Critics of green burial site raise concerns about 'pagan elements'
Critics of plans for Northern Ireland's first green burial site have raised fears over "pagan elements" of the scheme.
The proposed woodland site is close to the spot widely believed to be the resting place of St Patrick in Downpatrick, Co Down.
It is also close to a hill, known as Slieve Patrick, where a large statue of Ireland's patron saint overlooks the place where he is believed to have landed on his return to Ireland to convert the Irish to Christianity.
A group called Down to Earth has developed the proposal at Lough Money, but have been met with opposition from many residents.
Concerns have been raised about "pagan elements", potential contamination of the lough and upkeep of the site.
However, the group has insisted the plan is about reducing carbon footprint and getting back to nature.
Within the woodland graveyard there would be no headstones and ordinary coffins would not be allowed. Instead, thousands of trees and wildflowers would be planted to create a memorial nature reserve.
People wishing to be buried there would use cardboard or wicker coffins and no embalming fluid would be permitted.
GPS technology would be used to ensure that people who want to be buried with family members can identify grave locations.
It is estimated 750 burials could be accommodated in the first phase with more later.
Down to Earth member Ciara Campbell Crawford insisted there was nothing pagan about the scheme.
"I think people are afraid of the unknown. It is something very different for them. Some people are afraid to move away from the traditional church setting. All we are trying to do is bring it back to nature.
"Many of us in the group are from different backgrounds. Some have faith, some don't. We welcome people of faith into the burial ground. There will be an area that can be consecrated for people that need that," she said.
Ms Campbell Crawford added: "People are coming to us all the time saying this is something they want to get on board with.
"For a lot of people now, they want an alternative, something that has less of a carbon footprint when it comes to their burial.
"It is just a calm and peaceful place where people can be buried around nature. It is a really beautiful spot and we have the great history of the surrounding area. This is about going back to the way things were."
The group is carrying out a number of public consultations before submitting an application to planners.
If the group receives planning permission they hope it will be the first of many green burial sites across Northern Ireland.
"People want an alternative and we want to provide that alternative," Ms Campbell Crawford said.
She added: "I don't want to add to the carbon footprint in my death. I spend my life trying to reduce my waste, to recycle. To add to my carbon footprint in my death doesn't sit well with me.
"I want something that my family doesn't have to maintain, it is somewhere that is peaceful, back to nature, somewhere that is beautiful."
However, SDLP MLA for the area Colin McGrath said local people have raised a number of concerns about the plan.
"As it is not a traditional burial plot and is not Christian in a sense, there are real fears that there is some pagan element to it.
"Some are worried that there could be contamination issues as the site is on a hill which slopes down into a lough.
"Another big concern is that because it is a private company, what happens if it goes into liquidation? Who has responsibility then?"
Mr McGrath added: "Nobody is ruling it out at this stage but there is a real thirst for answers to many questions.
"People are concerned because they don't feel they have the full range of information. It is incumbent on those proposing this to make sure people are fully aware so that concerns are addressed."
Down to Earth will host a community consultation meeting at Paddy's Barn in Saul on Saturday March 25, between 12.30pm and 2.30pm.