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This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice, 2002
Quietly and without much fuss, the first signs have been appearing of a trend to question, and perhaps transform, the way that funerals are organised in Britain.
The traditional funeral service continues to be chosen by most families, and the ceremony and familiar rituals can bring comfort at a time of loss and grief. But sometimes this sort of funeral can seem inappropriate, even offensive, to the memory of the person who has died .
The move to rethink the old ways has come about partly now that Britain is a multiethnic society, where Christianity is one of a number of religious faiths practised, and where many people profess no faith. It is also the consequence of a growing concern for environmental issues: how, if you have tried to be as green as possible in the way you live your life, can you best organise your funeral rites in an environmentally friendly way?
There is increasing awareness too that undertakers, like other businesses, should be held accountable for the quality and value of the service they offer. The structure of undertaking has changed, with a growing number of formerly independent local undertakers now part of major UK and international chains. Whilst this does not necessarily mean that standards have changed, it does reinforce the need to ensure that consumer rights are protected. Undertaking is a business worth over £1bn a year.
The difficulty is that funerals usually have to be organised quickly, at a time when there is little inclination to research alternative options. But discussing funeral arrangements in advance with loved ones should be as sensible and normal a step as drawing up a will. Fortunately, if you do favour a less traditional ceremony, there are a number of organisations, publications and information resources which can help.
The idea of being buried in a woodland setting, with a tree rather than a memorial stone to commemorate your life, is an increasingly popular one. In 1996 there were seventeen woodland burial grounds in Britain; a year later the number had increased to 52, and there are now over 130, with many more being planned. About half are run by local authorities, with the others primarily privately owned and run as businesses by farmers or other individuals. One, Oakfield Wood in Essex, is managed by a local Wildlife Trust. Furthermore, many public cemeteries now have designated green areas, in other words areas which are given back to nature.
Practices vary between different woodland burial grounds, but in general all aim to provide as natural a landscape as possible. This means that headstones are not normally permitted, and there are no vases of flowers, statues or other objects typical of conventional cemeteries or burial grounds. In the words of one Cornish farm-based site, "The burial place will be managed for the benefit of wildlife. This entails grass mowing at specific times, promoting various wild flowers and grazing by sheep. It must be appreciated that the traditional neat and formal look of cemeteries does not apply to this burial ground."
The cost of a woodland burial varies, ranging from below £200 to above £1200, depending on the site chosen. The average cost, according to one survey in 2000, is £517. In many cases, a tree will be planted for each burial made.
It is possible with many woodland burial grounds to reserve a plot in advance, or to request a double plot, where two people can be buried side by side. Many sites also provide for space for cremated ashes to be buried.
Most woodland burial grounds are members of the Association of Nature Reserve Burial Grounds, an initiative established by the Natural Death Centre. This organisation, a non-profit charity originally launched by three psychotherapists in 1991 to help improve the quality of dying, lists woodland burial sites in its book the New Natural Death Handbook and in its electronic publication How to Organise a Woodland or Inexpensive Funeral (see resources box).
It is also possible to arrange a burial elsewhere, for example in your own garden. You do not normally need planning permission for this, but you should be sensible in selecting a dry site, away from rivers, wells and boreholes. There are, however, some disadvantages with this ultimate DIY approach. Firstly, your property value may be reduced: not everyone wants to buy a house with a burial site in the back garden. Unless you write in restrictive covenants, future purchasers of your land will have no requirement to give family members access to the grave site, and could indeed try to apply for an exhumation licence to remove the body. The site of the grave will not be officially recorded, and its accidental discovery in the future might involve a police investigation.
The growth of woodland burials has also focused attention on alternatives to the traditional types of coffin. Some people feel pressurised by undertakers into choosing an expensive wood veneer or solid wood coffin with traditional fittings, but it is not disrespectful to the dead to choose a simpler option.
A small number of undertakers are prepared to sell simple chipboard-based coffins to people who want to independently arrange funerals. One such company, a recent winner of the Natural Death Centres award for Best Funeral Director, is south London firm J E Gillman (020 8672 1557).
Another possibility is to choose a coffin constructed of cardboard. About seven designs are currently available in Britain (details of suppliers from the Natural Death Centre). These are assembled in a similar way to standard cardboard boxes, and can if desired be painted on or decorated. Cardboard coffins are an obvious possibility for people selecting woodland burials, but almost every crematorium now accepts them as well (this is a major change from the situation ten years ago). Also available from a Lancashire based rural business are coffins handmade of wicker, using basketry techniques (see resources).
It is also possible to be buried or cremated in a shroud, the traditional arrangement for, among others, Muslims. There are a number of options available, including hessian burial sacks. One local authority, Carlisle, which has been at the forefront of changes to cemetery and crematorium practice in recent years, offers its own woollen shroud. An advice sheet from its bereavement manager Ken West on how to make a shroud is reproduced in the Dead Good Funerals Book (see resources).
Environmental concerns are also leading to a decline in the practice of embalming bodies, a process which involves replacing blood with embalming fluid such as formaldehyde.
Even though most people in Britain do not actively practise a religious faith, the majority of funerals are still officiated by ministers of religion. There are, however, places to turn to for advice on secular burial or cremation ceremonies.
The British Humanist Association has long been in the forefront of promoting non-religious ceremonies and it publishes a useful booklet Funerals without God by Jane Wynne Willson. This includes advice on preparing a funeral ceremony (the BHA chooses not to use the word service), including a suggested order for the occasion, possible songs, poems and prose readings for inclusion, and appropriate opening and closing words. Some BHA members undertake to officiate at secular funerals (see resources).
The Dead Good Funerals Book, written by artists Sue Gill and John Fox (in their words, "two middle-aged people without any conventional religion who would like to improve funerals") includes a wealth of creative ideas for alternative approaches to funeral ceremonies. The book also includes a helpful checklist "A dozen ways to improve funeral arrangements at very short notice".
The Natural Death Centre is at 6 Blackstock Mews, Blackstock Road, London N4 2BT (0871 288 2098). The fourth edition of its publication The New Natural Death Handbook costs £15.50 including p&p. It can be ordered and paid for online, from www.naturaldeath.org.uk. [This information updated and amended October 2004]
Also available from this website is the Natural Death Centres electronic briefing document, How to Organise a Woodland or Inexpensive Funeral. This can be downloaded through a secure online credit card donation of £6.99. The Natural Death Centre also has a number of other publications available, some only available in electronic form.
The British Humanist Association is at 47 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8SP (020 7430 0908). The latest version of Funerals without God costs £5. Information about BHA officiants at funeral ceremonies is available at www.humanism.org.uk
The Dead Good Funerals Book by Sue Gill and John Fox is £9.50, available from bookshops or from the distributors Edge of Time Ltd, BCM Edge
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