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Choosing a final resting place among the trees
In a small corner of Oxfordshire, two farmers have created a woodland burial ground where people can become part of the landscape after their death. Debbie Waite reports IT IS not unusual to see children playing football while they wait for a loved one’s funeral at Westmill Burial Ground near Faringdon.
It is also not uncommon to see mourners lowering their own loved ones into the ground, playing musical instruments at the graveside, or sitting down afterwards to share a picnic.
Regular open days also see families coming along en masse, to spend time in the beautiful wild landscape, celebrating the lives of those they have lost.
The burial ground is part of an organic mixed farm run by Liz Rothschild and her partner Adam Twine.
It was set up in 2011 as a not-for-profit business offering those of all faiths, or none, the chance to be buried amid nature – and ultimately contribute to the creation of a beautiful woodland which will be enjoyed by generations to come.
Ms Rothschild said: “Having experienced a number of close family and friends’ deaths, I have become very interested in how our society handles death and dying and felt there were improvements to be made. I became a celebrant working with people to develop a funeral that felt right for them and the person who had died and some years later saw the opportunity to open the burial ground.”
The couple, who have two children, have accommodated 45 burials at Westmill so far, with 30 others pre-booked and space for a thousand in total.
Ms Rothschild said: “We have had vicars, humanists, or even the family themselves doing it all.
“We have had hearses and people arriving with their loved one in the back of a white van or a Volvo Estate, all decorated with flowers.
“Some people use undertakers, while at some burials we have helped the family bear and lower the coffin themselves.
“People have passed round a flagon of home-made cider after pouring a liberal share into the grave and then toasted their loved one.
“And lots come and make music here. We have had violins, clarinets, flutes, pipes, drums, gongs and recorded music.”
Children have helped fill in the graves of loved ones at Westmill. Some people even clap when a body is lowered down.
Ms Rothschild said some people had created beautiful shrouds, while others used a simple blanket: “People have even stitched and embroidered, sewn, crocheted and knitted little decorations and put them on.”
A wake at Westmill is also a moveable feast, with people bringing picnics or booking a caterer on-site.
Twenty years ago there was only one green burial site in England – in Carlisle – now there are 270.
In Oxford, Wolvercote Cemetery has a small section for people to choose a woodland burial, yet remain within the city.
Just over half are council-run – like Wolvercote – with the remainder provided by landowners, farmers and non-profit organisations.
Other green burial sites in Oxfordshire include Fairspear Natural Burial Ground near Leafield, Witney; Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground near Banbury, and the Henley-On-Thames Burial Ground.
Many, including Westmill, are members of the Association of Natural Burial Grounds (ANBG).
ANBG manager Rosie Inman-Cook said: “People like them because they offer a uniqueness to the family and the person buried there.
“It’s personal, bespoke and people from all walks of life, religions and no religion, are choosing them.”
Sarah Oliver lives in Faringdon and has been a helper at Westmill for about 18 months.
She said: “My father was buried at Westmill last month and the ceremony we had for him was just as we wanted for him – a very hands-on approach for me and my family.
“It felt exactly right that we should be very involved in these last actions for my dad. We felt that we had truly laid him to rest ourselves in the best way that we possibly could.”
Opening a burial ground needs the proper permissions, but there are very few actual rules at Westmill.
They do however ask people to use coffins which are bio-degradable and do not release toxins into the soil.
People mostly choose wood, willow, bamboo, felt, recycled paper or even cardboard.
And the only thing that is essential is that the death is properly registered, which involves a doctor and the register office.
Ms Rothschild recognises it might not be everyone’s idea of how a burial should be, but says people often change their mind when they visit. People attending a funeral here often say: ‘I have never been to one of these. I didn’t know what to expect.’”
But everyone seems to feel drawn to coming back because the place is welcoming and always open.
“A lady I know who has a pre-booking said she finds it really comforting knowing where she is going to be. Another one enjoys the idea that lots of her friends will be here as well. I like that idea, too.
“I watch the trees get bigger as I get older and I look forward to seeing them really filling out by the time I will be walking around, probably with the aid of a stick.
“We are getting older together.”
Westmill does not offer individual trees for each plot and there are also no individual grave markers, although families are given a map on which each burial is clearly marked.
This is partly why the burial ground has just welcomed its new standing stone, courtesy of Witney-based sculptor Alec Peever. Mr Peever has created a millennium memorial for Woodstock, war memorials for Woodstock Museum and Oxford’s Magdalen College, and gargoyles for the Bodleian Library, but his latest creation has touched him deeply.
He said: “I had never been to Westmill until a couple of years ago when Liz first invited me along, and straight away I could see it was a very special place.
“Having spent time here, I am booking my own plot at Westhill.
“It is beautiful and I Iove the idea of going back into the ground and going around again.”
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