Back to Nature? The cultural, social and emotional implications of natural burial

This research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), was conducted by researchers from the Department of Landscape and the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield, UK
In a country where burial space is approaching exhaustion and individuals now face a potentially bewildering range of choices at a time of potential emotional crisis, what it means to bury naturally has emerged as a critical question. Through an exploration of changing practices in the ways in which people choose to memorialise their departed loved ones, the research team explored this question. They sought to understand how burial choices are made and what effect these might have upon relatives, friends and the wider community.  The aim of our programme of research was to investigate the cultural, social and emotional implications of how we treat people after their death. We pursued four key areas of inquiry:

Natural burial as creative resistance to modernist disposal and memorialisation
 –  does natural burial provide an opportunity for individual choices to be made and/or the opportunity to show environmental awareness?

Natural burial as an aspect of the re-enchantment of death
 –  do natural burial grounds offer their users a place where emotions and feelings are stimulated and expressed rather than contained and suppressed?

Natural burial as symbolic and environmental regeneration –  are users of natural burial sites offered the chance to create a shared landscape for burial, wildlife and informal recreation that benefits both nature and society?

Natural burial as identification
 –  what are the implications of natural burial for the long-term identity of both bereaved people and the deceased?
We examined these four areas through a three-year programme of work funded by the ESRC. The work included talking to groups and individuals about particular topics in order to reveal how individual and collective factors interacted within the conception and practice of natural burial. Alongside this, our building of a comprehensive Geographical Information System (GIS) has provided a national picture of how natural burial is being materialised in the UK. The aim of our project was then to map the extent to which changing trends were shaping the culture of death, both in the present-day and in the future, and in so doing offer some possible answers to the question ‘what does it mean to bury naturally?’


The Natural Burial project has now finished. If you would like any information about the research, please contact Andy Clayden, Dept of Landscape, University of Sheffield.


The Research Team:

Andy Clayden
Andy Clayden, Principal Investigator, Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield, UK

Jenny Hockey
Jenny Hockey, Co-Investigator, Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield, UK

Trish Green
Trish Green, Research Associate, Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield, UK

Contact Details:
Andy Clayden
Natural Burial Research Project
Department of Landscape
University of Sheffield, UK