Vol 2, No 1          

woodland burial sites

Planning for the
Last Phase of Life
with Retta Bowen

by Diane M. Cooper

The Natural Death Centre is a non-profit charitable project launched in Britain in 1991 with three psychotherapists as directors. It aims to support those dying at home and their caregivers and to help them arrange funerals. It has the more general aim of helping to improve ''the quality of dying.''

Diane: Share with me how the Natural Death Centre came to be.

Retta: Nicholas Albery was one of the founders. As a result of experiencing his father's death at home, he felt the death process could be more natural and could potentially be as ecstatic and adventurous as the birth process.

The premise for the foundation of the Centre and the Natural Death movement was to restore to the dying person and their family a greater degree of freedom and choice, both during the actual death and in the arrangements made after death. The Natural Death Centre aims to be in the vanguard of changes in the National Health Service and other resources to improve home care facilities which would allow those dying to remain at home if they so wished — to enable a more ''natural'' death, surrounded by one's loved ones in one's own surroundings, and the freedom to determine our own treatments. We seek to allow people to die in the way that they wished, and to be supported in whatever decision they made.

The Green or Natural Burial movement arose out of these values. I think it began very much as a subsiduary concern and took off as the public became increasingly disillusioned with standard funeral practices.

Diane: How does conventional burial compare with the Natural Death process?

Retta: Unless you specifically ask for a ''basic'' funeral, or a breakdown of the pricing, there's a tendancy for funeral directors to be less than totally transparent about their prices, and for hidden costs to be involved. I don't want to be negative about the profession — I think they do a great job — but I think it's worth bearing in mind that there's a certain inflexibility to the arrangements.

In a conventional funeral, a funeral director may take charge of the funeral, leaving the family to feel that they have surrendered their own desires. The body is normally removed from the place of death and stored at the funeral parlor, then embalmed and dressed by someone there. A priest unknown to the family might preside over the funeral. It always strikes me as curious that a priest or officiant talks about the deceased but has frequently never even met the person.

If you want a more natural funeral, you might choose to keep the body at home. You and your family might wash and dress the body rather than having strangers do this. You might not wish to have the body embalmed. And you don't have to have a funeral director involved. The service might be conducted between family and friends.

Diane: So a person can choose to have the funeral at home as in the old fashioned wake?

Retta: Yes. You might want to keep the body at home for a few days — conditions permitting — and have people come to the house for a celebration or ceremony. Afterwards, family members could transport the body to a woodland burial ground or plot of land[1] in a large car, rather than hiring a hearse. The family members might participate in digging the grave and then filling it in.

The Green Burial movement does not preclude the use of funeral directors at all. But some people really want to conduct the services themselves, as in carrying the coffin for instance. Also, instead of a huge spray of flowers being sent to the funeral parlor, mourners might wish to bring flowers they picked themselves. The idea is to bring everyone into the actual process.

Diane: What are the psychological aspects of participating in the death process in this way?

Retta: It's been proven that participation by the mourners eases the grieving process. Being engaged and involved really does help and the effect is quite noticeable.

From a personal experience I had recently, it really helped to be involved in making decisions, and I think in a practical way it helped to have things to do.

Diane: Natural Death Centre's founder, Nicholas Albery, whom you spoke of earlier, just passed unexpectedly, is that right?

Retta: Yes, in a car crash.

Diane: Was that the personal experience you were just referring to?

Retta: Yes, this was the most recent experience — probably my first experience, really, of a quintessential Green Burial. . .

Diane: So I imagine that having a first-hand experience gave you greater understanding of the process you had formerly just talked about?

Retta: Yes, you can find yourself on the telephone promulgating the Green Movement till the cows come home, but until you actually experience a Green Funeral... I don't think I had a proper understanding of the difference that can make.

As it happens, I also went to a crematorium service that weekend, and the disparity between them was enormous.

Nicholas's funeral was everything that a Green Funeral should be, and rightly so. I think he would have been proud of it.

Everyone was involved. His son and his friends dug the grave and they carried the coffin through the woodland. People played instruments and carried candles. It started to rain but then the sun came out — it was informal but very beautiful. And afterwards when the grave had been filled, people sang, played music, and danced — it was a really completing day and was definitely a healing experience for people.

Having a chance to say goodbye — that was the difference. It was a proper, full day in which there were many different stages orchestrated in an informal way but filled with a degree of structure. There were sufficient ways for people to get used to his death and say goodbye in their own way.

