The first-ever supermarket for coffins opened in Britain last month. With rising funeral costs, will this French idea take off? Suzanne Greaves reports on a new approach to funerals
WHEN PLAYWRIGHT ROBERT
Bolt died last February, his wish to be buried in a chipboard coffin in the garden of his Sussex manor house was carried out by his wife, the actress Sarah Miles. No headstone will mark his burial spot, just a sapling and bunches of flowers. Bolt's funeral service in the garden was a homely affair, with spiritual Buddhist overtones. His beloved old English mastiff dog and other pets were among the silent witnesses.
Eyebrows were raised at accounts of this private burial, but increasingly, do-it-yourself funerals are becoming the norm, Not everyone wants their beloved to be buried in the garden or has the space so in answer to this escape from anonymous burial in overcrowded cemeteries or a busy city crematorium. Nature Reserve Burial Grounds, or green burial sites, as they are more commonly known, are springing up everywhere.
In these "green" burial sites, a tree is planted for each grave. There are no headstones and the body is buried in a body bag or shroud rather like Trappist monks still do or in a simple wooden or cardboard coffin which means the eventual release of carbon is locked underground. Every year 437,000 wooden coffins are burnt adding to the greenhouse effect, say the Natural Death Centre, an educational charity launched in 1991 which is the driving force behind green burials in Britain.
Its director Nicholas Albery, editor of The Natural Death Handbook, is leaving his body to nature. He has specified that he wants to be buried in a piece of farmland that he and his wife were given as a present, with no coffin, just wrapped in a sheet with an apple tree planted on top of him. In fact he is following the Quaker tradition of the right to private burial, although many local authorities still find it hard to believe this is a person's due.
Only recently Wolverhampton council were ordered to pay £1,000 costs to a widow for wrongly telling her she could not give her husband a "green burial" in her back garden.
The local government ombudsman decreed that the council's refusal of her request on unspecified health grounds was unreasonable. Such a burial may seem chilling to the two thirds of people in Britain who arc so fearful of their death that they do not write a Will.
Perhaps because Catholics are prepared for death with the Last Sacrament they are more capable of conveying their wishes for a final resting place, but the majority of people do not, so relatives have the awful and costly dilemma of second guessing what their dear departed would have wished.
Some local authorities have got into the natural burial act themselves, namely Brighton, Harrogate, Burton-uponTrent, Stroud and Carlisle. Brighton Council offers a corrugated cardboard casket. Anyone who wants to be buried in its new 'natural cemetery' must pay a £90 fee: The coffins, which come in a handy flatpack for easy assembly are part of the council's back to nature policy. Traditionalists who want a wooden coffin will be allowed on the three acre site which has space for 3,000 bodies, but only as long as the timber used for their coffins has not contributed to destruction of the rainforests.
Carlisle Council's Bereavement Service offers a woodland option too and now farmers are designating land for private cemeteries. But not everyone is happy about this. Robert Goodwill, a prominent Yorkshire farmer, has been accused of creating a "village of the dead" after receiving planning permission this year to open a 1,700 plot private cemetery in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Howardian hills. He says there is such shortage of land for traditional burials that the problem could be solved by schemes such as his.
If you are looking for a sympathetic undertaker, then get in touch with the Natural Death Centre. They arc helpful and sell practical handbooks on how to arrange things in a dignified and correct way. The Association of Burial Authorities is looking to provide a consumer charter which will unify the funeral industry and provide people with a wider choice of burial options. A spokesman said: "The law says local authorities have a duty to dispose of the body but it doesn't say how. As a result most people hand total responsibility to the funeral directors."
Of course this is a route many will prefer to follow, finding especially the experience of a Catholic undertaker just what they need at a time of personal distress. Shopping for a coffin, finding a burial site and dealing with necessary administration would be too hard to shoulder.
But others like planning ahead. Barbara Huelin and her husband, for instance, have made their own coffins and have booked a double
decker site in their local Council cemetery for £100. For those who take an interest in such things there was disappointment that plans for the French death supermarket Roc Eclerc to open in London have temporarily been postponed while they another site of found. Here as in France they will sell coffins and urns in the same way you pop into the local do-it-yourself store.
With any type of burial there is the practical thought about grave upkeep, especially when family are scattered. At one _ woodland site in Warwickshire the grass is kept trimmed by those most natural of lawn-mowers sheep.