Natural burials at The Eternal Forest
The full podcast episode that accompanies these images is available here.
I've done the transcript for this episode a little differently. I've chosen to smoosh the audio, the transcript, and the images into one big Eternal Forest experience, so you can get an idea of what it was like to be there.
To listen to the episode, or to follow along with the text and images but also hear our voices (plus, the very loud birds) - listen to the podcast episode here.
The Eternal Forest. Photo credit: Jonathen Harty
So here goes, welcome to our walk around the The Eternal Forest with Julia Everitt (Manager of natural woodland burial ground)...
Claire Sandys 00:02
Hello, and welcome to The Silent Why podcast, I'm Claire Sandys and this is a podcast exploring every possible type of loss that we face in life - from bereavements to childlessness, loss of relationships, jobs, identities, expectations, futures, senses, limbs, you’ve lost it - we want to explore it. But not just explore it, see if it’s possible to find hope in every sort of loss, and we’ve spoken to many weird and wonderful people (there’s not really any weird ones!) about their experiences with loss and how they are navigating it and whether they’ve found hope, and if so, what would they want to pass on to others to give them hope - and we call these little nuggets - Hermans.
You can check out www.thesilentwhy.com/hermans for more those if you're new to them.
So, for those of you that listened to our episode a couple of weeks ago called ‘Wales, work experience, bitey flies, chips and Dave’ - you’ll know that husband Chris and I had a week off recently, and we went up to North Wales to do a couple of days work experience at a funeral directors, to explore a working life that's a little closer to death than your average job. You can hear more about how that happened in that episode where we both chat about it, and I’ll be sharing about how I got on with that in a future blog.
But while we were away we also visited a very special place called The Eternal Forest which is based in North Wales, and more specifically - wait for it - I had Jonathen from Lord-Brown and Harty Funeral Directors help me learn how to pronounce where it’s based, because when the Welsh have kindly decided to start some of their words with ‘pwl’ and I have no idea how you wrap your tongue around that - so, here goes, the forest is based in - Boduan, Pwllheli. There. I think you’ll agree I nailed that.
[Note: In the audio version I actually cheated and used Jonathen's voice for this bit]
On arrival we met Julia Everitt, the manager of The Eternal Forest, in the car park and she walked us round to tell us a bit more about this woodland burial ground - and our recording from this is what we’re going to share in this episode.
For those of you that haven’t come across this option for burial I’ll read you some of what The Eternal Forest says on their website:
‘Woodland burial means becoming literally part of the wood. In death, the body is transformed into new forms of life. The physical remains of the dead are gradually absorbed by microscopic life-forms in the soil; these pass the nutrients to fungi, which in turn feed the roots of the trees. Forget the maggots and worms you’ve seen in horror films, there is nothing grotesque about what happens in the wood. Throughout our lives, we build complex organic molecules to create flesh. These complex molecules become available to other life-forms after burial. Our ethos is respect for all life, understanding that all forms of life are linked together.’ https://www.eternalforest.org/vision/
Natural burials involve being buried in a natural environment like a woodland or meadow and this allows decomposition to happen more naturally. Everything that is buried is natural and the grave is shallower than a traditional graveyard meaning microbial activity happens in a more natural way, similar to composting. It’s something that’s been practised for thousands of years but has been interrupted in our modern day by vaults, liners, embalming and other things that interfere with the decomposition process.
This was our first visit to one and I have to admit - I was sold on the idea immediately. There are different types of natural burial grounds and some have been planted and created for the purpose, but The Eternal Forest is a well established woodland that’s been turned into a natural burial site and it’s all the more beautiful for it. If I lived nearby I’d have bought my plot immediately.
And you’ll have to excuse my sound man on this recording, he’s usually excellent but the cable was banging on the mic without us realising so you’ll hear a bit of that. He says it’s because he wasn’t wearing headphones, but personally I blame his BBC Journalist training.
Right, so I’ll hand over to Julia now to introduce herself and tell us more about The Eternal Forest in … Boduan.
[Yes, Jonathen pronounced that again for me!]
