The green reaper

WHEN the sun is shining, there are some places in Scotland so blessed with spectacular scenery that you wish you could stay there for ever. In the case of the Cairngorms, that option is now a reality - though the conditions attached are rather grim.

Just over a week ago ten acres of the Cairngorms National Park was newly designated a burial ground. Delliefure, just outside Grantown-on-Spey, has space for 6,000 lairs among the lush green fields and silver birch woodland that roll down to the banks of the River Spey. But these are no ordinary lairs. This is to be a natural burial ground, where all the coffins and urns must be made of biodegradable materials, such as wicker, bamboo or cardboard. There are to be no tombstones: the marking of your passing will be an indigenous tree planted in one of the commemoration glades, or, if you opt to be interred in the woodland, your family can engrave a rough-hewn stone and place it in the dense groundcover where it's hoped it will be relatively inconspicuous.

The timing couldn't be better. In recent months, the proliferation of informal final resting places in the Scottish wilderness has caused a furore. First came the debate over memorial cairns and plaques, which were branded little more than morbid litter. Then the scattering of ashes on high-altitude peaks became controversial. These mineral-rich remains are fertilising the acidic soil on popular mountains like Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike, promoting moss and grass growth on ground that has been vegetation-free for thousands of years. It seems in death, as well as life, man has the ability to tame the wild.

What's more, traditional burials and cremations are both falling short of growing environmental concerns. Embalming fluids and the varnished woods of expensive coffins are being accused of adding damaging chemicals to the ground.

While cremations, which accounted for 72.4 per cent of the total funerals in the UK in 2005 - it's less in Scotland, according to the Federation of British Cremation Authorities. Of the 56,037 deaths in 2005, only 58.5 per cent chose to be cremated, process which causes toxic mercury to be released into the air which can harm the brain, kidneys, nervous system and unborn children. The government has now ordered that by 2012, this emission has to be reduced by 50 per cent, and special filtration systems are being installed at crematoria across the UK. The drawback is, of course, that not everyone can wait that long to ensure theirs is an eco- friendly death.

There are currently 214 natural burial sites in the UK and the Natural Death Centre in London predicts that by 2020 natural burials will account for 10 to 11 per cent of all burials. "The driving force is the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964," says Mike Jarvis, the centre's project manager. "They were the first generation to think about ecological issues and they want to carry that on until [and beyond] death. They don't want to contribute to the toxic pollution caused by crematoria."

Which is perhaps why Ian Walls, a former environmental consultant and co-owner of Native Woodland, who opened Delliefure on land owned by Lord Seafield, is on to a good thing. "People are beginning to ask why they should spend 1,000 on a polished bit of wood when they could be putting something back into the environment," says Walls.

It's a move that pleases Lord Seafield. "This is an extremely interesting project and one with which the estate is pleased to be involved. The burial site is both beautiful and tranquil - a wonderful setting. The natural, minimal approach to marking the actual burial plots and sensitive management of the site will ensure that these qualities remain." Native Woodland has two other such sites across Scotland, which have all undergone extensive hydro-geological surveys to ensure they will not contaminate the water table and have all been approved by SNH and Scottish Environmental Development Agency (SEDA). There's Cothiemuir Hill in Aberdeenshire on the Forbes estate, where you can have your ashes interred alongside a 4,000-year-old stone circle, or be buried in a nearby meadow, and a five-acre site at Hundy Mundy in the Borders, on land owned by Lord Haddington. So far Native Woodland has sold 35 plots at Hundy Mundy - five are set aside for the Haddington family - with 12 already in use. "I've watched the burials from a distance and it looks very nice. People walking up through the woods, carrying a coffin. It's very touching," says Haddington. "In Neolithic times people had their burial sites in natural surroundings. It's going back to those days, I feel."

What about security? The burial grounds are unlocked, and right of access means anyone can pass through the land. "With no tombstones, there's not much to steal. I'd be more worried about badgers," said Lord Haddington, "though they'd probably quickly realise it's not the best place to make a set."

Environmental benefits, however, are not the only draw for estate owners. "It seemed a good diversification idea," said Malcolm Forbes, son of the Forbes clan chief. "Farming is not particular clever, forestry is not making a fortune, and with cemeteries becoming full, this is something that could certainly catch on."

