A Contemporary Burial Innovation In Britain History Essay

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This paper focuses upon the recent emergence of woodland burial practice in Britain, in particular how and why people engage with this innovative burial provision. The paper begins with a description of woodland burial and its origins in England, before demonstrating, how in the absence of a headstone, the bereaved still find ways to memorialise at woodland burial sites. The paper concludes with a presentation of emerging reasons people choose to be buried in a woodland burial ground; reasons, I argue, that are predicated upon cultural imaginaries of qualities such as renewal, longevity and healing associated with nature, landscape and in particular, trees. Natural burial grounds are marketed as being a disposal mode and location that positively addresses environmental protection concerns; however, this paper argues that the cultural phenomenon of natural burial provision (as witnessed in Britain) is much more than simply a response to environmental concerns and a cultural product of 'green' agendas; natural burial is also (yet another) cultural manifestation of human beings relying upon their imagination in seeking to find hope and renewal in the ontological crisis posed by death. The "craving to find in nature a consolation for our mortality" is perhaps why the woodland glades and meadow fields utilised for natural burial are profoundly alluring as locations for our mortal remains: the cyclical renewal promised in spring is where natural form and human design join to lessen existential concerns in the living.

A new cultural practice in British burial

'Woodland' burial (also known as 'green', 'eco' or 'natural' burial) entails that the corpse must not be embalmed and should be interred within a 'biodegradable' coffin or shroud (or urns for ashes) placed with no headstone in 'natural' landscapes that range from mature woodland to wildflower meadows. Some natural burial grounds permit families to plant a tree upon a grave in memorial whilst others do not: the degree of permissiveness granted by site management for decorating graves varies enormously, however, usually plastic items are not allowed and some burial ground providers have strict rules regarding permitted species of flowers and trees that can be planted on or near the grave.

There are currently about 230 woodland burial sites across Britain: some privately owned (be it commercial enterprise or farmers diversifying under set-aside and countryside stewardship schemes); some are owned by local authorities where (usually) a wooded area is utilised in an existing municipal cemetery; a smaller number are run and managed by charities and trusts. A few large, high profile woodland burial sites are run by private investors and receive a great deal more media coverage than the (often) small sites run by farmers to subsidise and diversify their income.

'Woodland' burial (as we know it today) began in 1993, when Ken West, then in charge of Carlisle civic cemetery in Cumbria (England), initiated the concept as an innovative alternative to traditional cemetery burial formats. It has evolved over the last sixteen years to be promoted as a 'green', sometimes cheaper, alternative to traditional cemetery burial and cremation: with cremation currently being the most popular mode of bodily disposal in Great Britain. Ken West asserts that "burial cannot replace cremation in densely populated areas where grave space does not exist" nonetheless, "the challenge for cremationists is to face reality" and implement changes in cremation practice that will reduce cremation's role in environmental degradation. This process has already begun under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which states that all mercury emissions from crematoria must be halved by 2020. However a lot more could be implemented according to those who are concerned about the sustainability of human activities such as cremation and their impact upon the environment.

Cutting argues that: "Compared with earth burial, with its centuries-old traditions, cremation is open to a more creative, deinstitutionalised approach." However my research suggests that this is no longer solely true of cremation: I would argue that the approach Cutting designates to cremation practice is now being conferred back onto earth burial in the form of natural burial practice: in particular natural burial grounds that are privately owned. Nevertheless, burial in Britain now accounts for fewer than 30% of all funerals and currently, we cannot confidently say what proportion of this percentage constitutes the newly emergent practice of 'woodland' or 'natural' burial. Still, it would appear that just as we have witnessed a trend in marriage rites where couples choose to conduct a wedding in a secular location such as a hotel, beach or manor house, so too, the British public are slowly choosing to be buried outside of the churchyard or cemetery. The factors that have prompted this are largely unknown and remain academic guess work, though the tireless promotion of natural burial by the Natural Death Centre and the media coverage that this information centre-part- consumer watchdog attracts has certainly bolstered national awareness of natural burial provision and biodegradable coffins.

The Natural Death Centre was founded by three psychotherapists in 1991 as a charitable educational project to enable people to have more engaged roles in the process of death, dying and the funeral of a friend or family member. It aimed to empower and enable those who wanted to conduct a funeral independently of a funeral director to do so, as well as inform people of how they could seek an alternative to (the more usual scenario of) dying in hospital and having a funeral organised at a cemetery or crematorium through a funeral director.

