Thursday, April 18, 2024

A Return to Nature and the Cycle of Life: Green Burials in Perspective

Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bung-hole?............ Alexander died, Alexander was buried. Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel? – Hamlet Act V Scene 1

Shakespeare was a great existentialist writer who always had death as a shadow that framed his writing. Above is a quote from the famous Yorick scene where Hamlet holds in his hands the skull of a jester who entertained Hamlet as the King’s son when he was a child. The quote is again Shakespeare showing how death is the great leveller, where the mighty Alexander who conquered vast swathes of land could be converted into a bung for a beer barrel through death and burial. [Republican intimations maybe]. But if Alexander followed the Western world’s current tradition of embalming and burial practices then that beer bung would be a very toxic stopper and poison many a person who sipped some ale from it. 

Laurence Olivier in Hamlet (1948). Credit:


Embalming is a method used extensively in modern funeral rituals which consists of draining the body of blood and other fluids and replacing them with embalming fluid, which is usually made of a combination of formaldehyde, methanol, phenol, glutaraldehyde, ethanol, water and often dyes as well, to help make the skin seem rosier. Formaldehyde is a key ingredient and is a carcinogenic. It is estimated that at least 19 million litres of embalming fluid is used in the US each year and if formaldehyde leaks into the water table it could pose a health risk. But of course there are many other facets of modern funerals that leave a heavy toll on the environment.  Again looking at the US for comparison there are 20 million feet of wood (often chemically treated), 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel used annually to bury loved ones and create a memorial to them to soothe the grief and pain. This creates a vast number of necropolises comprised of stone, concrete, steel, metals, treated wood and inorganic chemicals which, within a few short generations, will not be visited by anybody related to those that are buried there.


Cremation has often in the past been considered a more ecological manner of funerary method.  This might be the case but it has its environmental cost as well. Firstly, it turns the proteins and fats of the human body into pollutants, while the mercury from fillings are also vapourised which is a serious consideration. Of course, if the body is embalmed and the coffin is chemically treated then all those pollutants are expelled into the air as well. Then there is the fact of the energy used to cremate the body and coffin, which all adds up to a fairly hefty ecological price to pay. There are only a relatively small amount of cremations carried out in Ireland, as there are only six crematoria, while in the UK cremation accounts for about 70% of funerals now.


Death in Human Culture

How did we get to a position where good land is cordoned off, polluted by our chemically treated bodies and left barren due to all the concrete and stone used as individual remembrances? Death is part of the human condition and because of our abilities to create complex meanings and communicate those meanings, death itself has had profound resonances in our lives much more than other animals. While some animals do of course mourn the passing of loved ones, the fact is that humans’ abstract thinking about death poses more complex challenges to ourselves and our relations with others in that it produces responses that are more nuanced and layered.  In our evolution it has been said that the first sign in our ancestral past of our move out of ‘nature’ into human ‘culture’ has been the rituals we have developed around the death of those we cared about. In Werner Herzog’s wonderful documentary ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ about the Chauvet Cave of southern France with its 30,000 year old cave drawings artwork, the artwork is depicted as a spiritual expression of our ancient ancestors. One of the anthropologists in the documentary memorably suggested that the caves indicated that we weren’t ‘homo sapiens’ (wise, sensible humans) but ‘homo spiritualis’ which I presume meant that we think through an ethereal framework where the lines between the corporeal, material and spiritual world are porous and connected. Certainly, those meanings can  be inferred in our own 5000 year old Newgrange site in Co. Meath where it is fabulously enacted every 21st December. Stonehenge has similar echoes.  Individual graves can historically be seen in this light as a mediation between the world of the living and the world beyond the living. One of the earliest groups of peoples to systematically bury their loved ones were the Natufians in the Mediterranean areas of the Near East and did so in cemeteries near the huts where they lived some 13 – 14,000 years ago. In 2005 a Natufian grave with an adult male and adolescent boy was discovered at Mount Carmel in Isreal with markings of flowers laid with them dated between 11 and 13,000 years ago. According to the archaeologist working on it, the lush flower burials were designed to make the dead ‘comfortable’, and was a sign of ‘concern about their well-being in the after-life’. This concern for the dead reached a lasting monumental apotheosis, you could argue, with the Pyramids and the entombment of the ancient Pharaohs over 4000 years ago.

