Burial plots

Green funerals take on tradition

Originally published in The Financial Times

It was a bank holiday. Nick Hargreaves was on the golf course when he received the call about Nora Hogg. At the old-people’s home, he was surprised to find the staff were genuinely upset. “You’d think they would be used to death,” he muses. “I suspect she was a bit of a character.”

He delivered her body to the mortuary at St Cross hospital, in Rugby, and that’s where he went to collect her this morning. In the meantime, she’s been lying in the back of his green BMW 525 estate, in sunshine outside the farmhouse where he lives and works. By lunchtime, a warm fug has built up inside, smelling principally of Mrs Hogg’s inexpensive pine coffin.

Climbing in, I find there is little room for my legs. The front seat, in pale leather, has been pushed as far forward as possible, to accommodate Mrs Hogg behind me. Even so, I can feel the coffin digging into my back.

At the church, Mrs Hogg’s daughters – Susan, Nicki, Jacqui and Philippa – stand with a group of around 30 relatives and friends. Hargreaves sets up a folding contraption on wheels, then pulls the coffin onto it from inside the car. Each daughter takes one handle, and slowly the group proceeds into All Saints.

After hymn 649, Canon John Randall, a retired stand-in for the regular vicar, reads from St John, Chapter 14. The eldest daughter, Susan, comes forward to read a poem, which ends: “I think of the years – all too few – gone too fast.” Then Randall recites Mrs Hogg’s life story. Though essentially a series of dates and changes-of-address, his account provokes the distressing sound of tearful male nose-blowing.

Next: the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer for the mourners, and another hymn. As we commend Mrs Hogg to the care of God, Hargreaves – who’s been waiting outside with the BMW – pops his head round the door to see how we’re getting on.

On the way out, Susan smiles warmly at everybody, thanking them for coming. Philippa stands beneath the porch, looking nowhere in particular. She turns towards guests with a half-smile, but her eyes are red with crying.

Back at the farm, Hargreaves unloads the bouquets, laying them at the side of the track. Randall takes a pair of wellington boots from his car – it rained heavily yesterday – but nobody else has come prepared. Following the male relatives who now carry the coffin, we step carefully over the wet clay towards the new grave.

While the vicar utters further theological consolation, Susan wanders among the mourners, distributing irises. When the time comes, it’s Susan who steps forward first to drop a flower into the grave, and not a person present is unaffected by her adieu: “Bye-bye, Mother,” she says. “Have a safe journey.” She steps back, lingering with her eyes fixed on the coffin, and before the next mourner steps forward, she adds: “We’ll see you soon.”

Nick Hargreaves’s funeral business was inspired by Radio Four. “It was a programme about people selling [burial] plots in Brighton, for £250 each,” he says. To prevent water contamination, he learned, the law requires that dead bodies be buried at least 100m from any river, and 10m from a ditch. To keep animals from digging them up, they must be buried at least a metre deep. Apart from that, Britons can be buried practically anywhere, so long the landowner consents. Looking out of a window, Hargreaves thought: “Well, we’ve got a nice bit of land, with a nice view…”

It’s a sad reflection on British farming that his step-father consented to set aside a field for dead bodies, but there are more positive ways to consider Greenhaven Woodland Burials. For instance, there’s the strictly environmentalist approach. For a start, it offers burials, which are necessarily less wasteful of resources than cremation (the average body takes 70 minutes to incinerate at 850°C, using quite a bit of fuel). On top of each grave, Hargreaves plants a native tree: the most popular choice is oak, then wild cherry. When the field is full it will be handed over to a woodland trust. At current rates, that will take 20 years (with 14 acres, Hargreaves has room for 10,000 graves). But it may not take so long, because green funerals are on the increase. In four years, the number of woodland burial sites has risen from 17 to more than 100; with 52 more sites in various stages of planning. Dame Barbara Cartland’s recent woodland burial provided useful publicity for the movement; as did the Natural Death Centre’s awards, on the National Day of the Dead, in April, when the top prize was presented to… Greenhaven Woodland Burials.

