Hearses, church services, oak coffins and marble gravestones are increasingly out of vogue in Britain, where do-it-yourself 'green' funerals in woodlands, meadows and back gardens are growing in popularity. SUE QUINN investigates the trend for cardboard coffins and wildflower memorials. IN A QUIET Gloucestershire woodland earlier this year, Nicholas Albery celebrated the life of his friend, Marcelle. She had died in the prime of her middle age after a terrible battle with breast cancer, and 50 close friends and members of her family, including her husband and three teenage sons, gathered in the serene setting to bury her without fuss or formality. The grave, a plot in a corner of the family property, had been dug by her eldest son over four arduous days. The simple pine coffin had been made by the three boys with the help of Albery, who had collected Marcelle's body from hospital in his van the day before. For seven hours, the group paid tribute to her life with music, poems and words from the heart. Her husband, a priest, conducted a simple ceremony, and a tree was planted which now stands as the only marker of her burial place. 'It was a way to begin to come to terms with the grief, and it wasn't handing her over to strangers,' Albery explains. 'I think woodland is lovely. The tree planted on the grave means the body is given back to nature. The whole thing was a celebration of her life.' To many in the West, where traditional burial often means Gothic ceremony, austere pageantry and frock-coated funeral attendants, Marcelle's final right of passage may seem unconventional and even inappropriate. But increasingly in Britain, the modern way of death is dispensing with tradition and embracing alternatives: intensely personal, informal, eco-friendly final goodbyes. Marble gravestones are being disregarded for trees or wildflowers; elaborate silk-lined coffins are making way for simple shrouds or biodegradable cardboard boxes. The popularity of woodland burial plots has surged, and in many cases, family-centred DIY funerals are replacing elaborate (and expensive) services provided by professional funeral directors. Each year, there are approximately 650,000 deaths in Britain, and while slightly more than 70 per cent of funerals are cremations, there is a never-ending demand for space in already crowded cemeteries. Cremation itself contributes to air pollution and caskets are made at a cost to trees. These factors, combined with the lifting of taboos about death, is leading the British public to alter its approach to funerals and burials, according to Stephen Evans of the Natural Death Centre, a London-based charity which provides information about alternative burials. When the centre was established in 1993, Britain had one 'green' burial site. Now there are almost 80 publicly and privately owned monument-free woodlands and meadows around the country where burials can take place, and the number is doubling each year. A clear demonstration of the trend towards green burials came in June, when, for the first time, the Church of England gave its blessing to create a 16-hectare woodland burial site on a yet-to-be-selected tract of land in Ely, Cambridge. Other diocese are considering similar projects. Evans is not surprised. The Natural Death Centre finds it difficult to keep track of the green burial sites available because the numbers are growing so fast. The centre was founded on the principle that people who cared for their dying loved ones at home might want to extend that care to arranging or even carrying out the burial themselves, rather than handing the body to strangers. At the time, says Evans, there was widespread public ignorance about the laws surrounding death and many people did not realise they could arrange almost any kind of funeral and burial they wanted. 'People think they can't pick their dead grandmother's body up from hospital and take the body home in their estate car, and bury her as they wish. But that's exactly what they can do in this country,' he says. 'There's so little law relating to death; you are pretty much able to do anything. You can bury your loved one in your back garden if you want.' The centre does not encourage this practice, however, although an estimated 100 people each year now do so. 'For people with 100 foot [30-metre] back gardens it's not really realistic, because there could be problems with neighbours or water tables or whatever. Plus, they will probably one day have to sell their property and this could affect its value significantly.' The centre has produced The New Natural Death Handbook, written by Albery, which provides information about the range of options available. For instance, about 20 people a year in Britain are buried at sea, usually because they have a professional or personal connection with the ocean. It is not an enormously popular option because of strict guidelines regulating its practice. Permission has to be granted by a local fisheries inspector and procedures must be carried out to ensure the body is not washed ashore. The real boom is in green burials. 'We have probably 200 inquiries a week and nobody thinks it's a bad idea,' Evans says. 