Julia Everitt 04:10
Hi, my name is Julia Everitt, I'm the manager at The Eternal Forest in Boduan in North Wales. This wood was set up by Arabella Melville and Colin Johnson. They both had decided, after her mother's burial in a very clinical cemetery, that they wanted a woodland burial. In the year 2000 he got very ill, they thought he was going to die, and Bella couldn't find any natural burial grounds in a woodland in the area. So, fortunately he recovered. When he recovered, they started seriously looking for somewhere to set one up. They said 'if we want it I'm sure other people will - let's make it happen'. So they found this woodland after a few years, bought it and then thought 'how can we set it up so that it continues after us, it's no good saying we want to be buried here and then no one else is'. So they then set up the charity gifted the wood to the charity, and, you know, set it up so that it will continue for years and years and years. Colin put a lot of himself into this wood, although he was an amputee, he used to get round on his wheelchair, and then he'd get off his wheelchair, go on his hands and knees, do things, use the digger, he was very, very active. He did die a couple of years ago and is now buried in the woods. Really, it was their vision that made this all happen. And, you know, at the time, natural burial grounds were very few and far between. You know, it wasn't really anything that people had heard of. In the early days, they took advanced bookings which helped fund the development. And most of those early booker's are now buried in the wood. I mean, there's still some that are going strong and hopefully won't need our services for a very long time. But people having faith in the project in the early days was really instrumental in making it happen.
So not all natural burial grounds are woodlands like this one, this one was an established woodland before it was bought and gifted to the charity to be a burial ground. And working around the trees does present a certain amount of problems - but it's worth it, you'll see when you walk around. The gravestones that we allow a very sort of small and not cut or polished, so they blend in. So walking around, you don't immediately realise it's a cemetery. It's very scruffy. There's lots of trees and plants, but the wildlife love it, you can probably hear the birds chirping already.
We only open the car park gates, if we have an event, a funeral, or if we're meeting someone. The reason for that is, you know, it is such a nice place, and we have in the past unfortunately had wild campers. So anything we can do to deter that, we do. So we do keep the gates locked unless we've got an appointment. But there's enough parking for about sort of five or six cars in that little layby and a pedestrian gate so people can visit any time of the day or night.
The sign at the entrance to the woodland.
So this is a map of the woods. So I suggest we do a sort of loop of the outside, and then I'll sort of talk as we walk.
Chris, Claire and Julia recording audio as we walked round the forest
Chris Sandys 07:37
What are some of the reasons that this is run as a charity rather than as a private sort of money making venture?
Firstly, the people that set it up, they had been stony broke in the past, they were authors, so you know, their incomes went up and down. And they didn't want it to be just for the rich people. To give everyone an opportunity was very much in their ethos, you know, when they set it up. These days, there's a lot of, you know, if you talk to people in the sort of business world, it's all about profit, profit profit, to fight against that I think is a very brave thing to do. And they were very keen that it was open to faiths or no faith, and to make it as affordable as possible for the vast majority of people.
They need to be fully biodegradable. And we don't accept embalmed bodies, or you know, the shiny, polished wooden coffins with brass handles that you see quite often on TV because it wouldn't break down.
Is it quite a difficult thing to set up because of the nature of dealing with bodies and burials? Is there a lot of regulations?
There is a certain amount of paperwork, but when I started it as manager, I was surprised how little you need really. I mean, the place has to be surveyed, we can't very close to the stream, you know, for obvious reasons, you know, near to a watercourse. And you have to have paperwork to show that a person has been released for burial, you know, to make sure there aren't the investigations going on. But other than that, it's relatively easy. I mean, you can bury someone on your own land, so long as you notify the authorities and you're not near to a watercourse. There's a procedure you have to go through, but it's relatively easy, actually.
You only really ever hear about that in criminal cases!
Yes! Obviously, you've got to get the right agreement in place first, but it can be done.
So, as we walk up here, you'll see here is an example of what we do in that here is a burial site, this is slightly more recent, than this one.
Examples of graves in the wood
So you can see here, the grass is just starting to come back we've done a little bit of planting ourselves a family have done some planting. And that will continue. When we resurface the paths we try and get as many of the plants off the path to replant them rehome them in places like this. So here you can see it's still a little bit barren. But this one that was about six months before that one you can see there's been a lot of plants coming back we've got a little oak tree here that self seeded. And we gathered the seeds every summer and sprinkle them around on fresh graves, so we've got all these lovely Foxgloves.