There’s something charmingly ramshackle about Hargreaves’s business, where an all-inclusive burial can cost as little as £400. Equipment is stored in a trailer at the end of the garden. Dogfood, in the form of whole cows’ lungs, lies scattered across the lawn. (“Not good for business, that,” he says, tidying it away.) Inside the trailer – among egg crates, golf-clubs and a dusty exercise bike – stand four pine coffins; on the other wall lie flat-packed coffins made of cardboard. Pine coffins cost £200, cardboard £55. A smarter cardboard product, printed to look like wood grain, costs a little more. Hardwood coffins are not allowed, and nor is chipboard, which contains solvents.

In the burial field, several graves are unmarked. A few have wooden plaques (stone, which would disfigure the woodland, is banned). Some plaques provide only a first name; others give dates, or ages. Two or three attempt a brief epitaph, such as “Beloved”. Though the site is non-denominational – and not even specifically Christian – three or four graves have been embellished with wooden crucifixes. The newest graves, yet to be covered in grass, look the most stark. Isn’t it spooky, having dead bodies so close to home? “No, I don’t believe in ghosts.”

Hargreaves has the bluff, robust attitude to death which is probably to be expected on a farm. “Do I like picking up dead bodies? The answer must be: not particularly.” But after five years, he’s seen quite a few bad cases – some mangled, others incomplete – and he’s inured to it. (Once, when he was abroad, his cousin stepped in. “He had a bit of a nightmare the night afterwards,” Hargreaves smiles. “He kept seeing this woman’s face.”)

How does he attract business? “People come to us because they’re disgusted by funeral directors’ costs. And they’re environmentally aware. Two reasons for the price of one!” Green funerals are still relatively hard to find in parts of the country. Hargreaves has been as far afield as Blackpool to collect bodies, but most business comes from the Midlands, and London. He recently buried the mother of a cabinet minister, who was accompanied by security men. At the other end of the scale was the woman who paid Hargreaves to bury a homeless person from London. Just the two of them were present for the burial, and there was no coffin: the deceased was dressed up in a suit and placed on a plank. Afterwards, the woman declaimed six pages of poetry while Hargreaves stood to attention.

Relatives don’t always attend: “Some can’t afford the trip,” he says. Others wait till the weather improves and the tree has been planted. Still more can’t be bothered. One man told Hargreaves: “As far as I’m concerned my father died years ago.” One person organised a burial then disappeared without paying. “We didn’t get a penny. We even employed a debt collector for £120, but got nothing.”

He usually works out the cost at the first meeting with relatives. “I go through the list with them – tick, tick, tick – and work out a rough mileage [for transporting the body]. Some offer to pay you then, but we don’t like to push. Normally we leave two weeks before we send an invoice.”

According to the Co-op, the cost of funerals have risen more rapidly than savings can accrue interest. So it does make sense to buy a funeral plan at today’s prices, and some 250,000 people have done that, most of them elderly (one of the biggest providers of funeral plans is Age Concern).

But pre-paid funerals have attracted bad publicity – rogue operators running off with the cash – and Hargreaves discourages pre-paid funerals. Customers booking in advance get a legal document promising that they’ll be buried in the field for at least 75 years. (He can’t guarantee putting couples together if there’s a long interval between deaths, since this might harm tree roots.) Setting up a woodland burial site, he believes, could be an excellent method for preventing developments such as road-building.

At the pub, after Mrs Hogg’s funeral, her daughters tell me they’re pleased with Hargreaves’s service. The vicar approves, too. Randall is frequently saddened to see people who have scraped by on low salaries, or state support, spending large sums in savings or insurance on funerals. But he stops short of suggesting that conventional funeral businesses positively encourage wasteful expenditure. “I know quite a lot of funeral directors,” he says, “and they are not cynical people. They want to provide a service.”

