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The Evolution of Cemeteries: The Rise of Natural Burial Grounds

The Evolution of Cemeteries: The Rise of Natural Burial Ground

Natural burial grounds are becoming more important as we move into a new era for funerals and adopt a different approach to death and celebrations of life. In this article we are going to take a look at the rise in popularity of natural burial grounds, what they are and whether they are a suitable alternative for you or your loved one. 


The history of traditional burial sites

The history of burial grounds in the UK is long and fascinating. Until the mid-19th century most people were buried in a churchyard. However, problems with overcrowding in London's urban cemeteries forced the government to take action. 

These overcrowded burial grounds were not only unsanitary and the source of much disease but also lacked the dignity that Victorian families wished to provide for their loved ones.

Local authorities commissioned the best architects to create large, park-like cemeteries outside the city, such as Highgate Cemetery and Kensal Green Cemetery in London, which opened in 1839 and 1832, respectively. These were the first of the so-called ‘magnificent seven’ cemeteries established on the outskirts of London, which later served as the inspiration for the establishment of similar cemeteries across the UK.


The history of traditional burial sites


The new cemeteries were impressive and ostentatious and often landscaped with chapels and winding paths similar to the grand parks that had been created in London. Wealthy Victorians were able to erect impressive mausoleums and marble tombstones to honour their loved ones and mark their place in society.

Today, these cemeteries are an important part of the UK's heritage as they represent the history of the local area. However, even if plots are available in urban cemeteries, they are no longer the preferred choice of baby boomers or environmentally conscious individuals who favour the simplicity and beauty of natural burial grounds.


Delyse Jackaman Manager of Old Park Meadow Natural Burial Ground

Delyse Jackaman - Manager of Old Park Meadow Natural Burial Ground, Chelmsford

'There are such a variety of natural burial grounds in the UK today enabling families to say goodbye their own way.  They are open to everyone, from anywhere, for all faiths, beliefs or none at all. Services, burials, ash interments and wakes are all possible with time, compassion and nature being at the forefront of everything we do.  Within the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, members have over a quarter of a million burial spaces available.  Bearing in mind natural burial is kinder to the environment, it would be a positive step if more people considered this choice.' 

The introduction of natural burial grounds

People have been naturally buried for centuries but the revival of the natural burial in mainstream consciousness was kickstarted in 1993, by Ken West, who was head of bereavement services in the city of Carlisle

His vision was simple yet inspiring. He wanted to convert a small area of rough grassland at the edge of a cemetery into a woodland burial ground. He wished to make oak trees and not gravestones the focal point of the natural burial ground. 

Local families were given the opportunity to plant a tree to mark the burial site of their loved one instead of a headstone. The trees had to be native trees and so oaks were chosen for the site, which was dedicated to conserving the wildlife and nature in the area as well as being a beautiful place for people to come to remember their loved one.

The idea took off and natural burial sites were born. It was the biggest change in UK burial culture since the first cremation took place in 1885. 


The rise of natural burial grounds

Since Ken West pioneered the first natural burial ground in Carlisle, there has been a transformation in funeral services. Natural burial grounds and hybrid burial grounds, which are sites run by local authorities that combine a traditional cemetery and an area dedicated to conserving nature, have been springing up across the UK.

The Natural Death Centre, a charity which aims to provide guidance, help and comfort to grieving families, has 270 registered green burial grounds across the UK.

The NDC keeps a register of its members' sites. It is not a complete list of all burial grounds, as there is no obligation for natural burial ground owners to register with them. 

Use this link to search their registry for natural burial sites near you.


Why are natural burial sites so popular?

There are many reasons for the rise in popularity and growth of natural burial grounds. Here are just a few:

  1. A shortage of space in traditional graveyards and crematoriums.
  2. The high cost of burial plots in certain locations, with some plots costing over £8,000
  3. The negative impact of toxic chemicals that traditional burials have on the environment.
  4. The UK is becoming more secular (England and Wales are now among the least religious countries in the world)
  5. More people are looking for non-religious options and different ways to remember their loved ones.
  6. People want to have an environmentally friendly funeral and may have the option to plant a memorial tree.

Natural burial grounds are plentiful, they have zero environmental impact and are suitable for both religious and non-religious funerals.


