In 2020 Leedam (Native Woodland Ltd) and our natural burial grounds, had the honour of winning a Green Apple Award 'For Environmental Best Practice Sustainable Development Green Champion'. As March signals the start of spring and a time where everything is becoming green, we thought it would be the perfect time to share this news.
We were honoured to have won a Green Apple Environment Award for our environmental practices and sustainable development. You can read more about Leedam and our natural burial grounds in the essay we submitted.
"We started our journey in 2002 when James's aunt Elizabeth Leedam died. She loved the countryside, it’s history, heritage, literature and wildlife. After a series of uninspiring cremation services for other family members we decided to find out more about natural burials, which sounded more her style.
At the time, woodland burial was a relatively new concept in a sector that had very conservative views of ‘how things should be done’, but Ken West MBE was pioneering woodland burial and leading the way for others to follow. These were early days and the schemes focused on replacing headstones with trees, to create woodland.
Seeing the opportunity to expand woodland burial grounds nationwide, Native Woodland Ltd was born in 2003. Chartered Building Surveyor, James Leedam, and Environmental Consultant, Ian Walls, joined forces to develop the company. The first opportunity came at Usk, when landowner Rosie Humphreys discovered that we were in discussion with Gwent Wildlife Trust about setting up a natural burial ground.
During the ‘design’ process we realised that the vernacular landscape is an important part of the heritage of a locality; arbitrary changes would damage or lose that character. This was to be seminal for the future.
Another guiding principle was that operations needed to be sustainable in environmental, social and economic terms for the very long term. The bankruptcy of Victorian cemetery entrepreneurs after their plots had all sold was a salutary lesson. We needed to create future assets, not long-term liabilities. We examined woodland burials and visited operations that proposed to fund the future from coppicing, another that was designed to crop mature timber from the burial ground with designed-in lorry tracks for hauling out felled timber. None were economically sustainable. We steered away from woodland burial towards farmland meadow burials, where the dual benefits of grazing - income and grass management - were intrinsically linked.
There were issues at existing natural burial grounds, where plaques and gravestones marked graves. Individual plots were being gardened, benches appearing, mementos were collecting - instead of natural landscapes, they were close to resembling scruffy cemeteries that were not easy to maintain. Our innovative system of digitally mapping the burial ground on CAD means measurements from permanent survey points can be used to flag any grave at any time without the need for plot markers, leaving the land unblemished. This precision and purity is what separates our burial grounds from others and preserves their simple, natural beauty. The system has now developed so that families are provided with GPS coordinates, QR codes with the grave’s geolocation and hyperlinks to Google Maps walking them to the spot. Each grave also has its own What 3 Words address shared with family members and friends who wish to visit or view the location online.
As climate change has developed into a full-blown climate emergency, sustainable natural burial is recognised as the most environmentally responsible way to dispose of our remains. Everything that goes into the ground is natural and biodegradable. No toxic embalming chemicals are allowed. Flowers must be locally sourced and free from plastic wrapping, trays, frames and Oasis foam. People use local crafts such as wicker work, woollen felt-making, printing and joinery. No headstones means no weekly refilling of vases with environmentally damaging cut flowers (waste from which is regularly removed from conventional cemeteries by the skip-load).
Conventional cemeteries and crematoria abound with suburban infrastructure. Our agricultural-style is a complete contrast to this. Our burial grounds blend seamlessly into Green-belt areas around cities, preserving the rural aesthetic. We have no rows of polished granite headstones plundered from across the globe causing ‘invisible’ harm beyond our shores to villages in Africa, Asia or South America, where mining practices destroy landscapes, silt-up rivers, deplete and pollute groundwater, ruin crops, clog up lungs, corrupt officials and damage communities. The transportation of these very heavy goods across the globe has enormous embedded carbon cost.
Over 400,000 Brits (80%) are cremated each year, which is a significant problem, releasing great volumes of carbon dioxide along with dioxins and furans, particulates and mercury vapour. This air pollution comes not only from the fuel used for incineration, but the coffin and it’s plastic handles, liner and polyester trimmings and the 18% of carbon in our own bodies that natural burial locks away. Much of the heat generated by the process goes wasted. James previously has spoken at the ICCM annual conference and was invited to address the Cremation Society annual conference on the subject of practical steps to reduce carbon emissions this year.
The ground maintenance regimes at conventional cemeteries and crematoria are process-intensive - mowing, strimming, pruning, spraying with herbicides to produce a virtual wildlife desert, full of colour from imported hot-house flowers in vases. Contrast this with the gentle nibbling of grass and enrichment of soil by sheep safely grazing in a meadow, occasional topping of perennial weeds and annual hedge-cutting. As different as chalk and cheese. We won ‘Cemetery of the Year’ at Usk (2008) and Henley (2013).
Our model of natural burial is economically sustainable because the investment in site infrastructure is low, the modest office overheads are shared between multiple burial grounds, the operation is jointly funded by the company and the landowner, between whom the costs and income are shared. Capital expenditure is recouped after a short period of time and operational costs are kept to sustainably low levels. Income from continued farming covers basic land management. Quite often the landowner has the in-house capability to perform the grave-digging services, which provides another useful source of farm income.
The burial grounds are a valuable community resource. As well as providing a space for more meaningful funerals, they offer a haven of peace where you can escape the rush of modern life, and access to land where you can take the whole family including the dog. Recognising this, we are developing way-marked woodland walking circuits to encourage families to enjoy the great outdoors. Natural burial grounds are modest and thoughtful, beneficial and sustainable - simple, natural and beautiful."
Stories and thoughts from the Leedam camp.
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