Thursday 18 July 2019

Acorn urns, burials under trees, and colourful coffins – Irish funeral trends are changing

This week, is running a series on some experiences Irish people have had around end of life in Ireland. Here, we explore changing funeral customs

Colin McAteer (right) of Green Graveyard and Niall Deacon, caretaker at Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds, Killane, Co Wexford. Photo: Patrick Browne
Colin McAteer (right) of Green Graveyard and Niall Deacon, caretaker at Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds, Killane, Co Wexford. Photo: Patrick Browne
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

Funeral customs in Ireland are evolving with time. Keening has disappeared; the Banshee is no longer the harbinger of death; and cremations and civil burials are becoming more common. So too are pared-back Catholic burials without the “removal” ceremony. You can even be buried under a tree if you want to be.

Members of the clergy, even, have booked spots in Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds in Wexford, according to owner Colin McAteer.

The seven-acre site in Wexford - dotted with native trees, and bluebells and primroses in spring, and daisies in summer – opened in 2010 and now has over 400 grave spaces booked.

Natural burial grounds, popular in the UK where around 350 of them operate, are set in nature and surrounded by wildlife. A single plot is €950, cheaper than many town and city grave spots.

“In the past, they went with what was normal. Now people are having greater input in their own funerals and planning ahead.”

“People of any religion have used the site. We’ve had Catholic and Church of Ireland burials, people who’ve had a civil burial. The churches have been excellent with us if we’ve ever needed any minister or priest to attend. They’ve always gone out of their way to make it happen. People want this type of burial ground, and a lot of the churches now, their main focus isn’t on making graveyard space, they’re leaving that to the councils.”

“A number of church leaders have chosen this option for themselves.”

The ethos behind the Wexford natural burial ground is environmentally friendly. The site was once an over mature spruce pine forest, where the trees had begun to rot, and biodiversity was minimal. Intensively farmed trees leave little room for native flowers, and are breeding grounds for vermin, McAteer suggests. The wildflower seeds which lay dormant in the ground for years are now springing to life.

“What we’re creating is a scrubby woodland with pathways through it... We actively encourage a more diverse setting, where nature has a time to move about and do its own thing.”

“I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what I wanted to do. You often hear it, ‘just bury me under a tree’, my own grandfather would have said it often enough. We’ve created a space where people can be buried under a tree.”

“You go down and meet the families down there, and they actually thank you for making the space. The families that we deal with are brilliant. They’ve so much trust and faith in what we’re doing that it sorts of feeds back to you.”

Mourners can have a tree planted at the site instead of buying plastic floral wreaths for the funeral. Urns made out of paper, and caskets weaved from Willow can be used for burials.

“Certainly the amount of environmentally friendly coffins being used is massively increasing”, says Colin who also runs Green Coffins Ireland. “I find a lot of people who are choosing cremations are looking at different options as to how to solve the problem of what do we do with the ashes… there’s greater demand for urns that would be used for sea dispersals or lake dispersals. We do a number of floating urns that float on top of the water for a couple of minutes, and then they disappear… then the ashes dissolve with the urn.”

“A lot of people don’t want to put a large metal casket in the ground; the acorn urn will dissolve over time.”

Eco-friendly coffins, which are equivalent in price range to mid-range traditional coffins, are also seen as a new alternative to the traditional coffins

“We would mainly concentrate on willow which grows quite easily in Ireland, we’ve a good climate for it. It’s bringing back a skill of weaving that was nearly gone in Ireland.”

“People are starting to think, why stick a chipboard in the ground. It’s far more environmentally friendly to have a willow coffin.”

He added: “The natural burial is a lot cheaper. First of all you don’t put up a massive headstone and stone surround. It’s out in the country, so it tends to be cheaper as well.”

But John Kenendy at Staffords funeral homes in Dublin, says traditional funerals can be competitively priced too.

A family could spend as much as €14,000 on a funeral, and that could include the grave spot, five limousines, a horse hearse and a higher-end coffin.

But traditional coffins range in prices from €600 to €4,500, and funeral directors operate under a code which says they must be upfront about costs at the time of booking, so families can tailor their wishes to their budgets.

“They may want to purchase an urn, and there’s a variation of urns,” John says.

“Each funeral director will have a standard charge for each element of the funeral. If the funeral is outside Dublin, there’ll be a travel charge. It’ll depend on whether the deceased is dressed in a habit or their own clothing, and which coffin they choose.”

“It’s very much in our interest to try to gauge with a family what their needs are. For some families, the cost is irrelevant, for other families they need the little bit of guidance.”

“An awful lot of what we try to do is to establish with the family what the budget might be, and if they have social welfare benefit, how will they get that money.”

“A €700 coffin could be the same quality. Then we’d ask, do you need three limousines, would one do?”

Personalised coffins are also featuring in Irish funerals now, where a photo can be wrapped around the coffin in vinyl.

Colm Kieran from the Irish Association of Funeral Directors explains: “You can put the image of football stadiums on a coffin if you like. You can wrap coffins with vinyl images on them. It might be music, musical instruments, or notes of a particular song the person liked.”

“The more people see this, the more it’s inclined to catch on.”

Crazy Coffins in the UK tells of one Irish customer in recent years, a man who pre-ordered his own Jack Daniels bottle-shaped coffin.

“The simplest one we do is the skip. The cheapest one would start at £1,000 (€1,150). If you wanted something like a Rolls Royce, it could be 4,000 (€4,600),” a spokesperson said.

Colm also expects more changes in how Irish funerals are planned.

“We’re also noticing year on year that people are using more personalised stationery, more options like web cam facilities at funerals where it might be recorded or streamed live for people who are not able to make it home.”

“There are a lot more options for keepsakes. We would be able to offer finger impressions using ink and an ink pad, and then that’s given to the family afterwards. We’ve had someone who’s had it tattooed, and made it into jewellery like a ring. The image can be put into a keepsake.”

“You will start to see more and more the personalisation of funerals... Coffin manufacturers are introducing the personalisation of coffins.”

“This generally happens when someone has left their wishes. When someone is unable to leave their wishes, people then tend to revert to tradition.”

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