December 01, 2023 5 min read

We may think of natural burial and biodegradable coffins as a modern, eco-minded solution for funerals but the notion has been considered before – in 1875.
With London’s graveyards bursting at the seams, body disposal was becoming a real concern for urban Victorians. Cremation was beginning to take off as a hygienic alternative but others sought ways of restoring the body quietly and lovingly to mother earth, rather than engulfed in flames.

In the summer of 1875 the Duke of Sutherland held a garden party for guests “to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins constructed on the principles advocated by Mr. Seymour Haden”. Sir Francis Seymour Haden (1818-1910) was an English surgeon as well as a noted etcher, having realized that the burial grounds were a breeding ground for pestilence, advocated the need for earth-to-earth burial and “shallow burial”—one foot under rather than the statutory 4 ½ feet—to encourage rapid decomposition.
But what did those present make of these ideas? Thankfully a journalist of the New York Evening Post was there to record the event:


The last-named bit of enterprise was reserved for the ingenious Duke of Sutherland. That alert nobleman discovered a reformatory speciality to which his attention had never before been turned, and he proceeded at once to make the most of it. After cremation, as a method of getting the remains of human beings out of the way expeditiously and thoroughly, had been discussed, and after a vast majority of the British public had come to the conclusion that they did not care to burn themselves or their friends, Mr. Seymour Haden proposed a compromise with convention. The idea of destroying a body before the very eyes of the mourners was, he admitted, not altogether pleasing, but he, he argued, there could be no reasonable objection to permitting the remains to assimilate with their mother earth as rapidly as possible after they should be hidden from sight. Such a disposition, he contended, was preferable to cremation, because, while the latter process would leave nothing but a few worthless ashes, the other would give to the soil much which would enrich it and make it fruitful. To Mr. Haden, thus contemplating the bodies of himself and his kindred and the great army of the coming dead as fertilizers, nothing seemed lacking but a method of interment which would the most facilitate decomposition, or which would obstruct it the least… Like many reformers, Mr. Haden has to pull down as well as build up. He is obliged to overcome the preservative prejudices of the people before he can persuade them to inter their friends in such a way as to promote dissolution. He is convinced himself that the most important appliance of a fertilizing funeral is a basket. He is willing to be buried in one, but to induce other persons to follow his example is a difficult matter…. If he could succeed in introducing his death-basket into “high life,” he reasoned, he would be enriched, and so in time would be the soil of England. He approached the Duke of Sutherland, who just then happened to have no other extravagant undertaking on his hands, and who readily fell in with the scheme. Invitations “to see a collection of models of basket and other perishable coffins” at Stafford House were issued, and a large company was assembled accordingly.

The affair was grotesque enough. In place of what at other times would have been a program of the concert or a bill of the play, guests were furnished with a printed description of the coffins, their purpose, merits and defects. There was ghastly humor in the statement, especially in the fourth direction:
“Accompanying each of them [the coffins] should be a narrow leaden band or ribbon pierced with name and date of death, to be passed round the chest and lower limbs, and through the sides and over the top of the basket: 1. For retaining the body in its position; 2. For the subsequent identification of the bones; 3. For sealing the coffin, as a guaranty that the contents have not been disturbed.”
One model was of “a nest of coffins as they will be kept in stock, from the smallest to the largest.” There were “forms of coffins for ordinary use,” with the legend, “The best are very inexpensive.”… Considering the basket coffin seriously, if it was meant to be seriously considered, the most forcible argument for it which we have seen is that it will cheapen funerals. But we are by no means sure that it would do so; the undertakers probably would contrive to make even a willow-ware burial costly. And even if it would do so, cheapness is not the only thing to be considered in living and dying. It must occur even to Mr. Haden, meditating upon his fertilizing scheme, that if the economical disposition of bodies, quick or dead, is of prime importance, it would be cheapest to die young, and cheaper still not to be born at all. Evening Post [New York] 17 July 1875: p. 2

To those familiar with the natural burial movement Mr Haden’s comments would not seem too dissimilar to the very good reasons for seeking a more green or “back-to-nature” funeral today – along with lowering the impact to the environment. More so, the forward thinking Mr Haden also envisioned reforming funerals further to break from the then societal norms to create ceremonies perhaps much more like the ones we see today:

Mr. Haden has elaborated a completely new programme for all the arrangements connected with deaths and burials, and proposes to make a funeral very much like a festival. Everything is to be light, cheerful, and pleasant; the undertaker’s people are not to enter the house; the ladies of the family are to wrap the corpse in a light shroud, lay it in a pretty basket of open willow work, lined with fragrant moss and lichens; and, when all is ready the men of the household are to carry the body away and bury it.

Despite the press coverage, wicker coffins and shallow burial didn’t seem to catch on with the public and cremation took over as the preferred method of body disposal right up to accounting for 75% of funerals today. As early proponents of the green burial it’s unknown whether the Duke or Mr Haden were buried in wicker coffins but it’s a real shame that their ideas didn’t take off 140 years ago – funerals could have looked very different today!

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