It’s a dead cert: the Done­gal firm mak­ing fu­ner­als greener

Green Coffins Ire­land and the Green Grave­yard Com­pany pro­vide cus­tomers with eco-friendly and nat­u­ral burial op­tions, writes Joanna Kier­nan

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Your Business -­coffin­sire­­grave­

MARK Twain once wrote that ‘no real es­tate is per­ma­nently valu­able but the grave’ — yet many of us go through life re­fus­ing to con­sider the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of death un­til we are forced to do so.

Fol­low­ing the economic down­turn, how­ever, for­mer builder and fourth gen­er­a­tion fu­neral direc­tor Colin McA­teer be­gan to ex­plore these prac­ti­cal­i­ties in great de­tail. And Colin soon dis­cov­ered an emerg­ing mar­ket for less con­ven­tional and greener burial op­tions in Ire­land.

Since set­ting up Green Coffins Ire­land in 2009, Colin from Shan­nagh, Co Done­gal has been at the fore­front in the man­u­fac­ture and sup­ply of hand-crafted and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly coffins and urns in Ire­land. The Green Coffins Ire­land range in­cludes coffins and urns made from wil­low, water hy­acinth, pan­danus, mul­berry pa­per and even card­board.

In 2010 Colin opened Ire­land’s first nat­u­ral burial ground at Wood­brook, in Kil­lane, Co Wex­ford, adding The Green Grave­yard Com­pany to his en­tre­pre­neur­ial mix.

“The ideas for both com­pa­nies ac­tu­ally came around the same time, but the nat­u­ral grave­yard took a bit more time to come to­gether; to find the ap­pro­pri­ate ground and get plan­ning per­mis­sion,” Colin ex­plains.

“You al­ways hear peo­ple say­ing about how they would like a sim­ple fu­neral or that they want to be buried out in a field or at the foot of a tree; our busi­ness has been an ex­pan­sion of that idea.”

“It would be my own pref­er­ence too; cre­ma­tion is not re­ally for me and the tra­di­tional Vic­to­rian type ceme­ter­ies are very un­nat­u­ral places in my opin­ion. Us­ing a nat­u­ral burial ground is also a way to be sure that what we are leav­ing be­hind for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions won’t be scarred by us,” Colin adds.

The green grave­yard at Wood­brook is not just vis­ually beau­ti­ful; it is also an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, cost-ef­fi­cient so­lu­tion, with in­di­vid­ual burial plots marked by a sim­ple stone on the ground, rather than rows of im­pos­ing, ver­ti­cal head­stones. Vis­i­tors are able to walk along the path­ways sur­rounded by na­ture and wildlife; a sa­cred and nat­u­ral place where all faiths and none are wel­come.

“It is some­thing that re­ally res­onates with peo­ple,” Colin says. “Peo­ple want that sim­plic­ity and that com­fort of know­ing their fam­i­lies won’t be vis­it­ing a grave­yard per se, that they will ac­tu­ally be go­ing for a walk in more of a wood­land park and an aw­ful lot of peo­ple are now choos­ing this op­tion.”

With tra­di­tional buri­als dy­ing out some­what in re­cent years, due in no small part to the pre­mium prices charged for plots in many busy ur­ban grave­yards, the de­mand for nat­u­ral burial grounds looks set to rise sharply.

“A lot of the cur­rent older gen­er­a­tion have their spa­ces al­ready looked af­ter in an ex­ist­ing grave­yard, as their hus­band or their fa­ther or their mother or wife or some­one may al­ready be buried there, but it is re­ally the next gen­er­a­tion com­ing up af­ter them — the baby boomer gen­er­a­tion — who are go­ing for this op­tion and say­ing ‘this is what we want’,” Colin ex­plains.

“And I think if there were more lo­ca­tions like Wood­brook around the coun­try an aw­ful lot more peo­ple would choose this op­tion and we would hope to open more nat­u­ral burial grounds around the coun­try soon.

“Once peo­ple see the site they love it and the fam­i­lies who have used the site are so thank­ful that it is there. There is some­thing very hum­bling about pro­vid­ing that for peo­ple, be­ing able to do some­thing that helps peo­ple at such a time,” Colin adds.

“The av­er­age age of the peo­ple buried there isn’t gen­er­ally that old, so a lot of them are sur­vived by their par­ents and that is dif­fi­cult, but the peace and quiet of the place makes it very nat­u­ral and spe­cial. A grave­yard is a sad place, but what we of­fer re­ally works for peo­ple and gives great com­fort.”

Ashes may also be in­terned at Wood­brook and The Green Grave­yard Com­pany has as­sisted a num­ber of fam­i­lies in bring­ing re­mains from abroad for fi­nal rest here.

