Britain Leads in Natural Burials, but . . .

A new study by Durham University suggests that ‘Britain is leading the way globally in ‘natural– or woodland burials where people are typically buried in a woodland setting, field or meadow in wicker, cardboard, or other ecologically appropriate coffins’.  The findings of the work are published in the book Natural Burial: Traditional-Secular Spiritualities and Funeral Innovation by Professor Douglas Davies, Director of the University’s Centre for Death and Life Studies and Dr Hannah Rumble, a Research Associate at Durham based at the University of Bath.  The book will be formally launched at an event in Durham on 7th September to coincide with the opening of Britain’s newest woodland burial site on South Road, Durham City.


The concept of environmentally-friendly, ‘green’ funerals is relatively new, and ‘woodland’ or ‘natural’ burials were unknown prior to 1993 when Carlisle City Council opened the first burial ground of this type in the UK in a woodland site on an unused part of the municipal cemetery.  Since then there has been a significant increase and there are now over 260 sites many of which are members of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds (ANBG) which was established by The Natural Death Centre in 1994.  The Durham research found a number of reasons why people choose natural burials including:

  • Environmental concerns about other forms of funeral such as cremation;
  • Reconnecting with nature and ‘returning to the earth’ in a peaceful woodland setting;
  • Reducing the burden on families to tend more traditional graves; and
  • The cost of traditional funerals.

Doe has observed that ‘the disposal of human remains is regulated by a complex tangle of state-made and church-made law’, [N Doe, The Legal Framework of the Church of England, (Clarendon Press, 1996, Oxford), Chapter 14].  Unlike Church of England churchyards and municipal cemeteries, ‘green burial’ is not subject to specific statutory legislation and Ministry of Justice Guidance notes that whereas:

‘most burial law is directed at particular types of burial grounds and various burial authorities who own the burial grounds’ . . . .

‘privately owned natural burial grounds are not covered by the Local Authorities Cemeteries Order 1977 (LACO) provisions and are largely unregulated’.

Nevertheless, ANBG Members are subject to its Code of Conduct, and to the general legislative provisions associated with: burial law; authority for burial; health and safety; contract and employment; planning regulations; and the environmental legislation, including that relating to wildlife.  Of the ~260 natural sites only those of the St Albans Burial Trust and Much Hoole Woodland Burial Ground include consecrated areas, and these will additionally fall within the faculty jurisdiction of the Church of England.

Although cremation has long been favoured over burial, the UK is facing a major shortage of burial space and a 2004 Home Office Report indicated that there was further capacity for only 20 to 25 more years.  Successive administrations have been aware of the problem which has been considered by a Select Committee in 2001, surveys in 2004 and 2007, and a consultation in 2004.  However, they have been anxious to maintain the control of municipal burial within local control, and an increasing number of local authorities are seeking assistance from the private sector within the financing and management of cemeteries and crematoria.

Whilst the trend towards green burials is to be welcomed, there remain serious legal, financial and operational issues to be addressed for the whole sector.

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