It is almost twenty years since the Natural Death Centre was founded and it has become very much a consumer association, publishing updated editions of the Natural Death Handbook, as well as launching the Association of Natural Burial grounds (ANBG) in 1994. The ANBG was set up "in an attempt to ensure that every locality should have its own natural burial ground, where a tree is planted instead of having a headstone." In this short period, the UK movement has inspired a similar one in North America and a limited number of natural burial grounds have also opened in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, the provision and utilisation of natural or 'green' burial remains very much a British home-grown cultural phenomenon; and within Britain, provision varies greatly in form, number and utility rates from region to region.

The very recent availability of woodland burial in Britain is set within the historical context of a major behavioural change in British death rites within the last century: between the 1880s and 1960s there was a historic shift from burial to cremation, where cremation now constitutes just over 72% of all deaths in Great Britain. This shift in funerary behaviour nurtured the innovation of privatised rites associated with cremated remains from the 1970s. Not only could bereaved families sponsor or purchase a rose bush in the Garden of Remembrance at a crematorium, but people began taking the ashes of the deceased away from the crematorium to either scatter them privately elsewhere or keep them at home. The option to take ashes away and privately dispose of them has been facilitated by the "cultural and legislative environment of cremation" in Britain. Perhaps it is this recent cultural heritage of post-cremation practices in Britain that has partly encouraged people to consider alternative burial locations and therefore promote the acceptability of woodland burial in Britain; especially with regards to the pseudo-anonymity of burial without a headstone. Nevertheless, to what extent, and how, the newly observed trend for woodland burial impacts upon our ritual behaviour in burial and funerals, as well as associated liturgical and memorial practice we cannot substantively conclude yet. Much empirical evidence is greatly needed and it is this gap in our knowledge that my doctoral research attempts to address.

Introducing the research context

I am using a woodland burial ground managed by a Christian Trust based in Cambridgeshire, in the Diocese of Ely, as a case study for qualitative research. This Christian Trust exclusively concerns itself with offering the public a consecrated woodland burial site, which, though Christian, is open to all denominations and none. The Trust, known as the Arbory Trust opened their woodland burial site (called Barton Glebe) in 2001; the Bishop of Ely consecrated the site in 2002. There are only two other consecrated woodland burial sites in the country: one is a privately owned woodland burial site owned by a funeral director in Lancashire, and the other was consecrated by the Bishop of Bedford in 2007 at St Albans Woodland Burial Ground in Keysoe.

The Church of England and woodland burial practice

Burial-resurrection theology, especially in the Protestant context, favours the concept of resurrection over immortal soul since this "correlates more directly with belief in Jesus being resurrected and not some kind of immortal spiritual presence." However, the very act of planting a tree upon a woodland grave and the often expressed view by the bereaved that the spirit of the deceased will live on in nature embodying a form of ecological immortality, sits rather uncomfortably with the Protestant perspective of resurrection, since it could be argued that tree memorials are implicitly aligned with a notion of reincarnation. The expression often heard in discussions on woodland burial of "returning to nature" was a cause of concern for the Trustees of the Arbory Trust and was one of the reasons why the Trustees decided not to promote the planting of trees upon individual graves at their woodland burial site. At an open day held onsite in 2008 for clergy and funeral directors by the Arbory Trust, one Anglican minister was particularly concerned that some of her parishioners were becoming upset as friends had told them that their personal wishes for woodland burial were not Christian. There is clearly still a lingering sentiment that any religious institution should stay away from ritual practices that could be construed as "nature worship", as one informant phrased it.

Historically, Christian identities were conferred upon the community of faithful through the sacraments, starting with baptism. However, with less people identifying with the Christian church, a shift has occurred in the fulfillment of one's identity that is very much this-worldly. The retrospective fulfillment of identity by locating the deceased in woodland, and in some instances with a memorial tree planted above the grave plot, grants a sense of 'ecological immortality' that Davies speculates is the outcome of our "consumerist individualism" and British society's growing institutionalizing of ecological ethics to produce a "secular eschatology." Sheppy's work on death liturgy and ritual also emphasizes "profound personalization in death rites" alongside declining belief in the resurrection and eternal life, to the point where, Sheppy argues eternal life has become a rosebush in the garden of remembrance at a crematorium! Whilst the "physical process of disposal has become secularised" in Britain, perhaps the Church's initial steps to engage with woodland burial will, in the future, provide a mechanism to challenge this, and also prompt a Church of England position on woodland burial practice as a corrective to one public image that the Christian faith "has legitimized environmental destruction."

