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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 August 2005, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
How do you want to go?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

Hunter S Thompson's memorial service
Hunter S Thompson's ashes go up
Few go out with as big a bang as Hunter S Thompson, whose ashes were scattered by fireworks on Saturday, but cremations and "eco" options are superseding the traditional funeral.

When most people think of a British funeral, they think of leafy churchyards and a burial plot surrounded by gravestones stretching back to antiquity.

But the UK has broken with this tradition. Not only do cremations now outnumber burials, more unusual exits are becoming increasingly popular, particularly among those of a "green" bent.

While few go as far as US gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, who came up with the idea of having his ashes mixed with explosives and fired from a 153-foot memorial tower, some Britons do think outside the church plot when planning their - or a loved one's - exit.


Mike Jarvis, of the Natural Death Centre, advises those who hope for a greener send-off, including those who want to be buried in their own back garden.

Most coffins are veneered chipboard which has a lot of nasty things in its composition
Mike Jarvis
No permission is needed if you would like your body to spend all eternity near your favourite apple tree. But those who take this route are advised to take care.

"Do consider what might happen to the property in the future, if there is any possibility that you are going to up sticks and move across the country. How are you going to preserve rights of access to the grave?" says Mr Jarvis.

Those who take the garden option must obey strict rules about not interring the body near water courses, maintaining a burial register, and checking for covenants in the deeds.

The Department of Constitutional Affairs keeps no figures on home burial, but Mr Jarvis estimates he has more calls from interested journalists than the bereaved.


But woodland burials, another green option, are rapidly growing in popularity.

The very first green burial site was set up by Carlisle City Council in 1993. Now there are 200 sites, many in picturesque locations, where the deceased are buried without a headstone. Viewed from the road, most are easy to miss.

Green burial site, courtesy of the Woodland and Wildlife Conservation Company
A tree, rather than a headstone
"The ethos is that instead of making the land sterile, which is effectively what traditional cemeteries do, you use unembalmed bodies instead of formaldehyde. It oxidises into formic acid which is toxic to the soil," says Mr Jarvis.

"You have biodegradable coffins - cardboard, willow, untreated pine. Most normal coffins are veneered chipboard which has a lot of nasty [chemicals] in its composition, or brass fittings."

As well as being sylvan idylls, the sites strike a chord in the green-aware 21st Century.

"[Of the] baby boom generation who are burying their parents, many were in the vanguard of things like recycling and ecological awareness," he says.

"Traditional cemeteries are under huge pressure with regard to space - it is a very uneconomical use of land. The land is made sterile by vast ranges of granite and Carrara marble."


For those who want to follow the example of their seafaring forefathers, burial at sea remains an option.

Burial of servicemen killed in Iraq
US Marines bury their fallen
Again no exact figures are kept for burials at sea, but it is estimated as many as 50 people a year go out this way.

David Hughes, of the Maritime Volunteer Service, helps bury people at a licensed spot eight miles off Newhaven, and says it is not a choice confined to old sea dogs.

"People choose to be buried at sea for all sorts of reasons associated with their past. We've had former merchant and Royal Navy people, a social worker and somebody who was an invalid all their life and never went to sea. Quite often there is no real rhyme or reason."

Sometimes the ceremony is conducted on the spot, but if the family is not up to the five-hour round trip, it is held onboard in the harbour before the crew takes the body out to sea.

But as fulfilling as a burial at sea can be for relatives happy to be honouring a maritime-obsessed family-member, it is not without its critics. John Matthews, the coroner for the Isle of Wight, the main site for sea burials in England, reportedly wants the practice restricted because improperly secured bodies have washed up on beaches.


But these unusual options are unlikely to dent the most popular choice of funeral, with 72% of those dying in the UK being cremated.

We saw a change in the attitude towards death and the body, [perhaps driven] by World War One
Brian Parsons
Funeral Service Journal
The practice has come a long way since the Cremation Society was formed in 1874. Founder Sir Henry Thompson thought cremation was necessary to save land and expense, and even believed ashes could be used as fertiliser.

After initial legal setbacks in their battle to get cremations accepted in the UK, the society won a major legal victory in 1884.

Eccentric druid Dr William Price, then 83, attempted to cremate the body of his five-month-old son, Jesus Christ. He was arrested before the hillside cremation could go ahead, but triumphed in a subsequent court case.

The following year there were three cremations, the year after 10 and by 1892, more than 100. But the boom in cremations came after World War II, with figures rising from 16,312 in 1933 to 50,000 in 1946.

Now it is the standard way to go in England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland.

Attitude shift

Brian Parsons, editor of the Funeral Service Journal, says ways to mark a loved one's passing underwent a major shift in the early 20th Century.

"We saw a change in the attitude towards death and the body, [perhaps driven] by World War One, the loss of life and the disappearance of life. Cremation appealed to the intelligentsia, the great and the good, but it didn't appeal to the working class. That didn't take place until the inter-war years."

Only in Northern Ireland has cremation not triumphed. There, only 15% of all bodies are cremated and there is only one crematorium.

United Reformed Church minister Dr Peter Jupp, an expert on cremation, says this may be due to the "vitality and robustness of mainline religion" in the province.

At the other end of the spectrum is Japan, where 98% of bodies are cremated. Dr Jupp links this to the ascetic Buddhist rituals of Japanese funerals, and also to its "very urban and industrial society [and] a shortage of land."

Whether the UK will go the same way is unclear, but the way we choose to make our exit has changed forever.

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