In a report for Call to Earth, CNN explores how a local church in St Albans has taken advantage of a medieval law that protects consecrated land to allow people an eco-friendly death.
Woodland burials are a type of a “natural” or “green burial,” where a body is laid to rest in as natural a way as possible, without harming the environment. Coffins and the clothes of the deceased must be made from natural materials and bodies shouldn’t be embalmed. If ashes are being buried, they must be in a biodegradable urn.
“We just wanted to be able to provide an opportunity for people to choose to be buried in a way that was helpful to the planet as opposed to damaging.” says the Reverend Canon Charles Royden, one of the founders of the St Albans Woodland Burial Trust, the organization that founded the burial ground in Bedfordshire.
The land has been consecrated by the Church of England, and an ancient law gives consecrated ground protection forever unless an act of parliament decrees otherwise. “It sets the land aside for eternity, for the purpose of which is prescribed, in this case, woodland burial.” explains Royden.
What was once farmland is now filled with trees, with simple wooden memorials marking where buried bodies are returning to nature. The church is responsible for the upkeep of the site, and as it fills up, it aims to buy more farmland to expand the woodland.
CNN hears that the practice has extended across the country, with more than 300 natural burial sites in the United Kingdom.
“Britain has led the globe and the movement towards natural burials and they’ve become quite normalised now.” says Rosie Inman-Cook, the manager of the Natural Death Centre, a charity that gives advice on death and bereavement.
On a global level, there is a growing awareness of the environmental cost of burying the dead. In the United States alone, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, 1.6 million tons of concrete and 64,500 tons of steel are used in burials every year, according to the non-profit Green Burial Council. Cremations release a further 1.74 billion pounds of carbon dioxide — equivalent to 170,000 passenger cars driven for a year.
Royden says that when he set up The Woodland Burial Trust in 2006, he estimated they would have a burial a month. Now they have several a week, with numbers increasing by nearly 30% last year.
“Many people are now choosing woodland burial just because they want to be friendly to the planet.” Royden says. “It is actually a beautiful way to have your last resting place“.