Is there a headstone on this one?
This one has got a small stone in there. So, we we used to have more relaxed rules about headstones but as you'll see, when you're walking around. If a stone isn't painted, cut or polished, they blend in much better with the with the surroundings.
In the early days, we didn't have quite so many rules, some natural burial grounds don't allow any memorial stones, we think it's it's nice for families to have something. But we're now a lot stricter on what we allow. I mean, some of the stones that are painted and and cut out are quite lovely, but if you get too many in a small area, suddenly it can stop looking like a woodland and start to look more like a traditional cemetery. Although we're still very scruffy compared to them. We have a commitment to people that chose us because they liked the woodland nature to keep it as a woodland. So, you know, as things start to become a problem, we introduce more restrictions. When we had the COVID lockdowns, we found that people started bringing painted stones by the kids or the grandkids. And everywhere that one appeared, they'd suddenly be loads around. So, we do now remove things as quickly as we can. So it doesn't encourage it. I mean, we allow cut flowers, if they're not in a wrapping and they biodegrade, but anything biodegradable, by way of flowers is fine.
The box of confiscated items from graves that didn't meet the restrictions
But if anyone wants to plant anything, it needs to be from our plant nursery, that's to keep the native species that we want to promote in the woods, we go around every summer collecting seeds, any trees that pop up where they're not going to do well, we'll tag them up and in the winter, we'll dig them up, pop them, and then they'll be planted on people's graves the next winter or the winter after. So that we can sort of encourage the plants that are native woodland plants, and discourage the ones that just aren't.
So how many people do you have buried here?
Over 200. But as you walk around, you'll see that there isn't much sign of that. So here's another grave. And the stone there you can see is cut, but because it's laid flat, and that's one of the the earlier ones, it's still quite discreet.
Example of a grave and headstone in the wood
They're quite minimal with the amount of information they have on them, is it just a name?
The natural Welsh slate that we tend to use it does have natural flaws in it because it's not polished in the same way a traditional gravestone, so you've got to be a little bit economical with what you say. I mean, this one here you can see the family have put a lot more words on it. And for some people, you know, it gives them comfort to have things like on a gravestone, but often as the years go by something that seemed appropriate that the time can become less relevant, I think as people sort of visit over the years, but it's a personal choice. And on the larger stones, you obviously can have a bit more writing.
Example of a grave and headstone in the wood with more text on it than others
It's a beautiful place. And if you're coming to visit somebody, it feels a lot more private. Because you've not you're not looking at loads of gravestones and other people around. It's almost like it's a private space just for your person.
There are lots of little areas that really you feel very secluded in a sort of woodland setting. It's not like visiting a traditional cemetery.
I'm just gonna water this little tree because I know it was planted recently, and it will appreciate a drop of water.
Julia watering a new tree that was planted recently on a grave
How that people make a choice whether they want to do this?
Well that varies from one natural burial ground to another. Most families, if they find any information about us in the deceased paperwork, they will contact us and say, 'oh, have they got a booking?' if they have, obviously, we'll know what plot they've chosen. If they haven't, we'll invite them to come and have a look, see if it's what they want. And we'll take it from there. We used to do, especially in the early days, more advanced bookings, where people would come along, walk around, think, 'oh, that's where I want to be', we then make a map and record where they want to be. We also record any funeral wishes they have.
So this one here, it's a lovely stone, you can see it from there but if you come back here, you can see. That was actually a friend of mine, one of my first actual friends to be buried here.
That's a lovely stone, I love how natural it is - that edging.
Yes, I mean, once you see them, when you can sort of see them scattered around, you warm to them a bit with the more you see.
You wouldn't spot them. You could easily walk around here and not really see them.
Coming around in winter is quite different and you see more of them. You can see one in the distance there and another one slightly closer here.
So this tree was planted the winter after this gentleman was buried. And at the same time we planted this tree because this area got a little bit boggy. So having two trees there helps to to soak up the water, although nowhere is soggy at the moment.
Am I right in thinking you don't bury people quite as deep?