'Obviously it's better to fill up the countryside with trees and wildflowers than stone memorials. People are attracted to the therapeutic side of being involved in the funeral of a loved one; it's far more personal and they feel they have had a real chance to say goodbye. We also find that a lot of people we speak to are horrified about the financial waste involved in a lot of funerals. It's not their main concern, but a factor. Spending ?1,000 or ?1,500 [HK$13,100-$19,650] on an oak coffin which is then cremated or buried - some people see that as a waste of money and something that the deceased would not have wanted.' Green burials tend to be from a fifth to a third cheaper than traditional funerals, depending on the location of the woodland plot, and cost ?300-?800 compared with ?1,300-?2,000 for a conventional service. For those who choose green burials, the shapes and forms in which they are conducted vary widely. Some families choose to do everything themselves, from collecting the body and storing it at home in a cardboard coffin, to choosing the plot and digging the grave. Others prefer a less hands-on approach, and sometimes call on the services of a traditional undertaker for duties like storing the body and delivering it to a burial site in a hearse. (Many undertakers, however, are not prepared to offer this service without the purchase of a casket and most are not prepared to provide a coffin without the purchase of other services.) Sometimes a priest or member of the clergy will be invited to consecrate the ground, but many burials involve simple statements, poems or songs. 'The idea is not to shut out old and traditional ways, we simply want to give people information so they have far more options than they thought they had, and then it's a question of choice,' says Evans. One sector of the industry sceptical about green burials is Britain's National Association of Funeral Directors, which disputes that they are on the increase. Association spokesman Dominic Maguire concedes that the number of green burial sites are rising, but insists that demand for them is static. 'There's no concrete evidence that these sorts of DIY environmentally friendly funerals are on the increase,' he says. 'We do know that people like to have that option, but when death occurs they resort to type and go to a trusted and respected funeral director that their family may have gone to for generations.' Maguire questions claims that green burials are always cheaper, arguing that in places where land is expensive, like London, they can be more expensive. And he maintains cost is rarely a significant factor for people facing the choice of how to bury a loved one. The circumstances of many deaths also mean that professional services are essential, he says: after a car accident, for example, a body may not be in a suitable condition for family or friends to deal with themselves. 'We have no axe to grind with people who might choose a DIY green burial, that's entirely up to them,' says Maguire. 'It's fine in an ideal situation where people die peacefully with their eyes and mouths closed, but we all know that that isn't always the case. A whole range of things happen which really require the services of professionals who are able to present that body to the family so the last memory they will take of them is of someone peacefully in repose. Anything other than that can lead to psychological damage.' Paula Rainey Croft, proprietor of Heaven on Earth, a Bristol-based 'designer death boutique' believes the association is swimming against the tide: during three busy years in business, she has never carried out what most people regard as a conventional funeral and burial. The window of Heaven on Earth is crowded with weird, wonderful and kitsch accoutrements of death, including 'coffin bookcases' (caskets fitted with removable bookshelves which stand upright until they are needed for another purpose), and large wooden boxes which serve the dual purpose of storage units and coffins. In fact, Rainey Croft, who has won two awards from the Natural Death Centre including Best Funeral Shop, started out as a furniture retailer whose products included multi-function coffins. 'Because we were selling these boxes and bookcases, we began to be asked to help families with their funeral arrangements, and the demand really grew from the public,' she says. 'We now arrange anything anybody wants. I have never done a normal burial with a headstone; the people who come to me think that's an absolute and utter waste of money and time.' Green burials were by far the most popular, she said. People might choose an eco-friendly coffin, in cardboard, wicker or wood, which can be individually designed with, for example, faux-fur additions, or painted sky-blue with clouds. Someone recently asked for a coffin to be decorated with a red arrow design. 'There's definitely a trend away from traditional funerals. There's been an explosion on death; the taboo seems to be lifting, slowly, but lifting,' Rainey Croft says. 'I think cost is one of the major things people are considering because people think they have been ripped off in the past, which they may have been. Concern for the environment comes second. And thirdly, people choose this type of burial because it allows them to be personally involved.' The funeral itself might involve attendants dressed in bright, happy colours and huge posters of the deceased may be put up at the site. 'I think most people are cottoning on to this idea that it doesn't have to be a morbid, black, obsequious thing. It's more of a celebration of a life,' she says. Barbara Butler, who runs Green Undertakings in Somerset, also scoffs at suggestions by the mainstream funeral industry that green and DIY burials are not surging in popularity. She claims to have helped 'hundreds' of customers. She came to the industry by accident several years ago after preparing funeral arrangements for her sick mother. She and her family were 'determined not to hand her over to strangers', and wanted an eco-friendly funeral, but were frustrated to find a dearth of information about how to go about it. 