Research shows why more people are choosing woodland burials as Britain's newest burial site launches

Date: 31/08/2012

Environmental worries, giving something back to nature and reducing the burden on families are factors behind why people choose natural burials, according to a new study by Durham University.

The research 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.

More than 260 natural burial sites now operate across the country since the first one opened in Carlisle almost 20 years ago.

The Durham study was led by Professor Douglas Davies, Director of Durham University’s Centre for Death and Life Studies, with Dr Hannah Rumble, a Research Associate at Durham, based at the University of Bath. They 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;
  • The cost of traditional funerals.

The findings have been published as a book, Natural Burial: Traditional-Secular Spiritualities and Funeral Innovation, by Professor Davies and Dr Rumble. It will be formally launched at an event in Durham on Friday, September 7.

The event will also see the launch of Britain's newest woodland burial site on South Road, in Durham City. The Durham City Woodland Burial Project, managed by the Woodland Burial Trust Community Interest Company, is currently being developed but will be open for burials from September 7.

The Durham University research was partly based on interviews with people connected with the Barton Glebe burial site, near Cambridge, which is run by The Arbory Trust, the first Christian woodland burial charity. Barton Glebe is open to people of different beliefs and is sponsored by the Church of England.

The study, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council's joint Religion and Society Project, also explores the fact that natural burials appeal to people of both religious and non-religious backgrounds.

Professor Douglas Davies said: Woodland burial answered a need for people who don't necessarily want a traditional cemetery burial, nor even cremation.

While there is a decline in explicit religious belief in some people, many have very strong views about themselves and their families and what they want to contribute to their future.

People talk about becoming part of a lively tree, grass, or plant surrounded place which their families and grandchildren can visit and play, with a different atmosphere than at a cemetery.

The other image we have been exploring is the idea of people not wanting ‘to make a fuss’.

Unlike ordinary cemeteries where people visit to tend the grave, in the woodland context nature takes care of things and some folk like that idea.

The Durham City Woodland Burial Project is the first in the country to be managed by a non-profit community interest company, which is promising to invest any profits made back into maintenance or social projects. The project is a partnership with Durham County Council.

The site, attached to the city's crematorium, is a native woodland, managed for wildlife, with a gravelled path that will wind between six burial glades.

The money to build and run the site - roughly £100,000 over the next four years - comes from grants and loans as well as people buying plots either for themselves or family members.

Ian Rutland, founder of the Woodland Burial Community Interest Company, which runs the Durham City project, said: This is a natural alternative, open to everyone, whatever their belief or faith. A simple place of peace that is designed to be secluded, intimate and dignified.

This is the first to be run by a Community Interest Company, which is committed to investing profits from sale of plots whether into maintenance of the site or into social projects, for example we want to put aside some of the profits we make to subsidise poorer people who may want a non-traditional burial.

The formal launch of both the book and the woodland burial project will be held at The Rivergreen Centre, Aykley Heads, Durham City, on Friday, September 7, at 5.30pm.

Other speakers at the event will include Ken West, MBE, originator of woodland burial practices in the UK, and the Reverend Peter Owen-Jones, a keen advocate of natural burial and of the Barton Glebe site studied by the Durham University project.

To find out more about the Durham City Woodland Burial Project contact 07818 073 979,ian.rutland@woodlandburialtrust.org.uk, or www.woodlandburialtrust.org.uk/.

For more information about Durham University's Centre for Death and Life Studies visit www.durham.ac.uk/cdals/

CASE STUDY – Helen Rutland

My family can picnic around me in a beautiful, peaceful woodland

Britain's recycling culture helped prompt grandmother Helen Rutland to choose a natural burial because of what she sees as its green benefits.

Helen, 67, from Pity Me, Durham City, visited a number of natural burial sites before deciding that was how she wanted to be buried.

She said: In the last ten years we have been encouraged to think about the future of the planet, our children and grandchildren.

There was also the introduction of serious recycling and the news that we can use rubbish to create new useful items.

Since I was retired by this time I had more free time to pursue these ideas and found out for the first time about the role natural burials had to play since this was seemingly part of the recycling process.

Helen, a former primary school teacher, helps run the Durham City Woodland Burial Project with husband Ian.

She added: My choice is to be lowered onto a bed of rose petals, dressed in a jute shroud, inside a jute coffin, by my immediate family in a beautiful, peaceful woodland.

Then they can leave to celebrate my life elsewhere with photos, music and good memories while I provide nourishment to help sustain the environment.

My family can return to that special spot to plant wild flowers, picnic around me and throw crumbs to the birds. How wonderful that will be.

Notes to editors

  • For further information please contact:

    Leighton Kitson, Media Relations Officer at Durham University Media Relations Office on +44 (0)191 334 6074 or email leighton.kitson@durham.ac.uk

    Will Mapplebeck, Woodland Burial Community Interest Company, on 07932 568571

  • Source Information — Natural Burial: Traditional-Secular Spiritualities and Funeral Innovation by Professor Douglas Davies and Dr Hannah Rumble, published by Bloomsbury.
  • Durham University Centre for Death and Life Studies: www.durham.ac.uk/cdals.
  • Durham City Woodland Burial Project/Woodland Burial Community Interest Company: http://www.woodlandburialtrust.org.uk.
  • About Durham University - Durham University is a world top-100 university with a global reputation and performance in research and education. The most recent UK league tables place Durham in the top echelon of British universities academically. Durham is ranked in the top 3 UK universities in the influential Sunday Times University Guide 2012; is 26th in the world for the impact of its research (THE citations ratings) and 15th in the world for the employability of its students by blue-chip companies world wide. We are a residential Collegiate University: England's third oldest university and at our heart is a medieval UNESCO World Heritage Site, of which we are joint custodians with Durham Cathedral. Durham is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive UK universities. www.durham.ac.uk.
  • About the Arts and Humanities Research Council - The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.
  • About the Economic and Social Research Council - The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk.
Return to news list