No. So the legal requirement is to have two foot of earth above the top of the coffin. So we usually dig about four foot deep. In a more traditional cemetery, they often do double depth, so that the deeper burials then get covered by a second burial at a later date. We don't do that. A couple of reasons for that, firstly, we want the coffin to be in the active part of the soil, so that the nutrients go back into the wood. You know, it's part of the forces that you give your nutrients, that you've held on to in life, back to the forest. But also, the equipment needed to get deep is a lot more expensive and needs needs a lot more skill.
I'm just gonna go down and water this tree. Actually, this is quite a nice little area, we call this, the nickname for this area is, The Crib because you can see we've got a fallen tree here that's got two trees growing out from it. So it's sort of you feel like you're in a crib.
Julia watering newly planted trees
This is a cherry tree that was planted a few months ago, there was a another cherry that was planted very soon after the burial, but it didn't survive. We've had a lot of, as you know, a lot of very dry summers, and, you know, the young trees don't always make it. So despite our watering, it's worth putting a little bit of time and effort into protect them.
So this family, the husband's here, the wife is booked in here, and there's a bench and a bird box in his memory.
Bench and birdbox in memory
And there's another grave here that's a different family. So this family, they haven't got a gravestone from us yet but what we do is we put these little markers, it's sunk a bit, so it's not a great marker, just so that when people are working in the wood, although you still got to look for them, it shows where a grave is because you can see the the forest sort of takes them in a bit.
Beautiful markers used to identify graves before headstones arrive
What's the actual work that happens, in a sense that if there's a space here for this chap's wife to go in the future, looking at this space now it's covered in quite tall grasses and wildflowers - so is all that scraped back and they just use tools like spades to dig the hole or...?
We have a mechanical digger for the the main part of the work but there's a process. What will happen before the digger comes in, is we will come in and by hand remove as many of the plants as we can. Anything that can be saved. Unless it's a bramble in which case we destroy! But any other plant, flower, tree, shrub, anything will either be put to one side to be replanted after the burial, or will be taken to one of the previous burials from a few months ago, where we need to recolonate. And what you do really depends on the weather. In the winter you could put, if there were ferns there, you could put them to one side. And I think this one here, you can see there's lots of ferns there, I'm pretty sure we put those to one side and planted them very soon after the burial, so that it goes back to the forest. But in the dry weather you're better off planting them straight away somewhere where they're not going to be disturbed again. And then, you know, we come around with the watering can.
Snippet from the audio
When we go into a new area, when you're disturbing the ground, we'll tend to do a few in that area so that it can then all recover together rather than, you know, here, do one, there do other. We have got people that have pre booked and they will they will be in their chosen plot. But for people that haven't pre-booked, you tend to do them in the same sort of area, so that the ground's disturbed for just for a couple of months. And then it can recolonate.
Gosh you have to know your way around, don't you? To work out where all this is.
I mean, obviously, we have quite accurate maps, and all our paths are labelled so but you can see here, although we've got a burial in here, we're not going to put anyone either side. So although the actual grave is quite a small area, because of the trees the area the family would consider their little patch is quite big. They vary around the woods, some of them are smaller, but you don't feel like your neighbours are too close.
What sort of ages do you range from here? Is it all ages?
All ages, in fact, we do have a Baby Grove, which is just coming up here on the left. A very sad bit of a the wood. I mean, the families that lose young ones, it's just seems so cruel. I'm not sure how many babies we have here, but certainly in the woods as a whole, we've got about a dozen, I'd say.
My friend, although they had a wake afterwards, they said that the actual funeral they only wanted immediate family and invited friends only because they were really struggling and they wanted it to be a small intimate affair. But they did want the coffin lowered before they came to the grave. So although I wasn't a close friend of his I just knew him from music sessions in the pub. I was one of the people that lowered him down, and then I left before the family arrived. So I was very honoured to be able to do that for someone that I knew. I mean, it is obviously very upsetting. But it's, it's nice to have been part of that. Yeah, you really do feel that you make a difference for the families and certainly in a woodland setting like this.
Prep before a burial. Photo credit: Jonathen Harty
Most people when they leave, they have a sort of sense of relief and you know, it's as if the wood is sort of comforting them in some way. And you know, when you hear the birds chirping and any even actually when it's when it's teeming down with rain, a lot of people appreciate being in a natural environment that hasn't got that sort of clinical feel that you sometimes get in a traditional cemetery.
