Greenacres Woodland Burial Park in Lancashire is an architectural milestone in the development of secular burial space

This article is a preview from the Summer 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

As he was filing out of the crematorium after attending yet another musician’s funeral, jazz saxophonist and club-owner Ronnie Scott is said to have turned to a companion and remarked, “It hardly seems worth going home, does it?”

There comes a time when the year is regularly punctuated by funerals, and cometh the hour, cometh the humanists. Most take place at the local crematorium, a building which, since its inception at the beginning of the 20th century, is associated with a more rational approach to death – indeed the rise of cremation is closely related to the growth of secularism. As a result, humanism seemed to have found a permanent place in the existential spaces and rituals of the modern world: at the end of life and in the crematorium chamber. Humanist celebrants officiate at around 7,500 UK funerals a year, and the number continues to rise.

Cremation was once strongly opposed by all the major religions. Christians asked how we could be resurrected on the Day of Judgement, as visualised in Stanley Spencer’s wonderful painting “Resurrection Day, Cookham”, if our bodies had been reduced to ash. Land scarcity, the costs of burial and subsequent maintenance of the grave, along with scepticism about the possibility of a life hereafter, meant that by the end of the 20th century, cremation had become the most common form of disposal in Europe, as well as in a number of other countries around the world, as can be seen:

Selected national cremation rates for 2012
Country %
Japan 100
Czech Republic 79
Denmark 78
Sweden 78
UK 74
Netherlands 59
Belgium 53
Finland 44
USA 43
France 32
Italy 17
Eire 13
Romania 0.3

Cremation is now accepted as a mainstream Christian practice, with the Catholic Church also falling into line. Islamic and Orthodox Jewish traditions still prohibit the practice, as do the Orthodox churches of Russia and other countries in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

In the UK, most crematoria were designed and built by municipal architects, with the intention of becoming a new icon of civic pride. However, in moving away from religious architectural traditions – particularly in relation to death and commemoration – the development of a more secular architectural language proved harder than imagined. In her definitive gazetteer of British crematorium architecture, Death Redesigned (2005), Hilary Grainger described how even the most adventurous of architects struggled, throughout the 20th century, to develop a new stylistic language for these secular houses of the dead, variously adapting Gothic Revival, Italianate, Scandinavian modernist and even Brutalist forms for crematorium buildings required to communicate both civic authority as well as emotional resolution. Architectural critic Edwin Heathcote once described British crematorium design as “largely a field of wasted opportunities”. It is not quite as bad as this, but the conveyor belt schedule – required to justify the operating costs of the buildings, equipment and upkeep of the ornamental gardens – can be dispiriting.

Now even that era may be coming to an end, as more environmentally friendly processes of bodily disposal are explored. While across the world cremation continues to rise, in the UK it has peaked, and Britain now leads the world in “natural” burial, with over 240 sites open, the majority on unconsecrated land. All this is explored in Natural Burial (Clayden, Green, Hockey & Powell, 2015), a study which not only details the proliferation of sites but criticially engages with the philosophical and humanistic implications of this latest “turn to the earth”.

What is defined as natural burial is not yet legally clarified, but the term usually describes the burial of unembalmed bodies in bio-degradable coffins or shrouds, in graves marked by temporary, disposable memorials, leaving in perpetuity unadorned “natural” woodland or landscape. However, many sites admit that they are still interring cremated ashes, which strictly goes against the principle of authentic green burial. Too little has been written about the significant psychic or cultural shifts involved in natural burial, whereby a growing number of people are choosing to leave behind no memorial. This is almost unprecedented in funerary history, where public memorialisation has invariably been an integral part of the ritualisation of death.

Natural Burial locates the origins of this new movement in the work of Ken West, Carlisle city cemetery manager and registrar, who, in the early 1990s, disillusioned with spraying weed-killer everywhere, and noticing the not unrelated steep decline in butterflies, birds and wildflowers, experimented with allowing the grass to grow untreated in the historic areas of the cemetery. When several people asked to be buried in the “conservation area”, West concluded that change was in the air. Since then a variety of providers of woodland sites have emerged, in addition to local authorities: environmental charities, farmers, hippie entrepreneurs, private companies and the Co-op.

While the fields, woods and forest groves have been relatively easy to locate and acquire, little attention has been given to designing the new buildings necessary to the evolving rituals of this unfamiliar terrain. This is now changing. I recently visited the newly opened Greenacres Woodland Burial Park at Rainford in Lancashire, where the administration centre, reception area and “Woodland Hall” have been designed by leading architects, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. This dramatic timber building is likely to become an important milestone in the development of what we might term a secular/green architectural aesthetic.

The design brief called for a building which was “spiritually strong”, and with a clear sense of direction. The arresting shape of the principal building is that of a large shoe-box rising to the far end, with a glazed western façade looking deep into the surrounding landscape. The frontage is indented, drawing people towards the entrance doors and threshold canopy; discreetly angled windows provide light to a linear sequence of rooms, ranging from staff changing rooms and showers at the near end, via offices, toilet suite, kitchen and reception area, before arriving at the Woodland Hall. It is here that the glazed elevation discloses uninterrupted views of the Windle Brook valley, providing assembled mourners with a panoramic backdrop to the catafalque (two plain wooden trestles) and the lectern, as they await the service and subsequent committal.

Nowhere here or elsewhere in the building, or indeed anywhere on site, are any artworks or attempts to provide any symbolic or quasi-mythological references. The Woodland Hall has been expertly soundproofed so that the officiating celebrant’s voice, along with personal eulogies, can be heard clearly and intimately without distorting amplification. Two large hangar-like sliding glass doors set into the western elevation can be opened in good weather, allowing the coffin to stand in the open air.

Such developments suggest that the humanist tradition regarding death may be moving from a rationalist stance towards a more naturalistic ethos, accepting that we are a part of nature, not distinct from it. One woodland burial manager admitted to me that “once you are in the ground, as far as I am concerned the surrounding trees, flowers and birds take priority.” Humanism was once predicated upon the idea of human exceptionalism, but that does not prevent it from going green.