What is natural burial?

Coffin on horse and cart at natural burial site, Poppy's funerals, London funeral director

Six minute read

This blog answers your questions about natural burial — from the environmental benefits to the practicalities of finding a natural burial site near you — including how Poppy's can help.

What is natural burial?

Natural burial means being buried in a natural environment, like a meadow or woodland, without anything to slow down decomposition.

What is a natural burial site?

A natural burial site is an area which “creates habitat for wildlife or preserves existing habitats which are rich in flora and fauna”. These habitats include woodland, species-rich meadows, orchards, and sustainably-managed farmland. This definition comes from Ken West, who started the natural burial movement in the UK in the 1990s.

A natural burial site looks very different from a traditional cemetery or graveyard. For a start, you won’t see gravestones, tended lawns or memorial items left on the graves. Each site has its own character and you might not even be able to tell that it’s a burial site at all.

Why do people choose natural burial?

There are many reasons. The idea of ‘going back to nature’ or leaving a legacy for future generations might appeal to you. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint and care for the environment during your life, this is a way of enabling your values to live on after death.

Natural burial is a sustainable choice that helps protect natural habitats, encourages biodiversity and benefits local communities because of the way in which the land used for natural burial is managed.

Natural burial sites can also be less expensive than many municipal burial grounds, making this a more affordable and accessible choice for many people.

Is natural burial better for the environment?

There are many environmental benefits of natural burial compared to cremation, which has a very high carbon footprint, or even traditional burial.

Natural burial sites require biodegradable coffins and don’t allow the use of embalming. This means that nothing harmful goes into the ground, and means that the body will return to nature more quickly. Sites are managed in a way which actively encourages local wildlife.

However, if the natural burial site is some distance from your home, carbon emissions from driving to the funeral or visiting the site, also need to be taken into account.

Choosing whether or not to have a natural burial is important, but not the only sustainable choice that you can make. There are many other ways to reduce your carbon footprint. This includes choices around transport to and from the burial, flowers and the coffin itself. Your funeral director should be able to offer advice on all of these options or you can check out our guidance on how to plan an eco-friendly funeral.

Other options for more sustainable burial are being tried in some places from reusing graves to natural organic reduction (human composting).

Norfolk Bluebell Wood

Are there any restrictions about what can be buried at a natural burial site?

Only biodegradable items can be buried.

A range of beautiful biodegradable coffins and shrouds are available now, all made from natural materials and suitable for natural burial. These include willow, wool, banana-leaf and cardboard coffins.

Can someone be buried in a natural burial site if they have been embalmed?

No, because the toxic chemicals used in embalming have a serious, negative environmental impact.

In the vast majority of cases, embalming is unnecessary. However, not all funeral directors give people the information they need to make an informed choice. At Poppy’s, we always look for alternatives to embalming.

Read more about why you don’t need to embalm.

Are there gravestones in a natural burial site?

For many people, it is important to have some kind of a marker that shows where a person is buried, so that you can return to visit, or simply visualise the spot where they have been laid. For others, they would prefer that the grave blends into the natural environment, rather than standing out in any way.

To protect the character and appearance of the landscape, natural burial grounds find creative ways to memorialise someone without using traditional headstones. These can include planting a tree, setting up a memorial bird or bat box on the site, or placing a simple flat stone marker with the person’s name and dates.

Whether or not the grave is marked, all natural burial grounds should keep records of the exact location of each grave.

Can I visit the grave of someone in a natural burial site?

Yes. Natural burial sites tend to be beautiful places to visit, which encourages families and friends to return for walks or picnics, even if the specific grave is not marked.

Can I leave flowers or items on the grave?

Most natural burial sites do not encourage this. The aim with natural burial is to respect and preserve the beauty of the surrounding environment as much as possible. Items left on graves can be hazardous to wildlife or require specific maintenance.

However, some natural burial sites will enable you to plant a tree or scatter seeds on the grave and will help you select varieties which are appropriate for the site.

Can I have a funeral ceremony at a natural burial site?

Yes. There is lots of flexibility about the kind of ceremony you can have. We often find that natural burial ceremonies are highly personal, creative and can be relaxed and informal.

Is natural burial getting more popular?

Since the first natural burial site was set up in Carlisle in 1993, the number has steadily grown. There are now over 270 natural burial sites in the UK.

When talking to clients, we find that people are increasingly aware of and interested in natural burial, but there are few statistics available. A recent survey found that around ten per cent of people say that they would like a natural burial.

Clayton Wood natural burial ground

I want a natural burial for myself, a friend or family member. What should I do?

As with any funeral plans, it’s helpful to talk these over with friends or family in advance so that they know your wishes, and to write down what you would like to happen. Some natural burial sites offer the option to pre-purchase a grave site before it is needed.

Doing your research is important. The Association of Natural Burial Grounds suggests going to visit any site that you are considering. That way you can ask questions, meet the people who manage the site and see if it feels right to you.

Your funeral director should be able to help and to answer any questions. At Poppy’s, we’re always happy to share information and our experience about natural burial sites we’ve used, biodegradable coffins and how to make more environmentally friendly funeral choices. Do get in touch.

Is there a natural burial site near me?

The Natural Death Centre maintains a list of natural burial sites in the UK, from Cornwall up to the Scottish Highlands. You can also call their helpline on 01962 712 690 for more advice.

Each site is different and has its own special character. Those sites which are members of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds have signed up to the Natural Death Centre’s Code of Conduct.

Discover five stunning natural burial grounds that we know and love.

It’s also possible to be buried very close to home in your own garden or on private land with the permission of the landowner. You can find out more about being buried in a garden here.

Do Poppy’s offer natural burial?

We will listen to what you want, give you the information you need and help you organise the funeral that’s right for you.

We love helping people plan natural burials and to make choices that express the values and passions of the person who has died, their family and friends.

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