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Urban natural burials

By Ann Sharrock and Ian Fisher
Natural burials are increasingly popular, but are usually in hard-to-reach edge of town environments. Could our cities offer the answer?

The debate over land use and availability and new space for burial sites is becoming critical in England due to the increasing proportion of the population who are in the latter quarter of their lives. ‘Almost half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years,’ a BBC survey suggests. And a quarter of 358 local authorities responding to the BBC said they would have no more room for burials within a decade.1

This situation is compounded by restrictions on reusing existing graves and the taboo on discussing alternative approaches. In 2011 there were 556,229 deaths in the United Kingdom, and while the majority of those were cremated (74.4%), many cremations are increasingly followed by a formal burial.2 There will always be a significant minority of people who wish to be buried, perhaps for religious reasons. This choice should be respected without pressure being applied to select cremation, which has already occurred in the South of England3.

Cemeteries, large tracts of land originally located on the urban fringes, came into common use from the 1820s, and are mostly owned by local authorities. Many have the quality of a vast manicured garden, an idealised version of nature and, although they are designed with glades for privacy, they offer an anonymous, unemotional experience. In addition their location makes them an unlikely resource for those who need their spirit refreshed
or some quiet contemplation.

Natural burial is a process whereby bodies or ash from cremation are interned in the ground to allow the remains to recycle naturally. In England, the first natural burial site opened in 1993 in Carlisle. There are now 270 registered sites, managed by either local authorities or private companies. Natural burial sites are generally on the periphery of urban areas, as the expectations of ‘green meadows’ or ‘sylvan woodland’ are an inherent part of the decision to bury green. However, to a degree this makes them socially exclusive as they are often in areas not easily accessible to inner city dwellers.

In his 1997 report The Cemetery in the City, Ken Worpole argues that the burial ground is a vital cultural landscape because it is one ‘where the cycles of nature and time are so clearly evident – in the weathering of the headstones, in the fading of the letters carved in sandstone, in the lichen growths ...’4 While the cycle of life and continuity represented by the lichen-covered headstones in Victorian graveyards is not a feature of natural burial, this metaphor is apparent in the regenerative quality of nature in the dynamic woodland with its whips, lofty oaks and seasonality.

The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee Report on Cemeteries said in 2001 that ‘ways have to be found to ensure that local, accessible burial space is provided. Local authorities should address this need in their Development Plans.’

Our proposal is based on a reprogramming of the relationship between the non-secular activity of burial and the re-territorialisation of space subsequent to this act to provide what would become a secular surface. The natural burial site would become part of the urban infrastructure, supporting essential services within the city and performing culturally, socially and ecologically.

Green infrastructure
Cemeteries and graveyards are considered part of the green infrastructure, which includes ‘established green spaces and new sites and should thread through and surround the built environment and connect the urban area to its wider rural hinterland. Consequently it needs to be delivered at all spatial scales from sub-regional to local neighbourhood levels, accommodating both accessible natural green spaces within local communities and often much larger sites in the urban fringe and wider countryside.’6

As the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) advocated in 2007, we should be designing for the living, not just the dead , and it advised that local authorities should include burial grounds in their green space strategies so that finance could be allocated for horticulturalists and maintenance workers, proper landscape, visitor facilities and specially designated walks to encourage exploration and exercise.

The value of existing cemeteries and graveyards should undoubtedly be realised. And in addition, we propose that land-use plans direct future cemeteries away from the community fringe and encourage the incorporation of burial facilities in appropriate temporal un-programmed spaces, awaiting development. In other words, we should reframe death spaces as places that provide services to the living.

These would be reintroduced at a local scale, mirroring, albeit with much more stringent control, the situation at the start of the 19th century. We propose that these sites would be, although not exclusively, finished with trees as the key green infrastructural and remembrance element.

Climate change and urban microclimate extremes
Trees fulfil a number of key requirements in this process. They are the most efficient in absorbing PM10s, gaseous and other particulate pollution, as well as increasing humidity, providing shelter, reducing peak run-off flows, enhancing the potential for other biocentric systems and providing psychological benefits.

They can also provide a commercial return through purchase of the tree by a bereaved family. In addition in some locations there may be gains from the timber via coppicing or clear felling. There are also indirect economic gains such as increased land, property and rental values associated with urban trees.

Trees also define the site as a place of passive recreation. The stigma of death and its associated bereavement gives a special context to these spaces. The fact that there are no formal reminders of the paraphernalia associated with death, addresses people’s natural hesitancy to enter cemeteries, but equally the knowledge that this is a place of remembrance would generally influence users in their response to the site.

Research by Doris Francis has shown that those who visit graves are far more numerous than we had ever expected, and therefore the role of the burial ground in enabling people to come to terms with their loss, or of celebrating the identity of someone who is dead, is an extremely important one.8

Strategically a network of green infrastructural spaces of a substantial density (the minimum size would be ¼ acre or 1011 m2) reflects current research. This shows that, to make any substantial impact on mitigating microclimate extremes, trees should be planted strategically in larger groups as proto urban forests, rather than spread as thin green threads.

In addition, cemeteries have been identified as areas with potentially high levels of biotic diversity, especially in urban areas, and according to Alexander Harker even small burial grounds contribute to biotic diversity. 9

Making death pay
Within urban areas there are a large number of temporal un-programmed spaces, awaiting development. These are principally privately owned, with only a small number under the jurisdiction of local government. At present local authorities do not have the resources to buy or rent land. This is a major barrier, since private land owners would need a commercial return on their land if they sold it, or a rent that reflected the current market value of the plot.

There are two potential solutions: either a change in the way that future tax revenues are apportioned or through private investment. A carbon tax is almost inevitable and the revenues this creates could be used to support the payment of rent by local authorities on private land at the market rate. A more intriguing solution is aimed at private investors, who, in effect, lease the designated green burial land, then sell it later at a profit. 

This scheme claims investors could make 60% in as little as two years. ‘The concept is very simple. We allow investors to forward-purchase individual plots at a discounted rate. They are then managed by the cemetery and offered back to the public at their usual market value, providing you with the returns,’ says promoter Alex Ogden. He claims nearby local cemeteries are selling spaces for between £1,480 and £1,600, so buying at £875 today will give investors almost guaranteed returns. Are cemeteries the new safe investment? 10

It would be desirable to have detailed case studies about how to design burial grounds to better integrate them into existing communities. These designs would accommodate multiple uses both environmentally as conservation space and socially as a community resource.

They would bring burial facilities back into community life, connecting the living with the space through the connection with dead relatives and friends. These spaces would contribute to the green infrastructure strategy and, through respect, guarantee and conserve their longevity. While all is in flux around, they would provide the permanent unique identity of the area. This is a new kind of urban landscape supporting a wide range of social interactions and relationships and offering both residents and visitors a different urban experience.

Ann Sharrock is a landscape architect.
Ian Fisher is a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.

1   BBC survey 27th September 2013 – accessed October 2013
3   House of Commons, Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Eighth Report on Cemeteries, April 2001
4   Worpole, Ken. (1997) The Cemetery in the City (Stroud, Comedia)
5   House of Commons, Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Eighth Report on Cemeteries, April 2001
8   Francis, Doris. (2003) Cemeteries as cultural landscapes, Mortality, 8, pp. 222–227
9   Alexander Harker, Landscapes of the Dead, an argument for Conservation Burial, Berkeley  Planning Journal, Volume 25, 2012
11 British Geological Survey

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