Modern Funeral Practise

For Ireland and the Western world, the modern lineage of funeral practice begins to take shape with the hegemony of Christianity in the area after the fourth and fifth century AD.  Here the local church building was a fulcrum of civic life and death as the land around the church became a graveyard for those who, for the most part, believed and hoped they were joining Jesus and God in heaven. Individual markings were not elaborate, as church graveyards were communal areas for the Christian commonwealth. This begins to change in the 18th century in the wake of the Reformation and the birth of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. Church graveyards began to be seen as disease ridden spaces. They were often full, uneven, and after heavy rains bodies would be exposed.

Prof. Thomas Laqueur has argued that Protestantism did not believe in Purgatory and so one didn’t need a church nearby to remind people to pray for the dead. Hence, standalone cemeteries on the outskirts of urban spaces were created to receive ever increasing numbers of people as populations grew after the Industrial Revolution. It could also be tied up with the whole process of pushing earthy, unsightly things out of the urban civic centre like slaughterhouses and the development of sewers. One of the first church-less cemeteries – the famous Pere Lachaise in Paris  – was created by Napoleon in 1804.  It is visited by thousands every year as it contains the remains of such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison and many more. Suddenly, other cities began to imitate it as in Copenhagen and Glasgow. Dublin opened Glasnevin cemetary in 1832. The first grand cemetery in the U.S.A. was in created in 1831 at Mount Arburn, Cambridge Massachusetts. In Cork city, St. Joseph’s cemetery was established by Fr. Matthew sometime in the 1830s. Modern embalming was developed in the 18th century but only began to become more widely used in the U.S. after the Civil War (1861 – 65) as during that war it helped to preserve the bodies of fallen soldiers in their return journey back to their families. Funeral Directors there then began to advertise it to the general public as an enhanced service to allow greater time for viewing of the body and to arrange a better funeral service overall. So by the end of the 19th century and early 20th century the western world had developed cemeteries with individualised tombstone markings and grave ornamentation with bodies that were embalmed which allowed a more prolonged ritualised ceremony to develop around saying our goodbye to our loved ones. With ever greater affluence all these practices have been largely democratised.

While certainly these cemeteries are not areligious, religion has to share an ever increasing space with the secular gods of memory and history. The ones we love never die – they live with us in our memories. When we want to, they can be sitting beside us watching TV through our imagination. Tombstones and graves can be seen as a physical embodiment of the act of memory, conjuring up at will our tangled web of shared personalised history to flicker upon our thoughts with delight and sadness. They are reassuring slabs of granite or limestone that remind future generations that here lies a person who felt the rays of the sun and touched the hearts of some and now as you pass by they are remembered again. They are physically eternalised in their grave markings and display and defy death in some way.

The birth of Eco-Funerals

Modern funeral practices and physical markings are tailored to try to meet the deep psychological needs of the living, and even the dead before they die. But there is a growing movement away from how funeral practises manifest negatively on our landscape and local environments. It all started with a trained horticulturalist called Ken Best. He had obeyed a widespread order to ‘tidy’ up the cemetery he was working on in Shrewsbury in the early sixties with cheap herbicides and rotary mowers which devastated any wildlife and biodiversity built up in the area – a policy that in large part continues up to today. Ken decided to rewild an old part of the cemetery in Carlisle, which he was managing in the 1980s, with pignot, black knapweed and orchids. Over a short period of time the voles and owls he once saw in cemeteries began to appear again.

Not only that but people liked the wildness of that area of the cemetery and enquired about being buried there, which they couldn’t of course. This got him thinking and after doing a feasibility study he set up the first organized natural cemetery in the world in Carlisle in 1993. The graves were hand dug and to a four-foot depth for best aeration. The body cannot be embalmed and it has to have an eco-coffin. The grave is then planted with oak whippets with a mulch mat and native bluebells. Only one cut a year as opposed to the 30 normally practiced in a regular cemetery in Britain, which cuts down on maintenance costs enormously. Within twenty five years 300 more natural cemeteries would appear in the UK and their popularity would spread to Canada, the USA, Australia and even to Ireland.