I think this is a marked difference from the normal funeral experience, where you've got just 20 minutes during the service. You see the person in the coffin and then it is done. That isn't enough time.

Diane: It occurs to me in a situation where there is a sudden, unexpected death, you don't get the same opportunity for closure as you would with someone who has had a long-term illness.

Retta: That's true. But, Nicholas was home with us for the day in the living room in his coffin. All of his friends came around and drank champagne, toasted, and talked about him — and that was part of it, too. There was acceptance that people needed to see him and to know that he was gone and wasn't coming back. I think all of that is intrinsic to the whole movement.

Diane: I think we need that completion process. Dying seems to have become more of a financial enterprise then a true Rite of Passage.

Retta: Yes. People used to die at home. Now at least 90 percent die in hospitals. Even the moment of death is so often alien to us. And I think this is immensely sad.

Diane: Why would a person choose against embalming?

Retta: Embalming isn't usually necessary, but most funeral directors will not give you the option. They embalm as a matter of course. The problem with embalming is that it is polluting to the environment. Formaldehyde is used, and when the body is either burned or buried it pollutes the land and the atmosphere.

Previously, cremation was regarded as the best alternative to burial. However, it is increasingly coming to light that it is pretty damaging and noxious.

Diane: I think modern-day cremation practices must have been a way to modernize the funeral pyre. In India, for instance, the ritual burning of the body after death is a part of their culture.

Retta: Yes, but our modern-day, technologized bodies are often not fit to be burnt! Some of us have artificial joints, and quite a number of mercury fillings in our teeth. We wear synthetic garments and rubber-soled shoes, and even the coffins themselves are often composed of synthetic substances. When they're burnt, all these emit carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere. A recent study found a high concentration of mercury in the air around crematoria. It's quite alarming. I don't think the average person considers the implications. I certainly didn't.

Many people seem surprised if you say that burial is a greener option than cremation. I think because we're a quick-fix society we believe that burning is a faster, more effective disposal. We forget that the process itself is important.

Diane: So to reiterate — in a Green Burial the body is not embalmed, a cardboard casket or plain pine box is selected, and then instead of being buried in a cemetery, a preserve, or some sort or family burial plot, is selected, correct?

Retta: Yes, or variations thereof. Mostly, people in the UK wanting a Green Burial will be buried in a woodland burial site, with a tree planted on top of the grave so that they are actually fertilizing new life. It's much rarer for people to be buried on their own land, largely because most of the population doesn't have much land to spare, and being buried in your back garden isn't generally approved of — at least not by the neighbors. Though it does happen.

Diane: It seems there is quite a lot of interest in Green Burials as a new form of earth conservation.

Retta: Yes, I think it is one of the fastest growing environmental movements. For instance, in 1993 there was only one Green Burial site in the whole of the UK, and now there are 130 or so. So it is growing rapidly.

Diane: Do you assist people with living wills?

Retta: Yes. We have forms that include advance funeral wishes, a death plan, a life value statement and living will plotting out your desire for the way you wish to die. We also have forms that help with the kind of intervention you desire and the kind of funeral you want to have. You have many choices.

Diane: Your charity published a book about this work, as well. . .

Retta: Yes. It covers everything — a comprehensive guide. The first half of it covers the Natural Death movement in terms of looking at fasting, near death experiences, and preparation for dying — the emotional aspects, including death anxiety. But also, from a very practical point of view, how to simplify your affairs so that people can easily know the arrangements you desire. It covers living wills, putting your affairs in order, and the practicalities. Dying can be extremely taxing for those that are left behind as people attempt to sort out one's affairs.

It is also about practical care at home and the attitudes of hospitals and doctors. It is a guide to help ease those people who want to die at home. How to look after them and how to care for people in extreme pain.

The second half is a guide to all the Woodland Burial grounds in the UK — so that bit is UK-specific. But the first half makes very good and informative reading for anyone. There are also personal accounts of ways that people have created their funerals to be more participatory and creative.

Diane: Can those be mailed anywhere in the world?

Retta: Yes.

Diane: Thank you Retta. You've been most helpful. Thank you for the good work you are doing.

For information on the Natural Death movement in the UK, contact the Institute for Social Inventions, phone +44 [0] 20-8208-2853, or the Natural Death Centre, fax +44 [0] 200-8452-6434, at 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA, UK. The Natural Death Centre's website is at naturaldeath.org.uk.


  1. Note: In the U.S., every state has its own authority and regulations and must be consulted to determine the legality of home or family-plot burial.

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