Rainfall in a thick woodland is different to in the open, isn't it? You've got a green canopy above you that shelters you to a degree and then you get those lovely drips.
So this is our plant nursery. I'll just check for any cash!
So we've got some trees and flowers and everything here, all native species. So people can come along, leave a donation, take some pots.
Plant nursery to buy native plants for graves
I mean it does need a little bit of weeding at the moment, but every time I visit my only focus at the moment is watering. We haven't got a tap so we had to get all our water from the stream. Our water trough is empty, which means taking a wheelbarrow, filling it up, bringing it up the steps and bringing it down here - so it is a lot of work to keep it watered when we get a dry spell like this.
Do you have people who work for the charity to help with this? Or are there volunteers?
I'm the only employee. We have got people that do work for us as contractors, they've usually got other jobs and will give us a quite a good rate. But they have to fit it around their their other work commitments. So it's quite a small team of people to keep it running. But we do have a volunteer day, once a month. And some volunteers have no association with us other than they want to come and volunteer, some are recently bereaved and want to just tend to their their family's grave, and some people have booked for the future. So you know, they just like being in the woods and want to spend time.
Snippet from the audio
We haven't got any problematic animals. We do get a lot of dog walkers here. We're quite happy for the dogs to come along, but we've never had any anything digging in the wood.
Yes, it's helpful.
When it's this natural, it probably sorts itself out a bit, whereas if you planted trees in a field and then you have deer nearby or something eating them, you've got that battle to try and keep it wild.
Well, we're surrounded by farmer's fields. It's quite often sheep, sometimes cows in the surrounding fields. So we have got good fences, right the way round. We get a lot of wildlife here, as in owls, bats, all sorts of birds, mice, I'd imagine got rats around as well, somewhere. But we haven't got anything that's destructive to the trees. If you'd been here a few weeks ago, I would have been able to show you our woodpecker nest, but it's empty now. I mean, I could show you the nest.
Off the wall question time - do you get requests from ghost hunting groups and the like saying, can we come and spend a night in your woodland?
No, we haven't. We do quite often get people like yourself that for one reason or another, you know, are interested in the woods and want to do a blog or sometimes get artists that want to come and draw things. So you know, people do visit other than because we're a cemetery, but we haven't had ghost hunters yet - that I know of. But I mean, I've been here quite often, you know, sort of late, you know when it's starting to get dark, and I'm a bit nervy, but I've never felt any any of that feeling here. You know, sometimes certain areas can make you feel a little bit uneasy, but I think here because it's so close to being a normal woodland.
In a cemetery. It's not usually the graves at night, that's creepy, it's the people who hang around in cemeteries. Who hangs around cemeteries at night?!
So our picnic bench there used to just have one seat. And one day another seat just appeared from nowhere. And it took months to find out where it comes from. And we'd had an event from our car park stolen about a year before. And someone, a volunteer at a local place where they do woodworking, heard the tale of our bench being stolen, made this bench and carried it from 10 miles away. On his journey there was a thunderstorm he had to hide under a bush. Delivered this bench and went off and never told us about it, just gave it as a donation. There was no other reason other than he liked what we were doing.
Gifted bench to match table and original bench
It matches so perfectly!
It does! It was incredible. He'd been to the wood, he'd heard about our stolen bench, he may have assumed that this was a stolen one, I don't know, but the fact that he he created such a beautiful beautiful bench at great inconvenience to himself, brought it over to us for no other reason other than he wanted one to be here, not for reward or anything. I think if you set up somewhere that that people feel that resonates with people you do get people coming out of the woodwork and doing things to help.
So if you were to bring cremation ashes here you can go two ways you can either have a plot particularly for that, or there is a communal area where you can go. Well, you can scatter the ashes, obviously, by prior arrangement, but not have a memorial stone. And some people will, if there's a difference in the family about what they want, sometimes you have one partner that wants to be buried, and the ashes of the other put in the same plot. Sometimes people will be buried with the ashes of their loved ones or pets.
There is a small wasps nest just forming. So I think we should avoid going into the shelter.
Is what you use to transport the coffins?
Cart used for transporting coffins to grave
Ah yes, this is the cart that we use from the car park to the grave side. So all the sides come off, so you can, you know, we usually have one end open, slide the coffin on and then pull it by hand around the word. And it makes a lovely trundling sound when it goes.
