Eco Funerals - Ireland's Green Graveyard

Walking up the long Chestnut lined avenue that leads to Woodbrook, Ireland's first natural burial ground is a stark change from entering most traditional graveyards. But making a change from tradition is what Colin McAteer, owner of the Green Graveyard Company, has set out to do.

‘It takes a wee bit of time to find the graves at first’ says Colin, his thick Donegal accent sounding out of place in the midst of Co. Wexford, ‘your eyes have to get used to them’. 

Colin, whose family have been involved in funerals for over fifty years, opened Woodbrook Natural Burial Ground in October 2010. Located in Killane, near Enniscorthy, the burial ground is the first of its kind in Ireland. ‘We set out to do something different’ says Colin, ‘my family got involved in funerals in 1954. Before that we used to supply coffins, because there was no undertaker in the area. We are part of a very rural community in Donegal.
'In a way this is a natural growth from what we were doing, but at the same time it is something very different and very special. Natural burials are where I want to be, I love the idea of it and I feel happiest here. I couldn’t imagine being buried in a traditional cemetery with the likes of this available’.
The burial ground, ironically, is full of natural life and activity, and immeasurably beautiful in the way that only wilderness can be – full of explosions of colour among the slow-swaying grass. ‘We’re building more than a burial ground here’ explains Colin, ‘we are creating a sanctuary for nature to flourish. That’s a process that you can’t dictate or hurry along, but we are really pleased with how things are coming together for us here’. Dotted throughout the wild meadow, saplings are growing. ‘They’re our grave markers’ says Colin, ‘many people will like to have a tree planted on top of the grave’. Some of the newer mounds are obvious, but others are practically invisible until they are pointed out – there are no vertical headstones. 
‘That’s one of the things that makes this space different’ says Colin, ‘we don’t allow the conventional type headstones. We do encourage granite or slate markers that lie flat on top of the graves, they are sourced from the hills overlooking the site. Keeping things local is a big part of the idea behind the natural burial ground, we try to make use of everything from the surrounding area. In an ideal situation, the only imported thing in this place will be me’.
Woodbrook also encourages the use of environmentally friendly coffins. ‘We get a range of coffin types here, cardboard, willow, water hyacinth, or just plain pine, with no varnish. Using these type of coffins is in keeping with the area and in keeping with what we are trying to create. This space is a nature reserve so there is no sense in putting brass or plastic into the ground when there is no need for them’. 
The burials themselves are also different from more conventional graveyards. ‘We bury people shallower than a regular graveyard’ says Colin, ‘the reason for that ties in with the whole idea of coming back to nature through the burial process. The further down in the ground that you go the less oxygen there is in the soil, so decomposition doesn’t happen as quickly as when you are close to the surface. We bury people at four feet because at that level there is a lot of oxygen in the soil. And at that level you are helping the tree that is planted on top of you, and the grass and flowers that are growing around you’.
The demand for alternatives to conventional burial grounds is growing, but the process of establishing a site is complex. A burial ground is a long-term project, and provisions must be made to make the site secure for future generations. Woodbrook may be unique in Ireland, but in the UK there are over 340 established Natural Burial Grounds (NBGs). ‘It’s not just a matter of finding the right location’ says Colin, ‘there’s a lot of planning and a lot of preparation that needs to go into it as well. We’ve walked away from potential sites that we had been granted planning for because we couldn’t secure long term rights. Many of the sites in the UK have made that mistake, they are set up by well-meaning people who haven’t thought about securing rights and upkeep beyond their own generation’. 
Colin’s young son Olly is along on his first visit to Woodbrook. He is instantly at home chasing horseflies with a long spring of grass. ‘I suppose we are looking at the future here, this is a very long-term project, one that will still be developing long after I am gone. You wouldn’t be in it if you were looking to make a quick bit of money, it is about setting up something that is significant and can offer people another option’.
With the success of Woodbrook, Colin has found that many county councils have been in contact with him, eager to set up NBGs, as the demand shifts away from conventional burials. ‘There is a wider societal awareness of what we are leaving behind on a day to day basis. Twenty years ago, it was the fringes of the population that were talking about living green. Now practically everybody is doing their bit, recycling is the norm, we try to shop local and support one another, so it just seems like a natural progression’.
Much like the way nature has taken its course across the burial ground, Colin found that things naturally developed when it came to opening Woodbrook. 
'A big task is finding the right people on the ground' explains Colin, 'and none of this would have been possible without our caretaker Niall. He’s a local man, and we’d initially gotten in contact with him to make our gateway into the grounds. We didn’t want anything concrete or modern, and we knew he worked with local stone, so we hired him to build a traditional stacked gateway. I don't think he knew what to make of the place at first, but then he started to ask questions, and more questions, and even more questions. Then one day, out of the blue, he asked if he could have this particular plot for himself when his time comes. I told him of course he could, and asked would he consider being our caretaker. It has worked out amazingly because I couldn’t have found a better man for the job. He has totally fallen for the place'.
Niall, who lives less than a mile away is indeed smitten with the concept of a natural burial space. Having spent much of his life farming, Niall took up stone carving in 1998 and several of his pieces can be seen along the avenue leading to the burial ground.
‘I freely admit that I came down here to earn a few bob, but I have since been taken over by the place’ Niall explains, ‘What really appeals to me is that in nature things go in a continuous circle, there is no permanence. I always found it a bit arrogant that you landscape a grave with kerb, and headstone, and pebbles – giving the impression that it will stay like that forever. But it doesn’t, nature takes over very quickly. I’m all for letting nature get going straight away’. 
Niall points over to a nearby corner of the burial ground, ‘I will be perfectly happy to lie just over there, under an elder. To have the blossom in the summer and the berries to feed birds – to me that will allow me to continue to be part of this planet that has sustained me for the short time I’ve been on it. I’ve received many blessings here, physical and emotional. To return something to that rather than take something from it means a lot to me’.
'Some people don’t fully understand what we are doing here' continues Niall 'some see it as a challenge to the Church but it is not like that whatsoever. This has nothing to do with religion, or the lack of it'. 
'This is here for all of society. That all inclusiveness is a very big part of it. You’ll receive the same dignity and respect if you wanted a religious burial of any creed or denomination as you would if you wanted a non-religious ceremony. To me that is awfully important. Our society is changing. It is a natural progression. We are becoming more aware of ourselves and more open'.
‘It will be interesting to see how natural burial grounds play out in Ireland’ says Colin, who is settling Olly in for the long drive back to Donegal.  ‘Certainly the demand seems to be there. The Irish funeral market is quite unique. It is very different to the UK. In the UK they have around 85% cremation and 15% burial. In Ireland we’re practically the reverse, 85% burial, but there has been a growing trend in cremation over the past while, and I wonder if that is down to the fact that people didn’t feel like they had any other options’.
'I think that is what this is all about at the end of the day' says Colin, 'I've talked to so many people who said they would love to be buried in a wild, beautiful space, and until now that option wasn't really on the cards - funerals were very much a prescribed thing. Here we are happy to give people options. If they want a full religious service that is fine. If they want a Civil Celebrant to conduct the funeral that is fine. If they just want one or two people there, that is fine'.
Aside from outstanding natural beauty, perhaps the biggest asset that Woodbrook offers is choice.  Its success shows that there is demand for more personalised, and more ecologically sound funeral options. Colin's parting thought sticks with me: 'We are all living greener, so why not die greener too'.
For more information on Woodbrook contact Colin on 0749152712 or visit
Related Links: