Blog Archives: February 2009
To whom does grief belong? For whom should we grieve? How should we behave when we grieve and what should grief be allowed to spill over into?
When motorists cut up a cortege, sound their horns and curse it for getting in the way we observe the collapse of community values and understand that death has become a private misfortune—a social faux pas, almost. We curse Thatcher and recall the days when folk would stop, stand, and, in their way, salute – doff their hats, bow. In those days the grief of one was the grief of all. What was private was also public. People felt as John Donne did: Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
Once in a while the public mood alters. It fixes on the death of someone unknown to them. People become involved and engulfed in grief. In the case of some people this is explicable—up to a point. Diana is a case in point. But what about Baby P? Why him and not any of the other children beaten to death by their parents every week? As for Jade, we don’t yet know how her end will be greeted. Will she be the new Queen of Hearts? Or will she have already become yesterday’s news? It could go either way. Grief for strangers can be as fickle as love.
Out of the blue comes the death of Ivan Cameron on a day like any other: some children died, as usual; some people died too young, some too suddenly; some, very old, were borne away gently, serenely, happy to be done with it.
You know how you feel about the death of Ivan Cameron and you may have thought about why you feel as you do. He has triggered the pent feelings we all have for the way things are in a world where people go too soon, we can see that, but how do we account for the tsunami of grief? How should people express their grief and how should they manage it?
My anxiety is that grief unmanaged can express itself in ways which may, yes, discredit it. The way, for example, it focuses on one and not another. And, yesterday, the way grief for Ivan interrupted the government of the nation. I think I am with Simon Carr in today’s Independent:
The deeper we look into each other the fewer differences we find. Politics divides us a lot, our daily lives less so, death least of all. There’s an equality there, of a sort, in the end. As General de Gaulle said to his wife at the graveside of their disabled daughter: “Come: Now she is like the others.”
As a matter of fact, Ivan really was a beautiful boy. I ran into the family having a Saturday lunch in a pub on the Windrush river some months ago. We chatted.
Ivan was lying on his back in his specialist carrying apparatus, in the middle of his easy family with a brother under the table and a Mrs Darling mother beside him. He had beautiful eyes and skin, chubby cheeks. And he looked wonderfully cared for; cherished; a beautiful boy.
Having said that, they really shouldn’t have suspended Parliament for him. “As a mark of respect to Ivan,” the Speaker said. They must have let the idea run away with them. The deputies could have managed a muted PMQs, surely. And for all the private pain, there is the life of the nation going on day by day.
A suspension has happened once before in a similar circumstance. But that was for John Smith, one of the parliamentary figures of the time. He was of the place. He was a public part of the place. This confusion or conflation of private life with the Government’s, it’s just not right.
Read the entire piece here.
At Teesside crematorium a family is waiting for the coffin containing the body of Olwyn Laidlaw to be carried from the hearse. They are fighting back tears. Then someone comes up to them and says, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this but that’s not your mum. I don’t know how it’s happened.’
The undertaker has brought the wrong coffin.
It takes 40 minutes for Olwyn to be fetched. Luckily, the crem can find a slot for her, but in a different chapel, not the one the family wanted.
Says Olwyn’s daughter, “The whole family has had double the trauma. She was a very loved woman, my mum. A very hardworking woman from Grove Hill. She deserved more.”
No prizes for guessing the name of the undertaker.
Read the sad and sorry story here.
If multiculturalism and meritocracy have undermined or overwhelmed Britishness, I have to confess that I’m all for it. We’re not the country we were twenty years ago, and all the better for it. Now that discrimination is taboo, barriers between us have fallen and we all appreciate, enjoy and indulge each other so much more.
Did the British invent snobbery? They probably can’t lay exclusive claim, but they’ve always made an especially good fist of it. Does it live on in this new Age of Diversity? Well, it may not arch its eyebrow quite as disdainfully as it did, but it’s always been subtle and insidious and, yes, its delicate sneer is still detectable.
Where, for example, do you stand on the decoration of graves? Especially children’s graves? I’m talking solar-powered angels, windchimes, smiley plastic flowers, twee-wee cherubs, big-eyed teddies—you know the stuff. Where do you stand on all that?