Another who takes that view is Virginia Bottomley, Conservative MP, former government minister and patron of the bereavement counselling organisation, Cruse. Stepping onto the podium at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, to open the first-ever Funeral Services Exhibition, she says: “If I had my way, members of the public and MPs would be here – the whole world – to see how important this industry is. This is an industry that matters to every individual, every family, in the country…”

About 600,000 people die in the UK every year. Disposing of their remains – to put the job at its simplest – is worth around £1bn. Roughly 27 per cent of the market is accounted for by various arms of the Co-op, while an American corporation, SCI, supplies 18 per cent through its British subsidiary (SCI also owns a number of crematoria). The remaining funeral directors largely consist of independents. To judge by the lapel badges, all three groups have turned up in force at the NEC, to wander among stands devoted to every conceivable aspect of funerals, including much that is unconventional. At Bats in the Belfry, Carol Aston handpaints a coffin. Another stand promotes a software package enabling funeral directors to streamline their service, with on-screen boxes to fill in with the height and shoulder-width of the deceased; and whether he or she wore dentures. The internet is also represented, with websites enabling the bereaved to set up electronic memorial sites or purchase anything from black gloves to headstones.

T Cribb and Sons, which last year carried out 433 horse-drawn funerals, has brought some vehicles; as have carmakers including Daimler, Mercedes, Saab and Volvo. Peter Smith, of Volvo, presses a button on the hears to demonstrate the adjustable platform. “That’s to help you lift the coffin, for health and safety. And also you can put another coffin underneath.”

Geoffrey Glave, who drives a Saab for the Co-op in Chesterfield, likes Volvo’s limousine. “It drives like a saloon,” he enthuses. Glave’s job is not as simple as you might think. “There is a lack of courtesy on the roads. I try to stay close to the vehicle in front, but people will try to drive through. Roundabouts are especially bad. Sometimes the passengers get upset: I hear comments like, ‘Just look at that, can you believe it?’” Drivers, Glave believes, should be invisible. “You don’t talk unless they want to. If they like cars they talk to you about the limousine, or else they might talk about their loved one… You have to gauge the mood. You have to be respectful, but retain a sense of humour. If it’s an older person [that’s died] they might have had a long life, and it’s not for us to make people sad. They might be happy.”

Understandably, quite a few exhibitors have brought coffins. PB UK supplies cardboard coffins of the sort used by Nick Hargreaves. “This is made from recycled paper,” says PB’s Nigel Keen, “with wheat starch and potato-flour adhesive.” The printed pattern is water-based, and the liquid-proof liner (“you have leakage from dead bodies”) is coated with bio-degradable plastic. In the ground, the whole thing usually dissolves within six months. “But in dry ground,” Keen adds, “you might find dried remains for some time longer, to be blunt about it.”

More conventional coffin suppliers include JC Walwyn & Sons, which produces 600 coffins a week, and LTR Vowles, where David Fisher looks me up and down and says, “You? You would be looking at six-foot-five, maybe 22 inches at the shoulder.” Barry Albin & Sons claims to be one of the main suppliers of coffins for transporting bodies overseas. One such, made of zinc with a window over the face to enable identification, is hermetically sealed. If it wasn’t, the body inside would be sucked apart by air pressure in the hold of a plane.

The most extravagant coffins are displayed by Batesville, a company from Indiana. Scott Billingsley, who has deep tan, neatly clipped beard and eyes sinisterly lacking in sparkle, explains his products. Lowering his voice, he says: “May I ask – have you ever experienced the death of a loved one?” Having established I have, and that these experiences generally involved cremations, he asks what happened to the ashes. Then he walks me towards a range of pricey containers: stone urns, cloisonné urns and hardwood chests with velvet linings. Among the more “artistic” items are a sundial, and lumps of hollowed-out rock, in various sizes, with bronze dolphins leaping over them. The smallest of these could not possibly hold an entire person’s ashes – there’s barely room for a leg, or an arm. “You can scatter most of the ashes,” Billingsley explains, “but keep a small portion as a focal point for Christmas.”

