed to be the cause of 16% of UK airborne mercury emissions and the amount of energy it takes to cremate one body is on average the same amount of domestic energy a person uses over an entire month.

Those that still choose not to cremate, whether for faith-based reasons or for personal choice, are faced with crippling cemetery fees. In most London boroughs, a burial will cost in excess of £6000. The most expensive borough, last time I checked, was Haringey where the plot alone will set you back £8000. Add to that the cost of using a funeral director and you are looking at a bill of over £10,000.

Natural Burial

Fortunately, there is a widely available new option that has addressed the issues surrounding space, environmental sustainability and affordability: natural burial. This process returns the body to the earth, not inhibiting decomposition but rather promoting the body to recycle organically. Thus, fully completing the life cycle without interruption. Essentially, it is an interment that allows nature to do what it does - and has always done - best.

Illustration:  Betsy Wallin

Illustration: Betsy Wallin

Natural burial did not really catch on until the turn of the millennium, a time when I amused myself with the reactions of strangers in social situations to the question of what I did for a living: “Oh, I bury people in shallow graves in the woods!” Most people had not come across the concept at that stage. Now, thankfully, the table has turned and it is not often that I meet anyone who has not heard about it or indeed attended a burial at one of the hundreds of sites across the UK.

Often held in dedicated green spaces, such as protected woodland areas, burial sites do not permanently claim land as their own by exclusively earmarking them as places of memorialisation. Indeed most green sites do not allow headstones but plant trees as living, breathing memorials or simply let wildflower meadows grow and be cropped or grazed once a year. The body is kept in its natural condition and not re-inflated with litres of toxic chemical (aka embalming). It is dressed in clothing made from natural fibres and placed in a sustainably produced, biodegradable shroud or coffin.

By offering a chance for the dead to seamlessly blend in with the natural landscape, they help to create and retain green habitats far into the future. They offer sanctuary to wildlife and with proper planning, future use through agriculture or forestry can provide the landowner with a suitable, secondary and respectful income once the site is fully occupied. In itself, it is a reinvention of a simpler, purer, and less complicated way of laying the dead to rest.

Families who visit regularly get to know where their memorial tree or personal planting is located. For those who have not visited for a while and do not recognise the area – natural regeneration can very quickly transform the appearance of any piece of land - management will simply refer to the mapping system and pinpoint the grave site. As such, these nature reserve sites are calming and grounding places for the bereaved to visit, where they can find something positive from sadness and tragedy.

“If Only I’d Known”

In my travels talking to the gatekeepers of death - palliative care nurses, nursing home managers, medics and even NHS trust bereavement teams and coroner’s staff - I am continually shocked at their lack of knowledge surrounding facts and consumer rights. When a vulnerable and bereaved family look up to them and ask, “what do we do now?” the stock answer from these professionals is “you appoint a funeral director”. Once through their doors choice is usually withheld and families get the funeral the undertaker wants them to buy. Quick, formulaic, simple, profitable - cremation with its short time slots and quick turnover suit them well as they can fit more funerals into the day with the same fleet and crew.

What they should say is, “well, most people use a funeral director but”:

  • You can bury someone on your own property without anyone’s permission.

  • You can look after a dead body at home.

  • You can make all the funeral arrangements yourself e.g. book the crematorium/cemetery.

  • You can transport the dead in your own van or estate car.

  • You can buy a coffin online.

  • A funeral director is not a legal requirement.

People who are bereaved are generally poor consumers and can easily be pushed around by so-called ‘officials’ who know best. Where in the old days, the dead were cared for at home with the help of the local midwife who prepared the body, clergy who would support the family in making the arrangements and a local carpenter to assemble a coffin, handing over to a ‘professional’ at the cost of several thousand pounds has become the current norm. One that annoyingly many people believe to be a lawful requirement.

For many communities, there is a feeling that the current funeral industry deskills individuals of the knowledge and catharsis of dealing with death as part of their family’s inevitable lifecycle, and that it quite simply no longer works for them. There is nothing worse than hearing the bereaved say, “if only I had known” or “why didn’t anyone tell me that was available?”. The good news for these communities is that if they travel out of town they can get a burial at a natural reserve site for around £1000. If they do everything themselves the only additional cost would be the coffin for £200 and upwards. Also, most sites will support and guide families through the interment and pallbearing process if they are not using an undertaker.

For 19 years I have been talking families and individuals through the straightforward processes of these types of farewells and in that time, not one family has come back to me with regrets, not one. They delight in the way the day went: at their own pace, in a manner that was totally fitting and a real tribute to the person they have lost. It has a very positive effect on the bereaved, and from a wellbeing perspective, it is a healthy thing to undertake - daunting but logical, and surprisingly straightforward once you get started.

A Final Note

I feel so proud to have been a pioneer and part of this successful British movement, one that has spread around the globe. At the charity’s headquarters I receive delegations from China, Korea, Japan, the Americas and Antipodes, and I have witnessed and supported thousands of families over the years; families who have done things their own way with love, humour, a spirit of adventure and style.

When my amazing dad died, we buried him within four days. The sharp October sunshine streaming through the trees to the sounds of his favourite Mozart played live by a string quartet seated in the woodland nearby. A barrel of his favourite real ale was shared out and we toasted his triumphs and extraordinary achievements whilst his grandchildren lowered him into the ground and backfilled the grave. Just one of the hundreds of unique funerals I have witnessed over the years.

It was his flippant comment, years before, about being buried under an apple tree that started my journey into the funeral world – thanks Dad.

*Editor’s Note: This article was revised on May 31st 2019. It was originally featured in POSTSCRIPT No. 2, however the printed version misstated the amount of energy required to cremate one body. We apologise for the error.

 

ROSIE INMAN-COOK is the manager of the Natural Death Centre charity. She also manages the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, edits the online e-zine More To Death, oversees the charity’s own Burial Ground to the south of London and is a director/owner of another NBG in the Medway area.