All you need to know about Woodland Burials

Woodland burial site
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To celebrate National Tree Week back in 2020, I interviewed several of my colleagues who also work with trees for wellbeing. The third person I spoke to in the series was Fiona Heath who runs The Solent Celebrant.

What’s that and what’s it got to do with trees? Read on!

Fiona recently retrained to be a professional Funeral Celebrant following three significant life events that all happened within months; she turned 60 – which she says is the new 50 for anyone out there wondering😁 – she lost her beloved father and was made redundant from a profession she had been in for nearly 30 years.

Fiona says, “Knowing you have more years behind you than you have in front kind of focuses the mind”. She knew she wanted a new challenge. Her previous role was that of a charity fundraising manager and she’d always taken great joy in helping people when they are at their most vulnerable – how could she keep doing that?

Writing her Father’s eulogy and arranging and speaking at his funeral sowed the seeds and she retrained with The Fellowship of Professional Celebrants shortly afterwards.

What is a Funeral Celebrant?

Someone who manages all aspects of the funeral service, so you don’t have to stress about it.

A celebrant will focus entirely on the wishes of the deceased and their family, with optional bible readings and prayers. A more traditional minister would always include a religious ceremony. There is no difference in cost; either service is part of the funeral director’s fees.

Unless you happen to know a celebrant, the Funeral Director will suggest someone for you. You’re often so overcome by grief and overwhelmed by decision-fatigue, you can find yourself agreeing to their suggestions without necessarily understanding your options.  

Fiona’s advice is not to panic, take the time to get your thoughts together and perhaps take in some Forest Bathing to free the mind and soothe the soul (yay! Check out available sessions).

When she receives a call to request her services, the first thing she does is find out as much as she can about your loved one. She can suggest readings, poems, songs, hymns, prayers, she can write the eulogy and even conduct the entire service. Her involvement can be as large or as little as the family needs. Sometimes children or siblings want to read something personal about their loved one – these are very special moments, and she loves including them.

Types of funerals

Funerals can be hugely stressful for the bereaved at a time when they are emotionally fraught, and having to make decisions on burial, attendee lists, headstone, cremation, scattering of ashes etc can be overwhelming.

Photo by Jocelyne Yvonne on Unsplash

A much gentler option would be a woodland burial; no time constraints, no expensive coffins and peace of mind knowing environmental impact is minimal. If your loved one was eco-conscious you know they are resting in peace since in death, as in life, they did their bit to reduce their carbon footprint on this earth.

As the body breaks down it nourishes the trees and all creatures living within the ecosystem around it. This sounds good.

What is a Woodland Burial?  

It is a burial in a specific location which is licensed and regulated, and only natural materials that will not harm or detract from the natural environment are used.

  • Coffin/Caskets are made of willow or wicker or sometimes biodegradable cardboard
  • Shrouds are made from wool
  • There are no headstones or markers to show precisely where the grave is. Some sites offer a map, but a lot do not, suggesting you should consider the whole site as a memorial to their loved one.
  • Some sites encourage relatives to plant shrubs and trees, some do not
  • Graves are usually dug by hand so as not to disturb the area too much
  • The bodies are carried by bearers and no vehicles are allowed on site
  • The body cannot be embalmed (due to harmful chemicals)
  • No trinkets or memorabilia in the grave (foreign to the natural surroundings)
  • Pacemakers might need to be removed (but plastic hips or joints are ok!)
  • Most offer the chance to choose a grave/burial spot in advance, but South Downs Burial site does not (Fiona knows this because she tried to reserve her spot!)
Photo by Baciu Cristian Mihai on Unsplash

Why choose a woodland burial?

Years ago, Fiona had made her wish for a woodland burial known to her family.

She described her love for the woodland to me. “I love the majesty of trees; their trunks, solid and sturdy like a mature oak, or those that are bendy and slimline like a silver birch (I imagine they are conducting an orchestra). The sound made by the leaves being gently caressed by the wind, causing some to look like they are shivering or the turbulent noise of a storm crashing through.

The fabulous colours and shapes of the leaves, their fruits or cones. I absolutely love feeling the sun on my face, listening to birdsong or the scamper of tiny mammals on the forest floor. There’s honestly no place I’d rather end up!”

Having learnt more about it, it feels like it’s right for me, too. How lovely for your family to visit you knowing you are in amongst the beautiful woodland and benefiting the natural surroundings. Such a great idea if you and yours find woodland space soothing and restorative. And we are not alone in feeling this way.  

One family said to her, “Dad said to just put him in a black bin liner and bury him in the garden, that’s where he wants to be.”

Now, she wants to point out that while this might be legally and physically possible, not surprisingly it will affect the sale of your property as you would have to declare a body buried in your garden, and saying it is good for the flowers might not be enough to sell it!   

Environmental impact of funerals

I bet you didn’t you know that the average cremation emits the equivalent amount of CO2 as 2.5 tanks of petrol in an average size car?

A woodland burial requires zero energy to process or breakdown a body. So, if your family member was particularly keen on looking after the environment this is probably a good option for them.

Photo by Regine Tholen on Unsplash

Lack of space

Of the three cemeteries in the city of Portsmouth – Southsea’s last available plot was taken in 1956 and burial there is now only in established family plots, Kingston has 20 years left of space and Milton, just 10. What do we do when the cemeteries are full?

Costs

The average cost of a woodland burial is £2000, which is around a third cheaper than cremations or burials. There are no expensive headstone costs, and you don’t need to rent the burial plot (you never own it); you rent it at around £1000 for 50 years. When the lease comes up for renewal, if the family can be found, they are allowed to continue to rent otherwise the plot is left to ruin.

Ongoing maintenance

There is none for a woodland burial. How liberating. Some of you might know the effort involved in tending to a headstone. 

Where are woodland burials available?

There are over 260 woodland burial sites in the UK, and the Natural Death Centre charity provides a list on their website.

The nearest sites in Hampshire are The South Downs, near Petersfield and Ibworth Woodlands Burial Ground in Basingstoke. In West Sussex, you have Clayton Wood Burial Ground in Hassocks and in Dorset, the Higher Ground Meadow in Dorchester.

Find out more

Woodland burials are still relatively unknown here in the UK. Hopefully, this blog has been useful and informative.

Fiona says, “The most difficult and distressing for families is where they have no idea what their loved one wanted. Apart from taxes, death is the only thing guaranteed in life. Yes, hopefully, everyone will live a long and fulfilling life, but it would be so much easier for those left behind if we British weren’t so reluctant to talk about death”.

Fiona’s only stipulation for her woodland burial is that she wants a spot that gets a little of the sun! What do you reckon? I’m rather taken with the idea.

If you’d like to discuss woodland burials or indeed any burial, please do contact Fiona on 07711595210, via her website www.thesolentcelebrant.co.uk or email fiona@thesolentcelebrant.co.uk

Click to read the other blogs in the series, which feature Ros and her incredibly helpful Bach flower remedies and Annika‘s magical essential oils.

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