Cart used for transporting coffins to grave. Photo Credit: Jonathen Harty
Do you have people buried here sort of anonymously as in, there's no marking that the grave is there, apart from you knowing about it?
If they've been buried in the last year, they may not have a marker. The reason we put those stones that I showed you in, is so that we always have a visual guide as to where someone is. Now they do get get covered over, so these little things you might have seen around, they indicate some of the grid lines within the wood because the wood is mapped. And we do that every few years, because, you know, measuring devices get more and more accurate as time goes on. Even when you know they're here, it's not easy. Sometimes they're not easy to find. Oh, actually, I know this one here. So here is a fresh grave, I think it was last month. And here is one that was a long, long time ago. So you can see without that stone, you really wouldn't know. So yes, the second batch that we ordered are a bit smaller.
People being buried. Now, they signed agreement to say that they will get a stone through us within a year. Because, you know, the forest stones reclaim the area. And you know, if you if you had to find a tree, you obviously don't want to pile it up on top of the grave, even if it isn't visited very often, you know, out of respect. But some of the early Booker's particularly asked for the grave to be unmarked. You know, an unmarked grave in the woods is is an appeal for a lot of people. So these stones, although they show there is a grave, they don't have any identifying feature.
Beautiful markers used to identify graves before headstones arrive
So this one, if by this time next year, the family haven't ordered a gravestone we'll get another one of those to put on here. We like to keep them as cheap as we can. So that, because we sort of have a monopoly on it because we don't want stones coming in that don't comply with the rules.
So I can show you some of the blanks, as we go and collect them from a local quarry. I mean, some people are doing it from afar, they'll say, 'you choose it'.
So, you know, they don't look impressive in the rough.
Natural Welsh slate gravestones used in the woodland
But you can see they will though.
I'm an avid stone collector, so I will look for ones like this. I think looks like a crocodile. We did have a gorgeous one in the shape of a harp, that had just naturally broken that way. And it was stolen. I mean, like anything, you know, they do go missing. We can't keep everything locked up, you just have to accept that you'll get some disappear. People will wander around looking for things that they can take home. But yeah, you get all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Are they mostly local people or because it's quite rare do you get people coming further afield?
Mostly local. We kind of had some someone in the last few years from Essex, they used to come on holiday to the area. And I think originally had family in this area, but you know, long since gone. So the family wanted his remains to be here. He used to come and walk in in the mountains.
It's a lovely place to be if you had somebody that you needed to bury, but you weren't going to be able to visit them. I don't know let's say you were in a different country or something, but you wanted to sort of know they were somewhere and kind of had company - because there's so much nature here, like someone was really being looked after in some sort of way.
A grave here doesn't have to be attended constantly, it blends in with the wood, it's part of the wood, it's part of the whole. We don't allow people to put fences up around their plot or to, you know, sort of outline it in any way, because it's all part of the woods. Which means that if you haven't been for a while, you might take a little bit longer to find the gravestone and there may be a few more brambles you'd like, but it's part of the wood. It doesn't stand out as it would when you've got little boxes next to each other, and you've got one that hasn't been mowed. It's a bit different.
Have you got a plot?
I've got a plot. I haven't chosen the place.
I was going to say, surely you picked up the best bits first.
The most recent ones near the car park that we saw, I thought that would be a nice place for me. Well, I don't actually mind. So long as I'm here somewhere, I don't mind.
So there you have it, The Eternal Forest, one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever visited, and certainly one of the most stunning woodlands, made all the more special because of those resting there. For photos and videos of the forest, visit the link in the show notes or the blog page on the website.
To find out more about The Eternal Forest or to support their important work, or even set up something similar (we need a lot more of these around the UK in my view) visit their website: https://www.eternalforest.org/
To support my work doing the podcast you can do that through buymeacoffee.com/thesilentwhy and that just allows me to keep the podcast going and to help others find their way through loss and grief, and you can find out more about the podcast by following us on social media on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.
Thanks for listening. I'm going to end with a quote that fits well into life when we're struggling a bit, but also in death in a natural burial ground.
Sometimes when you're in a dark place you think you've been buried, but you've actually been planted. Christine Caine