I’ve heard people who should know better wrinkle their nicely-bred noses in revulsion, then launch into a diatribe about roadside shrines, Dianafication, trash, we never used to do all this—AND NOW WE’VE GOT BLOODY JADE!
Gnomification is Cynthia’s word for it. She, like me, is wholly indulgent. We enjoy it.
Simplicity. Restraint. Decorum. Are those virtues? Or are they merely the obverse of repression, inhibition, an undeveloped heart? Why bother debating it? Can we not agree just to suspend our critical faculties and let others do their thing? In the immortal words of Mehitabel, wotthehell wotthehell.
I was walking along Limehouse Causeway, a narrow street running close to the Thames in East London. It was about half past eight in the morning, I was short of sleep and feeling temporarily annoyed with, oh, nothing in particular — just everything. Approaching a junction I saw from some distance that the pedestrian railings hugging this corner were a mass of flowers and paper.
That irritated me. Presumably a memorial to somebody who had died nearby. Sad, no doubt, but we never used to make roadside shrines like this in England and the habit has always struck me as mawkish and somehow pagan. Getting closer, it became clear that the whole corner had been turned into a crematorium-style display, with masses of blossoms, trinkets, letters, soft toys and the like. My grumpiness increased. ‘Sweep it all away,’ I thought. ‘Death is a private thing. Let people mourn privately. Whatever happened to our English reserve?’
He stops to read some of the cards:
The longest tribute was stuck to a lamp-post, a whole letter, written in an unsophisticated hand, addressed to young Kane — an outpouring of affection and grief, starting with: ‘Kane, we can’t believe your acctually gone everybody thought you was going to pull through…’
He discovers that Kane was 15 or 16. He was riding his moped when it was hit by a car and burst into flames, trapping him.
I took a closer look at the whole display. There were crash helmets, teddy bears, T-shirts, letters, cards, and a good £100-worth of flowers. You could hardly see the cruel steel railings beneath. Feeling now too moved for comfort, and resolving to return and make some notes, I walked on … As I fumbled for the keys, and thought of Kane Theodore, and the flowers and cards … my eyes began to well with tears I simply could not control. I had to turn away quickly from a passing jogger, open the door and dive inside. Those tears were not for Kane, whom I never knew … They were tears of self-reproach and — admit it — of shame. Shame not for my behaviour, which is usually fair, but for my feelings, which are spasmodically unfair and unkind.
Read the whole piece here.
And then see what hot water the public officers of Stockton have got themselves into after attempting to impose their own ghastly good taste on the ghastly good taste of the owners of the children’s graves in the local cemetery. Thanks for this, Cynthia. Read it here.
Great excitement here at GFG HQ. The latest edition of the Resource Guide – a Manual for Home Funeral Care has just arrived from Beth Knox at Crossings: Caring For Our Own at Death. Is it the very first copy to set foot on UK soil? I rather fancy it is.
In the UK, as in other ‘advanced’ countries, it has become our custom to permit our dead to be whisked away from us by undertakers, strangers who take them we know not where and do to them we know not what. Most people suppose that this is what the law requires; most suppose that the care of the dead is the preserve of specialists. They are, of course, wrong on both counts.
Having said which, it is undeniable that this is what most people want. They want their dead out of the house at no matter what hour of night; they won’t even sit with them till morning. They are puzzlingly incurious about what happens to them next.
How do we explain this behaviour? Does it stem from a horror of dead bodies? Or is it that our instincts are so insulated by sophistication that we have become divorced from our deepest needs and wishes?
Whatever the answers to those questions, there is a sizeable number of people who are not content to acquiesce in this whisking away of their dead. They will not settle for being helpless bystanders. They are the sort of people who know exactly how Beth Knox felt when her 7 year-old daughter Alison died.
“I would not let her out of my sight; I would not surrender the last vestige I had of her vibrant and loving self to the care of strangers. What sense would that make when I had so recently brought her into the world, nursed her at my breast and given her my full attention as she went through the steps of infancy? … Society expected me to surrender her to a hospital morgue … No, absolutely not. Not if I could help it. I would continue to care for her myself as I had always done. That was our agreement when she came into the world, and I was keeping my end of the bargain … We brought her home and kept her in her room for three days surrounded by her beloved toys and pictures and stuffed animals. Her friends came to be with her one last time, and took as much time as they needed to say goodbye … This small and mighty child had led us all through the valley of death … It was terrible and beautiful.”
