What is woodland burial? Interview Colney Wood, Norwich
This interview is conducted while walking around the burial park. Interview by Brett Almond.
What is the overall concept of Colney Wood woodland burial park?
The overall concept is simply to offer an alternative to people.
If you had told me six months ago I would be working in the funeral business I would have been surprised. But it absolutely grabs you. It is very interesting and lovely to be in a caring and compassionate environment and to be part of a conservation programme too. Colney Wood's management is committed to maintaining the Park as an area of natural beauty and we work closely with the District Council's Planning and Landscape Officers, with a view to ensuring the site remains healthy at all times.
We are coming up onto "Birch Grove" now, one of the most popular areas to be buried. Just down that hill is an area we have reserved for urn burials - because it is so steep. The urn can either go into the ground or the ashes can be scattered.
Can people choose where they would like to be buried?
Yes. People choose different areas of the woodland for different reasons. Some people are keen on conservation, birds and wildlife and just love the natural beauty of the area. After bereavement families may want to be able to visit this sort of area, rather than a cemetery or church graveyard. And we welcome people of any belief or no belief at all.
But the type of funeral is entirely up to the people concerned and that's the beauty of it. People have a choice, they can be buried overlooking water, or in a quiet area - some people may be loners in life and therefore would prefer to be placed somewhere more on their own.
How can people mark their grave?
A funeral director will nearly always mark a grave - that is quite common practice - normally with a very simple wooden cross. We normally leave it out there for about six weeks and then we'll take it away, after which it's up to the family whether they want to mark the grave. Everything we have in the wood must be biodegradable.
They can have small wooden memorial, which is English oak, and these can be etched with a message or just the dates, or however people choose.In fact the true concept of a natural woodland burial site would be notto mark the grave. But mostly people's perception is that graves need to be marked.
There are some graves that aren't marked. Ash scatterings aren't usually marked. There is a gentleman buried over here, he was buried in a cardboard coffin and his grave is marked, but only by the two logs on each side of it.
We often find people are inspired by the natural setting and like to plant on or near the grave. We do encourage though that plants remain in keeping with those in woodland.
What can they plant?
We give people an information folder advising them which plants are acceptable. We are able to supply trees, shrubs or wildflowers to families. We want to encourage families to plant appropriately and ask that they consult about what 's required. Sometimes odd plants appear, and of course we would never ask for them to be removed, but we are developing and managing a natural woodland, so we try to give as much help as possible to find something appropriate for people to mark a grave with that's in keeping with the philosophy.
We leave the flowers on a grave after the ceremony and after a couple of weeks we'll take the cards, cellophane and ribbons and keep them for the family if they want them. When visiting after a funeral we like people to leave flowers without cellophane and ribbons so everything is kept natural.
Do most people buy double plots then?
Yes, if someone dies and they have a partner they often buy a double plot so their spouse or partner can be buried with them. Either one or both is entirely comfortable with the concept of a woodland burial. There is a good cross section of ages of people coming here. We are standing near a grave now of an elderly lady. She had been very ill but knew this was where she wanted to come. We received a letter today from her daughter saying how they felt the funeral was everything their mother would have wanted. They are beautiful flowers aren't they?
How does all this affect you? Do you get sad?
It depends. Often you don't know the family too personally so you are able to maintain a certain distance. But there have been times where it has been quite emotional. My friends often ask how I can do a job such as this but it is so rewarding to help people make a decision that's going to affect them for the remainder of their lives. It is also a difficult time for the bereaved families or friends who are making the arrangements. Securing the resting place of your own choice on a pre-need basis can relieve families of the burden and cost of making arrangements later.
Is this completely multi-denominational?
Absolutely, we welcome anybody from any faith or belief or no belief at tall. That is the beauty of it. Some people who are buried here have had very simple requirements. The gentleman buried here requested a cardboard coffin near an oak tree and that was all he wished for. Sometimes the family organising the funeral feel the need for a clergyman to officiate. The woodland can provide for the emotional and spiritual needs of the bereaved and the deceased.
Does this scheme take careful management?
Our aim is to fulfil and exceed the expectations of the family, the funeral director and the deceased (if pre-chosen). This is woodland that we have to develop very carefully to make it perfect for the future. It needs management now because people will be visiting for years to come.
Do you have people from the more traditional funeral industry involved?
We're not anti-funeral, we want to work with funeral directors. In fact two of the directors on our board both run more orthodox funeral companies. We are going to have a piece of ground here as well for training purposes. There'll be a grave where they will be able to practice lowering coffins. It helps us to work together as a team with them.
What sort of people buy plots here?
It is not just the elderly and sick. We have a young couple that have bought a plot to be buried with their dogs. We can bury pets only, or pets with owners. "At-needs" tend to be elderly but there are circumstances of young people who are terminally ill choosing to come here. Often they can be very comfortable with the idea of being buried in the woodland. I think in this day and age where people are being warned to prepare so much more for their retirement age the funeral is now something they often consider. The more I've spoken about it to friends and families the more you realise people do think about death but don't actually say a lot.
How do you know where the graves are?
Every tree here is subtly numbered. Also sometimes you will see the wooden frames marking where a grave is to be. We do this because we find people are often more comfortable when they can see the exact space they are to be buried or choosing to bury someone in. They are not normally comfortable to simply say I want to be buried somewhere around here. It is better for them if it is marked out.But even if there are no markings left on a grave we always know where they are. We have very carefully detailed maps. One of our main principles here is to allow families to have as long as they want for a funeral. So we have a lovely relationship with a lot of the people who are left behind. One particular lady walks her dog in here almost every day. Her partner died last year, and she'll often come up to have a cup of coffee with us.
Are there any laws about being buried?
No, because if you go back historically the funeral was the last big ritual you could have to send people on their way. The body was laid out in the front room and had been prepared by the family. If somebody wanted to arrange a funeral entirely themselves then we wouldn't have a problem with that. However, we recommend people consult a funeral director. If somebody said they wanted to bring the coffin in the back of an estate and carry it themselves then that would be fine.
Thank you for agreeing to talk to us.
For further information please contact: Green Acres, Watton Road, Colney, Norwich, Norfolk NR4 7TY
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