The claim that I destroyed the environment is nothing to be proud of. It was 1961 and I was a horticultural trainee. Grounds maintenance was in the midst of a revolution; cheap herbicides and rotary mowers meant that we could dismiss the scythers at Shrewsbury Cemetery and tidy up the Victorian section.
It took a mere couple of years to destroy the wildflowers, together with the voles, butterflies and then the barn owl. This tidiness mantra was happening all over the UK and we have yet to recover from the impact.
My second mistake in those days was to become an advocate of cremation. I had abandoned horticulture and moved on to become a cremator operator. Cremation was hot, burial was dead and buried.
I moved on to cemetery & crematorium management in various parts of the UK, where I experimented with wildflower conservation. I got this to a fine art in Carlisle in the 1980’s with 20 acres of old graves, mostly covered in pignut, black knapweed and orchids; the voles and owls returned.
People noticed and some asked if they could be buried in the conservation areas. The answer was no, that the re-use of graves was not lawful. But the question remained, was it possible to integrate wildlife with burial?
My solution was a feasibility study in 1990 leading to the opening of the world’s first natural burial site in 1993. I was naive, slow to recognise the opposition this would attract from funeral directors and cremationists.
The scheme at Carlisle was to create a double grave, side by side, so that the body was a maximum 4’ deep. This is as shallow and aerobic as possible within the law. Oak whips were planted on the grave with a mulch mat and native bluebell bulbs. Maintenance was limited to one cut late in the season.
This dramatically reduces costs because a typical cemetery grave can be mown 30 times each year. The graves were promoted on the basis that the environment must take precedence over human needs.
Return to nature
This meant that the bereaved had to choose an eco coffin, refuse embalming and accept the untidiness of the vegetation over the summer. Such advocates often avoid hothouse flowers flown to the UK.
Many funeral directors refused to offer the option and some still continue to do so. The concept was originally perceived as secular even though the clergy were supportive.
The slogan ‘Return to Nature’ was used to foster an understanding of how our death can fit into the environment and a green lifestyle. The carbon in the body and coffin is locked up and will be absorbed by the tree or vegetation on the grave.
The carbon advantage is not restricted to one year because natural growth goes on sequestering carbon year on year for at least 75 years. The assumption is that graves under turf will be re-used again at that point.
Undisturbed wildflower turf is now understood to lock up carbon, and natural burials beneath a tree will do this for long periods. In my experience, many of the relatives of the deceased do not regularly return to a natural burial grave because they understand the need to reduce vehicle use.
'Gifting' the body
New natural burial sites sprang up all over the UK, offering not just woodland but a variety of habitats including wildflower, orchard and even mixed farming. There are many cases where deer, hedgehogs, hares, voles, owls and many other less conspicuous creatures have returned to natural burial sites, which were hitherto devoid of life.
Professor Douglas Davies of Durham University described this kind of habitat creation as ‘gifting’ the body to future generations. He compared it to giving blood or donating organs.
There are now over 300 natural burial sites in the UK and the concept has spread to the US, Australia and worldwide.
But the potential downsides of natural burial are not ignored. Firstly, there is a carbon cost in digging the grave. Some sites minimise this through hand digging, although a mini digger has a minimal carbon footprint.
Secondly, a decomposing body emits methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas. The fact that a natural burial is sealed in by undisturbed turf, often with tree roots, appears to mitigate this.
Natural burial highlights the problems that arise from gas cremation, which is really incineration. Cremation wastes the protein and fats in the body, converting them to pollutants. People assume that cremation abatement is comprehensive, which is untrue.
The EU demanded that mercury be removed but not the other emissions including dioxins and furans. The micro particulates are not captured. The abated sorbent, a hazardous waste, is stored forever in most countries.
In the UK it is said to be recycled but the firm doing this and their process is not transparent. Most cremators are used inefficiently, not being operated for long periods to reduce emissions. The abatement process also uses as much gas as the actual cremation. The sorbent recycling process must also have a significant fuel requirement.
The emissions from cremation are mostly released in urban locations and the stack plume directly impacts on people living downwind. Eco coffins are not typically used, with the traditional veneered particle board coffins still favoured.
More recently, coffins of dubious environmental standards are being imported from China. The fittings and lining of these coffins are made of plastic.
Bodies are typically embalmed with two gallons of carcinogenic fluid, which is also emitted from the stack. This happens with over 400,000 cremations each year in the UK alone.
Ken West MBE worked for 45 years in bereavement services. He created natural burial in 1993, wrote the Charter for the Bereaved, and after retirement in 2006 published 'A Guide to Natural Burial' followed by 'R.I.P. Off! or the British way of Death'. His third book My Pagan Ancestor Zuri - A Parallel Journey: Christchurch to Stonehenge will be published in July. His blog can be read here.