'Don't bury me with a big marble headstone. Plant a tree instead'
In a secluded woodland in Wexford, at Ireland’s first natural burial ground, people are finding very personal and environmentally friendly ways to be buried
IN A WEXFORD woodland near the Blackstairs Mountains – secluded from signposts, landmarks and phone signals – people are being buried with bespoke funeral services. There is just one restriction: it has to be environmentally friendly.
There are no headstones, no concrete curbs between plots, and nothing artificial can be left behind. The only obvious signs it’s a graveyard are the wilting flowers commemorating a 26-year-old who recently passed away.
Since the Green Graveyard Company opened Ireland’s first natural burial ground in October, the prospect of having a tree planted in your burial place has arguably been eclipsed by the opportunity to depart from convention. Of the five burials and three ash scatterings here so far, no two services have been the same.
One ended with a round of applause, another with the sharing of hand-rolled cigarettes made from the deceased’s favourite brand of tobacco. The policy of “all religions and none” (individual graves can be blessed on the day) has drawn 140 bookings from around the country, with planning permission for similar sites in Cork and Galway currently being submitted.
The man behind the green burials is Colin McAteer, a fourth-generation funeral director who had the idea after a colleague died from leukaemia at the age of 19. “She wanted a biodegradable coffin and it annoyed me that I couldn’t get her one,” he says. “Whenever things slowed down, I looked into it. I rang a few undertakers and they had the same problem, so there was an opportunity there.”
In 2009, McAteer began manufacturing coffins made from sustainable or recycled materials, such as willow and bamboo. A year later, his neighbours in Fanad, Co Donegal, were refused permission to be buried on their land because they lived too close to a reservoir. McAteer, 35, empathised with them – he had already told his own loved ones: “If anything happens, don’t bury me with a big marble headstone. Plant a tree instead.”
In Wexford, Giles FitzHerbert was thinking something similar. “My wife asked me how I wanted to be buried and I thought I’d leave it to her. But she wasn’t having that. So I started looking into whether it was possible to be buried here on the land,” he says, gesturing at the spot that will one day be his grave. “And that led me to Colin.” An opportunity presented itself.
FitzHerbert, a former British ambassador to Venezuela, agreed to lease 7.5 acres of his estate to McAteer for use as a public burial ground, where a single plot costs €800. Though FitzHerbert says the local council was puzzled initially, it eventually approved and the opening was rushed forward to meet demand.
Stephen Farrell, a 30-year-old IT manager from Dublin, was unsure of what to expect when he attended a friend’s burial. The only instruction was to bring wellies.
“My mother was with me and, being in her 50s, it was a big change for her. She went along with the whole process as best she could but later said: ‘It’s not something I would like.’”
Farrell found the experience a refreshing alternative, particularly when the deceased man’s wife explained that her husband was a hippy at heart and that this was how he wanted to be returned to the earth.
“We didn’t recite prayers; we told stories that were personal. The whole atmosphere was more uplifting than any church service I had ever been to. Standing there huddled in the mud and light rain, I felt more connected to the experience . . . It felt more real, like all the rubbish was removed and you got down to what it was really about.”
Niall Deacon, a local farmer and sculptor who is employed as the site’s caretaker and gravedigger, has warmed to the idea so much that he has carved his own memorial marker in granite (an option for any burial here). All that’s missing is the date of his death.
“I started getting into the whole thinking of it because you’re not demanding the space where your body is laid to rest forever. This is going to evolve into nature. It’s not like the cold, hard landscape you see in a lot of graveyards. The suggestion there is that it will stay like that forever. But in nature there is no forever. Everything goes in a cycle, even trees.”
There’s a different kind of peacefulness here, he adds, striding up the pathway, enthusing at how the chestnut trees are so perfectly equidistant that they form a natural canopy. “You’re a good 250 yards away from the road. To come up here and speak, shout or do whatever you like – that’s not a bad idea. You can be your own person. There’s no one to question you.”
Dealing closely with others’ grief is not something Deacon is experienced at, but there’s a comforting quality to the 51-year-old’s rugged character and effusive presence. Of the many sculptures he has made dotted along the pathway, one, A Bit Missing, is a gesture of understanding.
“I buried my own parents in the past year, so I recognise the sensitivity involved. It was like someone peeled back my chest, put in a hand and just wrenched something out. There’s no putting it back – it’s gone for all time. In the world of art, you see things as they are. There’s no need to dress them up. This place is just an extension of that. It is what it is.”
THOUGH DAISIES AND bluebells are appearing, it will take years for the site to develop as a habitat. McAteer admits that some visitors have been disappointed – “they were expecting more or less the finished article” – but adds that most have faith in its long-term prospects.
“It’s not for everybody, particularly now that it’s just starting,” he says, crumbling a clump of dirt in his hand over the raised circle where ashes are scattered.
“But you have to remember it’s a work in progress. All it needs is time.”
For more information, see greengraveyard.com