Dalton Wood, Cumbria.
This was the very first natural burial ground that we visited in the UK.
A 30 acre portion of a much much larger Estate that has been in the same family ownership for over 700 years.
When we arrived here the gate was locked (we found out later that it was only to guard against people dumping unwanted goods, all families still have access all the time). I was a little dismayed, wanting to explore, but not to be deterred Edwin, Joey and I climbed the style and into the grounds. There was a little stand with pamphlets within, we picked up one and started to go for a bit of a wander. Edwin called the number on the back of the pamphlet and 15 minutes later we were shaking hands with the owner of the entire estate -some 2000 acres.
Frances was delightful and more than willing to show us around and answer all of our questions.
This land had been natural woodland for as long as anyone can remember. Walking through the paths here, it was so pretty, still and quiet. There were birds, a breeze blowing through the trees and in true poetic style the sunlight struggled down between the branches. There was a softness to this place and a certain kind of reverence – a place so ancient and somehow lost in time. And here was Frances bringing such a lovely sense of life to the old woods with natural burial.
The tree roots are quite the challenge, the site is set out by grid and when it comes to digging a plot they move the plot a little to the side as needed. Every year the land is re-surveyed and the exact locations are recorded exactly on the master map which he updates through the year as burials occur. He has a grave digger, they dig with machinery as there is a fair content of rock in the ground, the rock gets removed but everything else is put back when the grave is filled.
This burial ground allows markers, a flat stone – locally sourced slate rock to be precise – with a few lines of engraving that is placed on the head of the grave. The stones he says, are an important part of the ecology here as many insects, bugs and the like live under them. It is their habitat.
The graves are 1.5 x 3m in size and they generally go east to west (interestingly, this is quite traditional as Christian burials are done facing east). Wicker and willow coffins are allowed as are shrouds – natural fibers and contents are encouraged. The tried and not-so-true paper veneer particle board coffins (with the plastic handles) which are an industry mainstay, or the solid wood, stained with metal handles are not allowed.
What we were really encouraged by was that he allows the burials for family led funerals. He will always meet with a family, prior to a burial whether they chose a funeral director or not, but Dalton Wood is completely open to people who want to organise the funeral and burial themselves. He will assist a family and help them wherever he can.
As a business model, natural burial makes sense. It is socially responsible and ethical – not just for the environment but for people as well. It is an affordable and financially viable alternative to traditional burial but more than that, there are at-need costs of digging and interment fee are always paid at the time of burial (only the plot can be prepaid) and he can claim a kind of tax break/refund as he has the ongoing obligation to maintain the burial ground. The digging and interment fees are not expensive but they are a guaranteed future income source which as a business makes sense.
It felt really lovely to walk the paths in this woodland, just the three of us, often alone with our thoughts and the music of the birds to set our pace by. Certain trees here are marked with the red and white flag symbol – known all over Europe as the marker for walkers to say ‘this way’… and the peaceful feelings that we left with after having wandered under the thick and unbroken canopy of trees, such vibrant shades of green at every turn, through the moss covered rocks stones and untouched detritus made our time there so nourishing.
There is a rich ecosystem teeming with life under those trees and seeing how shallow depth natural burial is adding to this precious ecology was a real experience.
We walked away with some questions answered, more developing and also full of ideas and wonder about how this could work in the Australian bush.