Benjamin Franklin said that there’s nothing certain in this world but death and taxes. Part of Stansted Parish Council’s rise in tax precept for next year is earmarked to buy new burial land as capacity at our parish cemetery rapidly runs out.

There are just 10 empty plots left for the dead. Thousands in funds have been set aside as contingency for the expansion of the cemetery, but conversations with local landowners have so far yielded no success in the bid to get more land. Solutions must be found this year or the parish may soon be unable to bury its dead.

With the environment now top of the global agenda and trees playing a central role in combating man-made climate change, people are increasingly seeing woodland burials as a positive legacy – either by planting a tree on their grave or scattering or burying ashes on a tree plot. Natural burials involve burying people in biodegradable coffins, with no embalming chemicals – often referred to as “hygienic treatment” by undertakers – and no headstone.

The parish council decided in May 2019 to suspend grave pre-purchase due to a lack of burial sites – Bishop’s Stortford Independent, 29th May, 2019

While it is proving hard to find a landowner to sell a parcel of land for creating a conventional cemetery, local farmers could consider woodland burial as an opportunity for diversification. An open acre of ground can hold about 700 bodies and one burial per week can yield annual profits of £40,000, claims Farmers Weekly.

A natural woodland burial is also relatively cheap, providing a more affordable option for families and could be cheaper than a cremation. Members of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds charge on average about £1,000 per burial, with £600 being allocated for the plot reservation, and £400 for the internment. According to the Money Advice Service, a direct cremation costs an average around £1,700, a cremation with a funeral director averages more than £3,200 and a burial with a funeral director tops £4,200 – the costs are even higher in this part of the country.

Despite growing demand and the amount of land available, there is a lack of natural burial grounds in this region. There are currently more than 270 natural burial grounds in England, of which less than 10 per cent are operated by farmers. Just five natural burial grounds exist in Essex with none in the Uttlesford district. Neighbouring Hertfordshire, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire have just one each.

With a railway station, proximity to an M11 junction and an international airport, a woodland cemetery in Stansted could not only serve local people who wish to be buried naturally, but people from further afield – as well as being easily accessible to relatives and friends who wish to visit.

The local area is ideal for woodland burial as the best type of land from an environmental perspective is clay. The landowner can face challenges if the land is in a groundwater source protection area, but according to DEFRA’s Magic Map only land to the north of the village is within an SPZ. Otherwise, statutory requirements for natural burial grounds seem less onerous than building a house extension.

Groundwater source protection zones around Stansted
Red = Inner protection zone, Green = Outer protection zone, Blue = Total catchment

Creating a natural burial ground is not difficult. Planning permission is required, but if the project has the support and involvement of the parish council the chances of serious objections are likely to be reduced. Moreover, a woodland burial ground cannot be developed and can protect the green belt, which could generate support within the community.

Infrastructure is required – hard standing for cars, for example, as well as a building for mourners to gather. The initial outlay is likely to be at least £20,000, says Farmers Weekly.

A woodland burial site at Wrabness, near Colchester

However, not everyone will want a natural woodland burial and many would still prefer a grave with a headstone in a conventional cemetery, often because they want to be placed next to family members. The parish needs to plan for their needs.

A venture in which a landowner and the parish council could address various needs and desires through a hybrid of a conventional cemetery and a natural woodland burial ground could see a mutually beneficial arrangement for both partners, savings for local tax-payers, greater choice for residents and a new woodland for the community.