'My mother actually got better,' Butler says, 'but I was so infuriated about the lack of options available I sat down with what I had learned to provide information to other people in the same situation, and then I gradually got asked to provide help.' Now Green Undertakings provides information and practical assistance for those who want to arrange a DIY and/or green burial, and is committed to the use of eco-friendly materials, including biodegradable or recycled-cardboard coffins, wicker caskets, and natural-fibre shrouds. If someone insists on a wooden coffin, Barbara recommends those sourced from environmentally sustainable woodlands. The company will not embalm a body unless absolutely necessary, and will then use natural alternatives to formaldehyde, and will rarely agree to arrange cremations. 'Apart from environmental concerns,' Butler says, 'the other drive for us is that we are absolutely infuriated by undertakers who take over completely and the excessively high prices and heavy-handed sales techniques which are so common.' Some people choose a completely DIY burial where they handle all aspects themselves. Others take out the basic package, costing ?505, which includes a cardboard coffin, labour and transport in the company's estate car (station wagon). 'Other people want to do the DIY thing, but when the crunch comes they find that they feel uneasy about some aspects, and that's where we come in,' Butler says. 'Either way, we do find we are called to help a lot of people who don't want any of the traditional stuff; they don't want ministers, they don't want headstones or any of that. We tell them to do exactly what they want to do, dance or sing or whatever, and a lot of people are looking for us to tell them it's okay and to feel unbound by tradition.' Barbara can recommend numerous woodland burial sites all over Britain, but many locals choose nearby Old Cleave Priory, an idyllic stretch of young woodland that overlooks the hills and valleys of Wales. A plot there costs ?200; grave-digging and a tree will add a further ?175 to the bill. An offshoot of Green Undertakings, Martha's Funerals, offers all-women funeral teams to cater to the wishes, for instance, of widowers, who do not wish men to handle or see their wives' bodies. 'What we say to people is that the world is wide open, you can create whatever you want to create,' Butler says. 'Three to four years ago people really did begin to move away from traditional ways and they are beginning to see that you can have a lot of fun at funerals. Those old traditional wakes were such a good idea, it's a celebration of living. These kinds of burials are so moving. Sometimes they are happy occasions, but often it's a very honest kind of sadness.' Reverend Peter Owen Jones, who successfully pressed Church of England officials in his Cambridge diocese to approve plans for a 16-hectare woodland burial site, has been inundated with inquiries and support from all over the world since announcing the historic project earlier this month. He has strong views about the need for ecologically sound burials to protect the environment, and for funerals - which have changed little since Victorian times - to adapt to modern outlooks on dying with dignity. 'Christianity is often singled out as being in part responsible for the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in,' Owen Jones says. 'I'm not sure I entirely agree with that, but woodland burial is a way of helping those who are environmentally conscious and who still want a church burial.' He hopes the woodland burial site would encourage people to play an active part in the funeral process. 'The dignity of the undertaker will still apply, but in a sense the barriers between life and death are coming down,' Owen Jones says. 'We have been protected from the whole process of death by the rigidness of traditional funerals, but I think now people are much more prepared to be open about death and treat it as something they can and want to deal with. By getting closer to the process of death they can also get closer to dealing with their bereavement.' Owen Jones anticipates the woodland burial site will be ready for use in two years. As it is the first such site for the Church of England and perhaps for any church, every detail is being painstakingly researched, with the help of the Forestry Commission. Owen Jones is determined that the burial ground will be a working ecosystem filled with flora and fauna, not simply another cemetery on a plot of open countryside. Graves would be unmarked, or bear a small wooden plaque that would wear away with time. A memorial lodge at the entrance to the woodland would contain a roll of names of those buried there. A charitable trust would run the woodland on a non-profit basis. Owen Jones believes modern cemeteries leave much to be desired. 'If we are going to protect the environment do we really want to make coffins out of wood and pull down more trees? Nowadays most of the stone for the headstones is imported and they are mass-produced to order. Modern graveyards, especially in city centres, are laid out for the convenience of the lawnmower because of the premium of space. Do we want to leave people with row after row after row of Swedish granite in cemeteries that have as much aesthetic integrity as a supermarket car park? The Church of England's funeral service is essentially ecological at heart, talking about dust to dust, and humans being part of God's creation. Burials in woodland that are large enough to support a working eco-system just make so much more sense.' The New Natural Death Handbook can be obtained from the Natural Death Centre in London, tel: (001 44) 181 208-2853.