Andy Clayden and Katie Dixon 2006

Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield, UK & Landscape Architect and Postgraduate

Woodland burial: what is the significance of the memorial tree?

The natural burial movement established a new burial aesthetic in which the identity and location of the deceased is potentially known only to the burial ground manager and the family and friends of the deceased.  In the most common form of natural burial the grave is marked by the planting of a tree. There has been very little research on why people choose natural burial either for themselves or their loved ones.  There is also little known about the significance of the memorial tree to the deceased or the family and friends of the deceased.  The paper reports on the findings of a recent study which tries to shed some light on what attracts people to natural burial, their choice of tree, and what it means to them. The study reveals that the chosen tree is much more than just an object to locate the grave, selected for its permanence and presence.  The creation of habitat is important but the tree may also embody personal and cultural memory and help to facilitate a lasting relationship with the grave in ways which are not visible to the casual observer. The study investigated a single woodland burial ground where there is an established friends’ group of approximately 300 members.  The membership includes two distinctive groups, bereaved people who have a loved one buried at the site, and people who have purchased their own burial plot.  The friends group therefore provides an opportunity to explore two very different perspectives on woodland burial.  Firstly, bereaved people who have a range of experiences of the burial ground including; the burial, planting the tree and visiting and tending the grave.  Secondly, pre-purchase members who have made the choice of a woodland burial in preference to other disposal options.  A questionnaire was sent to each member of the friends’ group.  The questionnaire was used to gather qualitative and quantitative data and included Likert scale semi-qualitative questioning, open-ended questions and opportunities for feedback and qualitative comments.


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