So how much does it cost? Unlike traditional sites, you don't buy a fixed plot, but a 50-year right to be buried in one of the designated glades. At Delliefure, there are seven glades: three woodland, and four in the open field that run down to the Spey. The glades are then systematically filled up as the "tenants" require them - with coffins buried two metres apart - and because there are no plaques or trees to mark each exact grave, families are given co-ordinates marked out from a fixed point so they can locate their loved ones.

A single grave costs 750 and it's 1,350 for a double plot, with a further charge of 200 paid at the time of burial for opening the ground. Some might think this expensive. The price for a cremation in the Highlands is 364, while the cost of a lair is just 162 for a single plot and 230 for a double, and 230 for opening the ground. But as Walls' business partner, James Leedam points out: "The local authority graves are state subsidised to the tune of 1,000."

Savings could be made on coffins. A 6ft willow coffin from Sawd Company, made in Poland, costs 399, while bamboo coffins made in China (with a Fair Trade stamp) cost 295 including a natural fibre cloth, bamboo headrest, delivery and VAT. At John Fraser and Son, funeral directors in Inverness, the prices of a simple oak coffin starts at 390, rising to over 1,000, but they would not sell a coffin to a member of the public, without the services of a funeral director.

And that's the bit that many consider expensive. At John Fraser & Sons, it can cost up to 2,000 for a funeral director and quality coffin. With a higher price tag on the burial plot, and the extra mileage of transporting the body to Grantown-on-Spey, funeral director Victoria Fraser thinks that a natural burial could end up being the most expensive funeral in the Highlands. Though as Leedam emphasises: "We're not trying to provide a cheaper option - we're trying to provide more choice."

Curiously, in a recent survey done by Native Woodland, 47 per cent of respondents said they didn't think a funeral director was necessary.

Now that might be easy for them to say. Ninety per cent of respondents are planning for their own death rather than that of a partner or relative, so they won't have to deal with the grief and unfamiliarity of having to transport a body.

Duncan McCallum, secretary of the Federation of British Cremation Authorities, who has seen more than his fair share of dead bodies, admits he couldn't do this for his own family.

"It sounds nice and cosy, but the reality is, how many people can go through with doing it all themselves?"

Margaret Brock, 66, has terminal lung cancer. With the blessing of her husband, Ronald, 74, she is planning to lie for seven days in her home in Coventry after her death, before her husband or son-in-law will drive her body to Delliefure in the Cairngorms in the back of a van.

"Traditional funerals are too flash," says Margaret. "Why would you want to show off when you're dead? You do that when you get married. This is something much more private. Flash funerals may have started with people who could afford to do it, but it became a habit that we are afraid to break."

Ronald Brock agrees: "The funeral directors have been getting away with it for too long," says Ronald.

"This is a great alternative, both for the price, and for the land - it's going to stay like this, not become littered with tombstones. We want to be part of that difference."

Her daughter is not as enthusiastic. "She can't understand why her mum could do it like this," says Margaret. "If she had come here today, I think she would feel differently."

Reverend Jim McEwan from nearby Grantown-on-Spey is an ardent supporter. He first read of the new burial ground in the local paper, and after consulting the church elders, wrote to Walls in support of his plans. McEwan also offers his services if people from out-of-town are looking for a natural, Christian burial.

"It occurred to me that many people will think of this as a hippy new-age kind of thing, and that mustn't be allowed to be the only way of looking at it," says Rev McEwan.

"I have heard people say that the Church shouldn't simply be following the fashion of the moment, but in many issues, including the stewardship of the earth, we should be at the vanguard."

For Runa Wolf, 52, an adult- education tutor and her partner Jennifer Matheson, 61, a retired Buddhist teacher from Forres, it's both the green angle and a belief, inspired by the death of Runa's sister last year, that it's important to plan your own funeral.

"I am doing this for Jennifer's sake if I die before her. It's the least you can do for your family," says Runa. "I am committed to sustainability and ecological ways of living. It's the earth that has given me life, and I will go back to it. If I became terminally ill, it would be nice to think of this as a home to return to."

For more information contact Native Woodland on 0131-661 7337 or www.nativewoodland.co.uk