“A lot of the time peo­ple go to the cre­ma­to­rium, they see it as the hand­i­est thing, but they are handed back these ashes and at the end of the day many will have them sitting about the house be­cause they are not sure what to do with them,” Colin says.

“We have had ashes in­terned in Wood­brook that the fam­i­lies have had for over 20 years and never knew what to do un­til they saw the peace down there.”

Colin also works along­side his fa­ther in the fam­ily’s fu­neral direc­tor busi­ness in Shan­nagh, a back­ground, which has com­pli­mented his pas­sion for pro­vid­ing cus­tomers with op­tions dur­ing what is of­ten a very dif­fi­cult time.

“Hav­ing that grow­ing up, it has made me quite com­fort­able speak­ing with peo­ple, which I think peo­ple who are try­ing to come into the in­dus­try from the out­side don’t have,” he ex­plains. “You need to be used to deal­ing with fam­i­lies around this time and it makes a lot eas­ier when you have that ex­pe­ri­ence.”

How­ever, Colin’s fa­ther — while sup­port­ive — tends to be a lit­tle more old-school in his ap­proach.

“I think he thinks some of the ideas are mad,” Colin laughs. “So it is very much my thing, but he ab­so­lutely loves the nat­u­ral burial ground in Wex­ford; now that he has seen it in ac­tion, he thinks it is great and he is al­ways there to sup­port me and help out, even though he errs on the side of cau­tion more so.”

Green Coffins Ire­land was the first of Colin’s ven­tures to take off, in­spired by a cus­tomer who had en­quired about the pos­si­bil­ity of a card­board cof­fin a num­ber of years be­fore­hand.

“We hadn’t been able to source one at that stage, so that would have been in the back of my mind,” Colin ex­plains.

“The en­vi­ron­men­tal side of things was also grow­ing mas­sively and even in the last six months it has con­tin­ued to grow. Peo­ple are get­ting more used to see­ing these types of coffins now, they are be­com­ing more of a norm and peo­ple are more com­fort­able with them. So eco-coffins are be­com­ing more of an op­tion.”

“I think peo­ple chose them for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, but cer­tainly the fact that they are less cold look­ing than the tra­di­tional cof­fin seems to be one of the main driv­ing fac­tors be­hind the de­mand,” Colin adds.

“The other big chal­lenge at the begin­ning was con­vinc­ing fu­neral direc­tors that peo­ple would want these.

“An aw­ful lot of fu­neral direc­tors took a chance by stock­ing them at the very begin­ning and it is some­thing that we will al­ways be very thank­ful to the fu­neral in­dus­try for do­ing, be­cause they didn’t have to. Peo­ple would have been happy enough in a lot of cases go­ing with what they had on the shelf. So it has been a slow burner, six years is a long time to still be try­ing to build a busi­ness, but we are cer­tainly get­ting there at this stage now.”

In 2011 with the help of The Leader Fund­ing Pro­gramme, The Green Cof­fin Com­pany ran a wil­low weav­ing train­ing pro­gramme, which pro­vided train­ing for local peo­ple, many of which now work with the com­pany, weav­ing coffins and urns.

“The re­al­ity is that these coffins match the price of a lot of the or­di­nary coffins out

‘Cre­ma­tion is not re­ally for me — and the tra­di­tional Vic­to­rian type ceme­ter­ies are very un­nat­u­ral places in my opin­ion...’

there,” Colin ad­mits. “Our ma­te­rial val­ues may be cheaper, but more labour goes into our prod­ucts, so mostly peo­ple choose them be­cause they are eco-friendly and less cold look­ing.” So what does the fu­ture hold? “There are a lot of things that I want to achieve, in par­tic­u­lar I want to open more nat­u­ral grave­yards be­cause they are help­ing peo­ple and it is a great thing to be able to do,” Colin an­swers im­me­di­ately.

“At the mo­ment both sides of the com­pany are sta­ble and it is a nice sit­u­a­tion to be in af­ter six years of hard work.

“When it comes to the coffins I would like to cater more to­wards the lo­cally grown, lo­cally pro­duced end of things; I would ide­ally like to have a bit of a show­room up here in Done­gal where peo­ple could come and see what we do,” Colin adds.

“But the most im­me­di­ate thing for me would be to open more nat­u­ral burial grounds be­cause the de­mand is there and it re­ally means a lot to peo­ple.

“When we started out there was only about 80 of these burial sites in the UK and now there are over 300 of them there; so it has re­ally ex­ploded and, given the chance, I have no doubt the same would hap­pen here in Ire­land.”

Colin McA­teer (right) of Green Grave­yard and Niall Dea­con, care­taker at Wood­brook Nat­u­ral Burial

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