Sheridon Rosser - Natural Burial Ground Operator at Atlantic Rest Natural Burial


Sheridon Rosser - Manager at Atlantic Rest Natural Burial Ground, Cornwall

'I believe that the increase in popularity is a growing thing because the world around us is changing.  Climate Change is finally a ‘hot topic’ and not something that no one really believes in, or thinks if they ignore it - it might go away.  Our human race is wanting to do what they can for our planet, both in life and in death. 

As time goes on, people in my mind are increasing the popularity by word of mouth. 

Maybe a friend has a natural burial; you go along not knowing what to expect, with it being a new experience.  

I think that more often than not, attendees go away from a natural burial feeling that although the experience of loosing their friend and burying them was sad - it was actually a positive experience overall.  There was no rushing or limit because another funeral is waiting to start.  Natural burial can be quite a calming and uplifting experience; if you allow yourself to absorb the surroundings, while you are saying your final farewell.  

It’s not surprising that people leave questioning their own initial choices, and decide that they too would like to leave a positive memorial.'


Natural burial site fact sheet

To help you decide on whether a natural burial site is a good choice for a final resting place, here is a little more information:

What are the different types of natural burial grounds?

There are a number of different types of natural burial sites, with more being added every year. They can fit roughly into the following categories:

  1. Woodland burial grounds such as Arnos woods in Bristol.
  2. Burial sites with protected status such as the Woodland in Bedford
  3. Burial sites in land designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty such as Blackdown hills in the Clum Valley.
  4. Natural burial meadows like the burial meadow in Bath on the edge of the cotswolds
  5. A combination of woodland and meadow burial grounds, for example, Old Park Meadow in Essex.
  6. Burial grounds that are part of historic estates such as the Forbes Estate, Cothiemuir Hill, Aberdeenshire.

Burial sites on nature reserves such as Fevin Nature Reserve Burial Ground Somerset England


How much does a plot cost?

Prices vary depending on the provider, but on average, a single plot starts from £700. It is possible to pay for and reserve your plot in advance. 


Are there any restrictions?

Natural burial sites are run by an either an individual private owner or a hybrid authority. Both may have their own particular regulations to comply with, depending on where the site is, and what type of site it is. For example, if you are being buried in an area of outstanding natural beauty, it is likely there will be the following restrictions:

  • Only eco-friendly coffins made from material like willow are allowed.
  • Only biodegradable objects are permitted in the coffin.
  • No large headstones are allowed but wooden memorial plaques may be permitted.
  • Memorial trees can be planted if they are native trees to that area. So if you are choosing a plot in silver birch woodland you would not be allowed to plant a beech tree.

The Association of Natural Burial Grounds

Regardless of ownership we would always recommend that the Natural Burial Ground you choose is a member of 'The Association of Natural Burial Grounds' membership who provides the public with the assurance of best practice. Here is our founder Derrick Grant having a chat with Rosie Inman Cook the founder of 'The Association of Natural Burial Grounds' about their annual awards.

What type of coffin or urn can be used?

All coffins and urns have to be environmentally friendly so that they break down naturally and do not damage the soil. ThinkWillow offers a large selection of environmentally friendly wicker and cardboard coffins that are suitable for all natural burial sites



Where are they located?

There are sites all over the UK. Your local authority may run a hybrid site and you can always check the NDC registry.


The future of cemeteries

There is no doubt that green burial sites are here to stay. There is a strong need to adapt to changing societal views and address environmental concerns. As a result, innovations in sustainable burial practices and natural memorials will continue to be important and  relevant in society. 

There is a huge shift taking place and the potential for cemeteries to become sustainable community spaces where grieving relatives and friends can connect to and remember their loved ones in resting places of outstanding natural beauty in ways that are unique and personal to them. Picnics in a remembrance park might by the future.



More and more people are turning away from the traditional funeral options such as burial in a churchyard or ashes being buried in a garden of remembrance at a crematorium. Instead, they are looking for different ways to remember and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. This includes finding beautiful places in nature where their loved ones can be at peace. 

Natural burial grounds provide grieving families with a unique and personal way to connect with and remember their loved ones. 

They offer a greener alternative funeral option that is not only needed but desired. 

So whether you want to plant a tree for your loved one or to let them rest amongst the wildflowers in an area of outstanding natural beauty there is an option for everyone.

Share your thoughts with ThinkWillow. We would love to hear your thoughts on natural burial grounds. If you have an experience, you would like to share with ThinkWillow please get in touch. Email us at We will reply personally to you.

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