What is a natural burial and what are the alternatives?

During the last 20 years there has been a growing trend for all things green and eco-friendly as we are all bombarded with the message to ‘save the planet’ in everything we do. And death is no exception.

A natural burial is not Green in the truest sense of the term used in ecological marketing. It is best described as ‘green washed’ by paying attention to some of the strictures but ignoring or covering over others. Like a lot of things there is a wealth of information out there and some of it may be misleading. As it is something my mother and I want to do, I am looking into this and sharing the results of my research with any interested readers. We are not eco-warrior types, quite the contrary, so this post is not a discussion, or my opinion about, environmental concerns. We have now visited a natural burial ground so have a better feel for the type of place it can be and whether or not it is where we want to have our final resting place.

A natural burial really only goes so far. The coffin may be biodegradable and the burial ground be in pleasant countryside but that’s really about it in real ‘green’ terms. Most of the plots will be dug out by a mechanical digger rather than by one man and a spade. And the mourners will still have to drive their cars, with or without a funeral cortege, to the site. Most natural burial grounds are in rural locations rather than too close to the urban sprawl where few people want to see a new cemetery nearby. So further to travel in the first instance and more so if you want to visit your loved one’s last resting place on a regular basis. If you’re worried about CO2 causing damage, then this might not be for you.

If you want to be cremated first and your ashes scattered over a wildflower meadow or buried, then be aware that cremation is considered to be less than eco-friendly. About 70 per cent of the annual 600,000 people who die each year are cremated, that’s around 8,000 a week, leaving about 3,500 people who just want a burial. The concern is due to the gases and things like mercury from any dental fillings that are a by product of the process. Though modern furnaces are more efficient with filters in use so it is getting better. And if a fancy coffin with brass handles, a marble headstone, wind chimes, vases of flowers and plastic angels are your ideal send off, then stick to the traditional cemetery route.

There are some new innovations coming through to try and answer environmental concerns but while the machines may be available, the cost may be considerably more than standard cremation. The new choices are to dissolve or liquefy the body by using heated alkaline water, known as alkaline hydrolysis, the other is to freeze dry the body with liquid nitrogen, then vibrating it until it shatters into small pieces. I’m not aware that either of these are currently available in the UK but may become more widespread eventually. More details can be found here about these processes.


Space is running out in a lot of Council owned cemeteries which was the subject of an article on the BBC’s website. Suggestions made by the public in response to this ranged from better ways of using the space i.e. bury coffins vertically to (look away now if you’re squeamish) a Sky burial where the remains are used to feed raptors like vultures or feed to lions and tigers in our zoos. A copy of the article and suggestions made can be found here.


There is no legal restriction on your body being buried at home in the garden or on private land with the permission of the land owner. However there are environmental requirements such as it must be at least 30m away from a spring, stream or river and 50m from a borehole. This only applies to burying bodies rather than ashes. The Natural Death Centre has a wealth of information covering this subject including burials at home.


Finally, open funeral pyres which were the subject of a Court Case that went to the Appeal Court in London where permission was eventually granted to a Hindu man in February 2010.


Later I’ll take a look at coffins, unusual funeral corteges and the icky sticky part about decomposition.

5 comments for “What is a natural burial and what are the alternatives?

  1. dearieme
    September 13, 2012 at 15:48

    I’ll settle for a blazing Viking longboat sailing down the firth.

  2. September 13, 2012 at 16:01

    Funny you should say that – I was just talking to the author and said similar – that I saw my final resting place being a boat.

  3. September 13, 2012 at 17:15

    I always wanted to be cremated, and the ashes shot into the wind by a cannon.

  4. September 13, 2012 at 19:09

    Donating your remains to medical science, usually for dissection by medical students, has the great advantage that they take you away for free, zilch, no charge whatever, but… they are somewhat selective and will not take you if you are too messed up. That is, they prefer fairly slim cadavers that are reasonably, healthy even though they are, of course dead. An interesting challenge if ever there was one. Anyway, it offers a reason to try to keep in good shape.

  5. September 13, 2012 at 19:30

    Bob – explosive.

    Andrew – incentive.

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