A good death: The green burial movement


Green burials tend to be cheaper, less polluting, and see families taking charge rather than strangers. David W. Smith finds out more.

The modern green burial movement can be traced back to the actions of one man back in 1993 at a cemetery in the north of England. Ken West, who was managing the municipal cemetery in Carlisle, decided to reserve a part of the cemetery for green burial, also known as natural burial. West’s ideas spread fast and there are now around 230 such grounds in the UK. The concept has also been embraced in 10 other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US.

“Green burials had been practised in history, but the modern movement can be linked directly to Ken West. He’s a much-loved and much-hated figure in the funeral industry depending on your perspective,” says Dr Hannah Rumble, an expert in natural burial and teaching fellow at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.

Sympathetic to ecological issues, West became disillusioned with putting pesticides and herbicides on cemeteries and trimming lawns. What is more, many people told him they wanted a burial, just not in his cemetery. He created an addition to the existing cemetery, planting trees instead of headstones, and leaving it deliberately less well- tended, hoping to attract wildlife. His ideas soon caught on.

Consumer advocacy group called the Natural Death Centre championed natural burial as an alternative to the traditional funeral industry.They highlighted the drawbacks of conventional methods, including the high costs. They cost on average £3,500: far more than most green burials.

The ecological arguments for natural burial are also powerful. A cremation uses 35 kilowatt hours of electricity and around 400kg of CO2 is released, along with mercury from fillings which can contaminate the food chain.


Cemeteries leave a large environmental footprint. “I see burial in a typical 10-acre American cemetery as a type of landfill,” says Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters, of the US funeral industry.

“In the US, we bury enough coffins to rebuild 40 homes a year and enough toxic formaldehyde in embalming fluids to fill a swimming pool. Every year we divert enough concrete for the production of burial vaults to build a two-lane highway halfway across the US and we divert enough metal to produce caskets to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge. The typical cemetery is less a bucolic resting ground and more of a landfill for non-biodegradable materials, many of which are toxic.”

As the movement spread in the UK in the 1990s, entrepreneurs, farmers and charities established green burial grounds in woodlands and meadows. The likes of banana leaf, jute wool and cardboard started to be used to manufacture biodegradable coffins. Natural burial grounds are generally wilder than traditional cemeteries and more radical practitioners outlaw non- biodegradable objects, such as wind chimes or plastic flowers.

“This has led the bereaved to be extremely creative to mark graves,” says Rumble. “I’ve seen fantastic arrangements of natural objects in circles, or the shape of a cross.”

Headstones are banned and plaques placed on the ground are designed to biodegrade. But precise resting places must be recorded and many natural burial grounds use technology to locate bodies.

A recent survey indicated that a quarter of Americans would consider a green burial. The first US natural burial site opened at Ramsey Creek, South Carolina, in 1998 and the movement has reportedly boomed since then.


“The growth in popularity is not just about the environment,” says Harris. “Green burials speak to old-fashioned US values such as thrift, respect for tradition and love of family. With traditional burials, you hand over all arrangements and the body to a stranger. With a green burial, the family is more involved in the planning.”

Traditionally, families tend to leave before the body is lowered into the ground, whereas at green burials, they take turns at closing the grave using a shovel.

“There’s something cathartic about the sound of dirt dropping on the coffin,” says Harris.“The closer engagement starts the grieving process and provides more of a sense of closure.”

Harris has planned his own green burial in a meadow cemetery in Pennsylvania. “There are no overt reminders of mortality. It’s all about life.You can see birds nesting in the meadow and native wild flowers. . Your physical body gets caught up in the ongoing cycle of life and death. By nourishing the soil, it pushes up a tree or a flower. It gains you a small measure of immortality and leaves behind a wonderful legacy for the next generation.”


Ken West may have started the green burial movement in the UK, but if he could, he would choose excarnation for himself. The process, now illegal, involves removing the flesh off the skeleton, leaving only the bones to be buried. It is similar to the Tibetan tradition of sky burials, where adherents of Vajrayana Buddhism chop up bodies and feed them to the vultures in Tibet, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia and Mongolia.

West says: “I would prefer excarnation, otherwise sky burial, but it’s not legal, even where I live in Dorset, where it was the norm for perhaps 8,000 years.”


Photo credit: Brian Smithson from Flickr