The Arbory Trust, whilst a Christian-based charity sees its aim and purpose as separate from issues of faith. Rather, the Arbory Trust aim to "create a living memorial by encouraging new woodlands…so we can leave something that will be enjoyed by our great grandchildren"; a choice they argue, which "is considerably more appealing than opting for the often very impersonal, crowded environment of more traditional cemeteries, with serried ranks of graves and headstones." The Arbory Trust attempt to implement their vision through the following burial practices, which they describe on their website:

Burials at Barton take place in glades surrounded by trees, the graves ultimately becoming part of that glade or meadow in time, with the surrounding trees creating a living memorial to those who lie there. This means that there are no headstones or statues, and nothing that will be left to fall into disrepair as time goes on. Trees are not planted with each grave, but it can be important for families to mark graves, so simple wooden markers, which may bear a simple inscription, may therefore be placed flush to the ground. Ultimately, these will biodegrade and disappear.

The management's reference to "living" memorials is significant here because although in England there is the familiar image of a headstone or a plaque for memorial, the trees and wildflowers associated with woodland burial are not the first living memorials constructed in England for the deceased: for instance rose bushes are available for sale at crematoria and many tree plantations have been established in memorial to the dead. Historically, living memorials are not a new phenomenon in British funerary and burial practice, nevertheless I would argue that both trees and the rose bush have strong appeal because they embody and reinforce culturally resonant symbolic notions such as longevity, British national identity and romanticism for nature and the English countryside. The rose bush and the oak tree have historically, and continue to be, explicit English cultural motifs bound up in "discourses of Englishness."

Jones and Cloke speak of "arbori-culture" to emphasise the social constructions of trees as well as their dynamic materiality. Human's have always had an intimate relationship with trees that extends to the physical, cultural and spiritual. Scholars have drawn attention to the agency of the non-human, especially trees, in creating a sense of place, and so transforming human relations as well as the relationships between the human and non-human world in any given environment. Trees are given the symbolic quality of displaying transgenerational continuity or longevity. The Arbory Trust unconsciously articulates this arboreal quality on their website when claiming that by choosing a woodland burial one is creating something for one's grandchildren to enjoy in the future. The life of trees and the lives of people are inextricably bound up because trees manifestly grow within the living memory of a person. Trees bridge the temporality of the fixed landscape and the transient, fleeting landscape by embodying "an intergenerational model of time." Perhaps this confers upon trees their powerful agency and salience in their role as memorials to the dead? Trees appear rooted and fixed in a fast paced global world with ever-changing natural and man-made landscapes, and where cycles or routines of time are broken down under modern living.

In theory, the commonly marketed notion of woodland burial as representing a natural return to the earth and cycles of nature seems attractive to a broad spectrum of the British public. In reality, engagement with woodland burial can be problematic for both the bereaved and the site's management as integrity to an ecological principle can impinge upon the needs of the bereaved in memorialising the life of the deceased.

Memorialisation in the context of woodland burial

The Arbory Trust does not permit headstones or the planting of trees upon individual graves. Rather the Trust encourages people to either adopt one of the trees in the surrounding glades or to plant wildflowers that are indigenous to the local area upon the grave. On their website the Arbory Trust claims that:

Whilst graves are not permanently marked, they are recorded by regular survey. The exact position of a grave becomes less important as time passes, and families are content simply to return to Barton to remember loved ones in the natural surroundings.

But in practice, this is often not the case. Woodland burial grounds are dynamic landscapes that change over time due to natural growth and decay. Very quickly woodland graves become invisible and wooden plaques usually rot within two years. Yet the urge to locate the deceased, to memorialise, remains strong for some of the bereaved in coming to terms with their grief. So despite the availability of tree adoption, many of the bereaved still place non-biodegradable items upon the grave, in full knowledge that this is an unacceptable practice made explicit in the burial site's regulations. In the absence of a headstone or visible memorial, simply becoming part of communal woodland is not enough for some bereaved visitors to the woodland burial ground and so they plant or place objects clandestinely at the grave. Examples of this behaviour from my own qualitative research has revealed that sometimes family members have returned to a grave and clandestinely buried a piece of the deceased's jewellery in a grave's topsoil, whilst others will hang personal items out of sight on a sponsored tree, or hide photos of the deceased behind stones or in long grass. However, the vast majority of bereaved visitors interviewed for this research were happy to comply with site regulations and demonstrated great creativity in their memorialisation practices.

