Natural-burial grounds aim to return the body to the earth and are seen as environmentally sustainable alternatives to present funeral practices. They eschew the traditional marble headstones and concrete dividers in favour of natural landscapes and overgrowth.
There are more than 200 “green cemeteries” in Britain and more than 300 in America, where new land is continuously being allocated for them.
McAteer admits that the idea may take a while to catch on, but believes his site, part of the 115-acre Woodbrook House estate near Enniscorthy, is ideal for Ireland’s first natural graveyard. Two green plains are split by a small forest of spruces, with a view of the Blackstairs Mountains. A 200m drive leads to an entrance with mature chestnut trees.
“A natural burial ground is just like a normal graveyard, but without the massive marble headstones and concrete surroundings,” said McAteer. “We aim to grow the area into a natural Irish forest by planting trees and allowing them to develop. There’s no long-term maintenance. After about eight years, the trees overgrow, it becomes a forest, and the ground finds a second use.”
If planning permission is granted, the burial plots will have small markings and microchips to let a handheld control identify graves even in areas that are overgrown.
McAteer said he came up with the idea for a natural burial site when people began inquiring if one existed. He said two to three people a week want to book a plot, while others hope green graveyards will be developed in their area.
Giles FitzHerbert, a former British ambassador to Venezuela, owns the Woodbrook House grounds, where he runs a B&B and has held environmental festivals. He said his neighbours were all “quite happy about it”.
“People are interested in a simpler way of being buried,” said FitzHerbert. “I want to be buried that way myself, in a willow casket. I would definitely expect to end up [buried on the site] among others.”
Wexford county council is expected to deliver a decision at the end of February, and McAteer is already looking at other sites, with one other planning application lodged.
“The council likes the idea, certainly the people I have spoken to,” he said.
“We’re looking at Dublin, Galway and a number of sites in Belfast and Derry. Ideally, in a couple of years from now, we’d have one in every county.”
Waterford city council is seeking to reserve space in a new cemetery at Ballybeg for natural burials. McAteer believes that natural-burial grounds are cheaper as they don’t use headstones, which average at €3,000.
In Ireland, the green-burial movement has been focusing more on the use of eco-friendly coffins, but there has been a growing demand for natural alternatives to traditional burial sites. The Irish Association of Funeral Directors has reported an increase in requests for greener coffins as people follow the example of celebrities such as Keith Floyd, the chef who was cremated last year in a coffin made from banana leaves.
McAteer, whose family runs a funeral home in Fanad in Donegal, has created 14 types of eco-friendly caskets and supplies about 15 a week to undertakers. They are made of natural materials, such as willow and bamboo, which soak up carbon dioxide when they grow.