Moving on, he shows me the coffins, or caskets as he calls them. These come in bronze and various hardwoods, and cost as much as £8,000 apiece. Environmentalism is not a major concern at Batesville: one casket, the Promethean, must travel 2,000 miles, to more than eight locations, on its journey from initial fabrication to finished product, according to a glossy brochure. Even lesser caskets have a cushioned lining, quilting inside the lid, and mattresses which are fully adjustable – so that a body stiffened and twisted with arthritis can be tilted to conceal this unfortunate distortion.

Extravagant coffins of the sort sold by Batesville, Billingsley knows, are of interest only in cases where bodies are put on display – and that’s not as common in the UK as it is in the US. Perhaps in order to promote the incidence of “viewings”, Billingsley presents a somewhat distorted account of the alternative. “People say, ‘The bloke is dead. Throw him in a Totes bag and throw him in the river’.”

Another moneyspinner for funeral directors, equally dependant on formal viewings, is embalming. A huge crowd, including funeral directors from Malaysia, Switzerland and Spain, assembles at a stand devoted to this art. One machine that catches my eye turns out to be for pumping preservatives into blood vessels. “You use the carotid or the jugular,” explains John Dodge, another groomed American. “Make as small an incision as possible – having respect for the dead – then insert this.” The liquid is mostly formaldehyde, but that alone would made bodies hard and grey, so additional, modifying salts are added.

Embalming is on the increase, Dodge claims, because viewing the dead is important to mental health. “Psychologists believe, having studied death and bereavement, that it’s helpful to view the bodies again – and not just in a hospital bed.”

Behind us, in Dodge’s display case, lie a terrifying array of tools and potions, products for which there would be no market without open-casket funerals. There are scissors and calipers, lip wax and dry-wash shampoo. Mouth formers and denture replacers, for filling in sunken cheeks; eye caps, like contact lenses with a grainy surface, for holding eyelids shut; and curved needles for stitching together the lips (the final stitch comes out of a nostril).

Every hour, at the Dodge stand, there’s a demonstration. Funeral directors watch intently as Andy Searson takes a livid yellow plastic head, ravaged by scars, and transforms it, with lurid waxy filler and cosmetics, to achieve a passably human appearance. Using a particular white powder, he explains, the make-up can be hardened to prevent it coming off on the lips of relatives inclined to kiss the deceased. To establish the truth of this claim, he dusts a bit of powder over an area of make-up and puckers his lips before lowering his head. When he surfaces, however, fine traces of white can be seen around the edges of his mouth; and this unattractively frothy effect remains clearly visible for the remaining ten minutes of the demo.

Speaking for myself, I don’t much fancy embalming. When the time comes, you can send me to Nick Hargreaves, and glue down the lid on my cardboard box. But if other people want open-caskets, that’s fine. And it certainly wouldn’t be fair to suggest that everybody involved in that line of business is some grasping smoothie. On the contrary, I find myself warming to Searson, who was going to be an engineer until the death business attracted his attention. “I lived around the corner from a funeral home,” he explains. “It was the man in the top hat and tails – that was what attracted me. After a couple of years I found a job in the embalming theatre.”

The first time he did it, he felt nervous. “I was dealing with someone that has died. Anybody coming into the industry has an uneasy feeling at first.” The biggest challenge, he says, is when “you have a person that has been through a physically traumatic death and the funeral director tells you the family wants to view. A lot of funeral directors involve us with the family. We get details about complexion and hair, and perfume or aftershave. (My grandad always wore Brut when he came round our house.) So we might spend all day and all night on it. It’s not unusual to work 20 hours solid on one person. Sometimes I lie there at night, wondering if we’ve done enough. Will it hold together? Have we raised their expectations too high?”