The uniqueness and location of graves, whilst often invisible to a cursory visitor to a woodland burial site, remain perceptually strong in the hearts and minds of many bereaved visitors. For example, one widow takes great comfort from the fact that a toad lives upon her husband's grave: she interprets the toad's preference for her husband's grave as conferring great significance to where he is buried. Her expression that the toad's home bestows the grave with a special quality is another means by which bereaved individuals can seek confirmation in the appropriateness of the choices they have made in choosing this mode of burial. To perceive your husband's grave as "special" because a toad has chosen to make it their home, is to see the grave as unique, set apart and personal, despite the absence of a headstone and any recognizable memorialisation; and it confers great comfort to the grieving. I also heard of similar comfort being taken by bereaved visitors in their recollections of the presence of butterflies hovering above the grave and particular birdsong when they made visits to the woodland burial ground. Butterflies, birds and toads around the grave are all joyous celebrations of life and often the physical presence of butterflies, dragonflies and birds were interpreted by the bereaved to signify an intimacy with the deceased via the insect or bird symbolically representing the 'spirit' of the deceased.

Bereaved visitors were also able to bring the familiarity of home to the grave by transplanting wildflowers from the garden of the bereaved onto the grave. In this way, bereaved visitors are able to "extend the socio-spatial concept of 'home'" and it is a means by which visitors can engage with their grief and display their emotions without contravening the regulations on memorial activities set by the woodland burial site's management. Planting wildflowers is an opportunity for the bereaved person to gain a sense of control and make the site meaningful to them in behavioural displays that both express and channel their grief. This behavioural disposition towards planting (as a culturally sanctioned and acceptable mode of behaviour and display of emotion) is one that is informed by the dominant social/cultural context and aligned traditions from which natural burial has emerged and is practiced in Britain: namely tending to the grave in churchyards and cemeteries, and much more recently, tending to the rose bush, flowers or memorial plaque in a crematorium's garden of remembrance.

Motives for choosing woodland burial

For those I interviewed who had pre-registered a grave space or who had interred a family member or friend at the woodland burial site, their reasons for doing so were extremely varied. Nevertheless some common concerns were demonstrated in people's decision making and preference for woodland burial.

There was considerable concern amongst those I interviewed that churchyards and cemeteries have become neglected places and thus, unattractive places for the bereaved to visit. For those who prefer burial to cremation (as a choice one can make in England with regards to options in modes of disposal) woodland burial was a more attractive option as the premise of natural burial reduces obligations such as grave maintenance and cost upon surviving kin. For those that do not have children, they expressed that they were relieved woodland burial was available to them as it meant they would not have to worry about having a neglected grave, since the idea behind natural burial is that a grave is not gardened or manicured.

Some people found great comfort in the idea of nurturing the earth and "going back to nature." A small number wanted to be cremated and have their ashes interred at a woodland burial ground, because they thought it a prettier final resting place compared to a garden of remembrance, or what they perceived as a neglected municipal cemetery. Preferences for a natural burial setting, as opposed to formal, manicured, serried ranks, often encompassed an attitude that woodland burial grounds could provide a more cathartic experience for any surviving kin who may want to visit the grave. There appears to be an implicit cultural assumption that trees embody therapeutic value (found in a number of expressed motives for choosing woodland burial by those I interviewed). For example a number of bereaved visitors stated in interviews that they saw their grief, with its varying levels of pain and intensity, reflected in the seasonality of trees: from bud, to green shoots to autumn leaves falling to expose the winter skeleton of deciduous trees; a cyclical process repeated endlessly.

…Trees appear to have personal significance for most social groups in British society...Woods and trees are seen as affording particular settings for tranquility and bodily relaxation, where one can escape the perceived stresses of modern life. Trees remove the presence of modernity and provide a setting for intimate social relations, for therapy, for play, for fantasy, for revitalization.

Natural burial provision in Britain, as a newly emergent cultural phenomenon, is more than just accountable to an environmental agenda (as is often implied in the media and marketing of eco-coffins and natural burial grounds); the practice harnesses a cultural imaginary linking 'nature' (particularly its Romantic associations of healing and renewal) with a transcendence of mortality and grief.

My research demonstrates a shared attitude amongst those who provide, as well as those who utilise woodland burial provision, that it is an emotionally and morally positive choice in death: though the frame of reference for this attitude varies enormously. For some people choosing woodland burial is an attempt to practice 'green' values, for others it represents participating in nurturing and protecting nature, whilst for others it diminishes burdens of obligation (in grave maintenance and visiting) or cost (removing the purchase of a headstone) upon surviving kin. For others, woodland burial grounds are perceived to be prettier, more peaceful places for the bereaved to visit compared to more traditional burial locations because "the restorative character of living trees and plants" provides "a vehicle for transforming the turbulent emotions of loss into a more fixed hope in renewal and regeneration."

"Returning back to nature" offers hope and renewal for the bereaved, as well as some solace from our ontological insecurities as we (once again) attempt to sequester the harsh emotional realities of death by focusing upon all the life that woodland burial grounds sustain, evoke and promise.