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Friday, April 02, 2010

Going all Natural in Wales

Nearly a hundred bodies lie buried at Usk Castle Chase, a natural cemetery an hour northeast of Cardiff, Wales.

But visitors who trek these fourteen acres of rolling pasture might never know it. No paved walkways cut through the grounds, no monuments rise from the land. The grave sites themselves are all but invisible, completely devoid of the headstones, flat markers, perimeter edging and other funereal structures that characterize the more traditional cemeteries scattered throughout the United Kingdom.

The only evidence that bodies are buried beneath this verdant swath of rural Wales are modest oak plaques. And even they don't appear on the actual burial ground. The plaques are affixed to the rafters of an open pavilion near the cemetery entrance, and bear nothing more than the names and lifespans of the deceased.

In both philosophy and design, nature -- not its human inhabitants -- prevails at Usk Castle Chase. "We believe in minimizing the impact we have on a place," says James Leedam, director of Native Woodland, a Monmouth company that operates five natural cemeteries in the U.K. "We wish to preserve the landscape as it is."

For generations, pasture has defined the landscape of the "chase," British for an unenclosed forest traditionally reserved for hunting. When Leedam transformed the Usk chase into a natural cemetery, he worked to ensure that its ruminant history endured -- in form and function. He offered a natural return to the elements on the pasture, but he kept the land looking much as it had for centuries and even continued to allow sheep to graze there. When I asked Leedam if that meant sheep may graze upon the graves themselves, he replied, "Most definitely. It always was, is now and should always be pasture."

While lacking any overt sign of its mordant purpose, the land does show the work of human hands. Leedam's crew occasionally mows the grounds, and he follows a mowing/grazing schedule recommended by a local wildlife trust. Wildflowers are cut after they've seeded; weeds are topped. No fertilizer is used -- beyond the natural fertilizer supplied by the host of decomposing occupants below ground.

Leedam's earth-first approach to green cemetery design puts him at odds with that of most other operators. In many natural burial grounds in the U.K., for example, trees are routinely planted atop graves (Leedam restricts the planting of memorial trees to the forested margins of the chase). In the score of natural cemeteries that have cropped up across the United States, families may -- and almost always do -- mark graves with fieldstones that are collected on site or culled from a similar geographical stratum (although even then the soft stones may completely weather into the landscape in time, eventually leaving grave sites there as unmarked as those on Leedam's grounds).

Without artificial objects marring the landscape, Leedam is able to more fully emphasize its natural beauty. The London-based Memorial Awareness Board found as much, calling Usk Castle Chase "exceptionally beautiful and peaceful" when giving it a best Green Burial Site award in 2008.

Leedam's natural approach to the cemetery de-emphasizes the dead who quite literally nourish and sustain it. In doing so, it asks us to consider questions that go to the heart of how we, the living, should memorialize our dead.

Is it enough to return our deceased to an anonymous end, where one's individuality is subsumed and lost to a natural process? Do we lose a record of our human history if we leave it unmarked, even in so small a place as a grave? Or is one's simple perpetuation of the natural cycle of life a truly sufficient and lasting mark of a life well lived?

We'll explore those questions, and others, in upcoming blogs on the growing green burial movement.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

The photos above are owned by and used with permission of Native Woodland, Ltd. The second photo shows a grave site one family has outlined by plucking grass around it. Finished graves sit behind, to each side and in front of it.

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Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.