‘Green’ Burials in Ireland

It was Colin MacAteer from Shannagh, at the northern coast of Co. Donegal, who saw an increasing need for a natural ‘green’ cemetery in Ireland. His own family have been involved in traditional funeral practice since the 1950s along with operating a hardware store in the area. It was actually the sad fatal prognosis for a worker in the hardware store who wanted a very simple coffin and funeral service, provoking difficulties to common funeral practice, that prompted Colin to think in a more environmentally minded way. His own experience of hearing people saying casually to him that they often liked the idea of being buried near their favourite tree or nature spot emboldened his need to provide an alternative eco-conscious funeral service. The examples in Britain and other countries spurred him to establish one in Killane, Co.Wexford – but only after great difficulty in getting permission from local County Councils who feared pollution of the local water tables in areas approached. His own connections to Wexford were key to getting the first and only ‘green cemetery’ in Ireland to open in 2010 at the Wexford/Carlow border.

Image: Grave at Woodbrook Natural Burial Ground. Credit:

Killane Green Cemetery follows other models in other parts of the world with stipulations that those buried have to have an eco coffin or just a death shroud and those buried from the same family are done so side by side and not on top of each other. There are no markings on the grave other than those rocks that are dug up in the process of creating the grave which may be inscribed as chosen by the family or person in question. Memorial trees are planted with the idea that with some careful, but not intrusive, management the area will over time become a natural coppiced wooded area with trees native to Ireland. Colin says that he has seen the graveyard provoke interest and the slots are filling up with people from all over the country – primarily from the south Leinster region, Wicklow and Dublin. Some people came and had a look and returned a few years later to see how it was progressing and were pleased enough to decide that this natural oasis would be perfect for them as their final resting place. The cemetery is open to religious and non-religious services. 

In response to demand Colin has also established an eco coffin making business in Donegal called ‘Green Coffins Ireland’. The coffins are made from willow (wicker), water hyacinth, pandanus, mulberry paper and even cardboard and eco urns are also available for those who want to cremate. I brought up the issue of embalming and Colin defended it saying that the whole ritual of saying goodbye to a loved one in Ireland is very strong and that if people choose they can have ecologically friendly embalming fluids. I asked about mortuary like cooling coffins for the wake period and he said that they were only available for babies and children. Another aspect of his service is providing memorial tree planting in a separate area altogether in Donegal to create a memorial wooded area without graves.

Wicker Eco-Coffin. Credit: Green Coffins Ireland

Colin argues that because of the low maintenance of the site on a yearly basis, local government councils should embrace eco cemeteries more readily which would cut down dramatically on yearly costs of upkeep and add greatly to the biodiversity of nature over the longer run. In a paper published by Riccardo Scalenghe and Ottorino-Luca Pantani from Palermo and Florence universities, they see eco cemeteries as an evolving answer to the ever growing threats to biodiversity and growing and expanding urban areas globally. They see them as offering not only a resting place for our dead but ‘green corridors’ in our ever expanding urban landscape that, after 30 years, could be incorporated into daily urban living through the promotion of other recreational activity without loss of biodiversity and an acknowledgement that it was once a burial ground used in the natural cycle of life.

Eco Burial site. Courtesy of

And this is a key aspect of the green burial movement  – that it is reflective of humans being part of the natural cycle of life. It actually reverses in some ways the role burial has played as a signal in our ancestral transition from ‘nature’ to ‘culture’ in so far as that in our ever expansive urban and technological world, nature itself has assumed more the monumental. Where once we as humans were surrounded and over-awed by nature and we built structures to protect from and overcome nature, now endangered nature, preserved through new harmonious ways like green burials, can help reconnect and integrate us back into the natural world more fully. The cycle of life is a recognition, through our scientific understanding of ourselves in the cosmos, that we are ultimately transitory while nature will continue regardless, and that it is only through being one small part in nature’s panoply that our harmonious reconnection with it in death acknowledges our humble part in its blind everlasting process of generation and regeneration.    

Further Reading:

The Green Graveyard Company

Green Coffins Ireland

Thinking about having a ‘Green’ Funeral? – New York Times

The case for natural burial – The Ecologist

Why humans care for the bodies of the dead – The Atlantic

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Saying it with flowers, 14,000 years ago – Science Magazine

Our first public parks: The forgotten history of cemetaries – The Atlantic

Development of modern embalming – Britannica


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