Josefine Speyer, co-founder of the Natural Death Centre, writes-
The Natural Death Centre was 25 years old this year! We celebrated with a Natural Death Salon at my house, the home of the offices of the charity until 2002. It was a fundraising event, as well as a celebration, a time to reminisce and to look to the future. There were speeches, cakes and much discussion.
For those of you not familiar with the Natural Death Centre (NDC), it is a small, educational charity started by Nicholas Albery and myself in April 1991. My role was on the educational side. He was the public face. It was initially just one of the many charitable projects Nicholas was running from his office at home. It was a project we were both involved in and it soon took over our lives.
The Natural Death Centre came about due to our wish for more discussion, information and choice around dying and funerals, a subject we were not experts in. But we soon became experts, particularly in ‘green’ funerals and natural burial. Considering that death is a natural part of life we wanted to support people to make the best of possible choices, knowing what their rights are and to have as much control over it as they wanted, and to do it at a reasonable cost.
Nicholas initially shocked the funeral industry by challenging the prevailing policies of crematoria, cemeteries and funeral directors with the idea of allowing families choice, asking for a breakdown of funeral costs, choosing cardboard coffins or shrouds, and god forbid, considering D-I-Y funerals or natural burial.
The NDC was firmly on the side of the ordinary mortal. The media liked our message and the public responded to the news with great enthusiasm. The NDC runs a helpline and publishes the Natural Death Handbook, which was an entirely novel and valuable publication that inspired and encouraged people far and wide to rethink how we deal with death. It encouraged Ken West OBE (who set up the first natural burial site as part of Carlisle cemetery in 1993) and others “to be iconoclasts and attack the so-called traditions. Nobody can deny that this aspect of the NDC has been a great success. What always impressed me was Nick’s bravery. His ideas were before their time and yet he said what needed to be said, come what may.”
Nicholas set up the Association of Natural Burial Grounds in 1994. You will find more information and a comprehensive list of ANBG members on the NDC website. Rosie Inman-Cook is the manager of the NDC and the ANBG since 2009, when she stepped in after the NDC had run out of money and briefly had closed down. Rosie is also the editor of the excellent NDC’s online magazine More To Death.
Nicholas was a campaigner and social activist who loved poetry and social innovation. He died in a car accident in 2001. We buried him in private woodland. It was a family-organised affair that left everyone who came convinced that funerals can be beautiful, deeply personal and meaningful, emotionally and spiritually uplifting and they need not cost the earth.
We have come a very long way in the last 25 years. Funerals have been changing and people are beginning to educate themselves about death. There is a growing sense amongst people that we can do dying and funerals better. Environmental considerations have led to the rise in biodegradable coffins, avoiding toxic, and often times unnecessary embalming, and there are now over 300 natural burial sites around the UK. New websites have sprung up including The Good Funeral Guide, Dying Matters and Death Café. And we have an ever increasing number of home funeral advisors, funeral celebrants and new funeral directors, who are keen to assist with family-led funerals, the majority of whom seem to be women.
Festivals like Kicking The Bucket, The London Month of Death, and a month of events at the National Trust’s Sutton House in London hosting a show called Life. Death. Whatever. are all on during October this year – the cat is out of the bag!
At the Good Funeral Awards in September this year I was one of many nominees attending. It’s the Oscars of the funeral world. I enjoyed seeing many people there who are part of the natural death movement, intermingled with traditionalists who have embraced the future and are no longer thinking of this movement as the enemy. It is amazing to see! I was delighted. The list of nominees for the Lifetime Awards was long. So many deserving people. The ceremony had 24 awards to give and this award was the last one to be announced. I was in a bit of shock when I heard the award for Lifetime Achievement went to Nicholas Albery (posthumously) and the Natural Death Centre (Rosie Inman-Cook, Susan Morris, Richard Putt and me). There was a lot of applause as we went up to accept the award. It was such an emotional moment, I was speechless. All I could say was: “Thank you!
It was wonderful to see everyone come together as they did. How times have changed! Nicholas would have been pleased. I am really proud of what the Natural Death Centre has achieved, and what it continues to do, thanks to Rosie and the trustees!
Josefine Speyer is a co-founder and former director of the Natural Death Centre. http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk
She is a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor in private practice in London with a special interest in death education offering workshops, talks and Natural Death Salons. She hosts a monthly Death Café. www.deathcafe.com/profile/25/
*We started with these three aims:
- We wanted to break the taboo around dying and death and make it an ordinary topic for conversation.
We held dinner discussions, workshops, Salons, started the English Day of the Dead, held in Springtime, published the Natural Death Handbook and run a helpline.
- We felt there was a need to take back power from the big institutions to the person who is dying.
Just as in natural childbirth, where the mother giving birth makes a birth plan, is educated about the choices available and is the one in charge, we felt the dying person should exercise that same right. We wanted people to have all the information needed to make informed choices, encouraging them to create a death file, to make a Living Will (now called Advance Decision), a Death Plan and to discuss their funeral wishes, if they should wish to.
- We wanted to help people know their rights for instance regarding funerals, for people to be able to buy a coffin directly from the supplier and to organise the funeral as much as they wished to, themselves. We asked the Office of Fair Trading that funeral directors should not offer package deals, but produce a list of itemised charges of their service, which they did. The natural Death Centre has been a champion for natural burial grounds and has been a leading figure a worldwide natural death movement.