Natural burials increasingly offering alternative to grim Czech funeral culture

Wald der Erinnerungen im Prager Stadtteil Ďáblice (Foto: Barbara Sende)

Funeral culture in the Czech Republic is one of the worst in the world, according to many of those who work in the industry, with up to 70 percent of Czech funerals being held without any ceremony. However, one initiative has been trying to bring variety into the Czech funeral and cemetery culture by introducing the alternative of natural burials.

Wood of Memories, photo: Barbara Sendeová
The majority of Czechs are now buried without any funeral ceremony and those funerals that do take place are often in largely bland cemeteries.

However, one NGO is bringing something new to the country’s approach to saying farewell to loved ones. Ke kořenům launched a special natural resting place together with the Prague Cemeteries Authority five years ago.

Known as the “Wood of Memories” (Les Vzpomínek), it offers the deceased the option of having their cremated remains laid at the roots of memorial trees in a specially delineated wood within the capital’s Ďáblice cemetery.

Since its launch, some 350 individuals have chosen to have their remains buried there. Their friends and relatives can discuss how the burial takes place with Blanka Dobešová, Ke kořenům’s founder, who came across the idea while visiting England as a student.

“I was studying environmental studies and I came across the custom of natural burial in England. These natural cemeteries were a love at first sight for me. It seemed beautiful to me that you bury a body and on it you plant a tree.”

Her fascination led her to writing her dissertation on the subject, titled: “When I die, plant an apple tree atop of me”. After being read by the then Director of the Prague Cemeteries Authority Martin Červený, she and her organisation were offered to set up the first Czech natural burial site.

Asked about how the burial rituals exactly work, she said it all begins with a visit to the Wood of Memories.

“Survivors of the deceased choose a tree for the deceased. Then we dig a hole by the tree and lay the deceased’s ashes into it. During the placement people can say their last goodbyes. Often they light candles and share memories, or send letters attached to balloons off into the heavens. Last year some chose quite a special goodbye, raising glasses of the deceased’s favourite wine in his honour.”

Wood of Memories, photo: Barbara Sendeová
Natural burials have spread across the world since the practice began in the 1990s as a reaction to the crisis of declining burial rituals. It remains most popular in Anglo-Saxon countries.

While it is still too early to call whether natural burials have a long-term future in the Czech Republic, there certainly seems to be growing demand for the method, as a new cemetery of this type is also set to open up soon in Brno.

As for Ms Dobešová, she says she would like to make the practice more ecological in the future.

“We certainly hope that one day we will found a cemetery where whole, not cremated, bodies are buried, with trees planted above them.”