It was this event that led Beth Knox to create Crossings “to help make it possible for families to fashion their own funerals.” She defines her rationale with characteristic clarity and cogency: “It is our desire to take the fear and uncertainty out of dealing with physical death and help put the value of being close to your deceased within your reach.”
The Resource Guide is, indeed, empowering, not just because it puts into words what you feel, but also because it tells you everything you need to do. It rolls up its sleeves. It lists the jobs to be done and suggests how they might be divvied up. It tells you how many people you’ll need to move an adult male (4-5). It is graphic. It warns you “Always keep the head higher than the rest of the body to prevent discharge of fluids”. It tells you about rigor mortis. It tells you how to shut the eyes and close the mouth and empty the bladder. It tells you how to dress a dead body, how difficult that is, and how tricky it is to carry a dead body down stairs and round sharp bends.
Most important of all, in my opinion, the Guide tells you the very worst that could happen, for it is only in the evaluation of this that people who are inclined to care for their dead can decide whether this is what they really want to do. The Guide unflinchingly tells you about problems caused by oedema, obesity, bed sores, clostridium perfringens and other infections – “special situations that Crossings has not encountered in ten years of home death care work (other than a bedsore or two).”
The Guide examines approvingly the option of working with a funeral director, especially if there has been a post mortem.
Beth Knox, together with her three other writers, have, I believe, created a wonderful piece of work. It is written with great clarity and skill. It is also very inclusive, wholly succeeding in its aim to be “useful to people of all spiritual and cultural traditions.”
Above all, the message of this Guide is not confined to those brave and eccentric folk who want to do everything themselves. You don’t have to do everything yourself. The important thing is, first, to take control and, then, to do what you feel you can.
There are two reasons for this. First, “By participating in the end of life of a loved one, by helping with the arrangements and bringing sanctity to the days after death, there is an almost universal experience that life and death are embraced without fear.”
Second, “By the end of several days, you will see the changes [to the body] that indicate finality.” To come to terms with finality is to accept the death. “Staying connected to the care of our departed loved ones brings greater closure and healing than is otherwise possible. It allows us to move ahead more gracefully in our lives without leaving our departed loved ones behind.”
We’ve needed something like this Guide here in the UK ever since the Natural Death Centre first evoked the spirit of the natural childbirth movement. While there are sections in the Guide which deal with aspects of US law, all the rest of it is applicable in this country. I commend it to you without reservation and I hope my lonely copy will soon be joined by countless others.
Download a PDF copy here. If you do, you may feel inclined to make a donation to Crossings (details on the home page).
The business model of most busy undertakers subordinates the needs of consumers to the necessity to get things done—paperwork, prepping bodies (laying them out and dressing them), transport issues. The interests of the business and the interests of you, the consumer, conflict. In balancing, on the one hand, things to do against, on the other, people to talk to, undertakers prioritise things to do. They are running against the clock.
You get in the way.
In another important respect the business model of most undertakers is faulty. Undertakers have a dual role. They are tradespeople skilled in looking after dead bodies. They’re generally good at this. They are also event planners who source, instruct and orchestrate service providers. These are, of course, unrelated skills. What’s more, the two roles are easily separated.
Undertakers tend not to be good event planners. Many cling obdurately to the same old same old. They have a template: one size fits all; less is best. They won’t make clients aware that they can have doves or balloons released at the funeral because booking them is too much hassle. Never, when mystery shopping, have I been offered Heaven’s Above fireworks or the services of LifeGem for my fictitious Dad’s ashes. When I die, my ashes will make a LifeGem diamond which will hang from my beloved’s neck and dandle between her breasts. There’s nowhere I’d rather spend eternity.
What disqualifies almost all undertakers from being event planners is this: their focus is not the focus of their clients. For their clients, the climax of the process is the funeral ceremony. But the funeral ceremony is none of an undertaker’s business. No, for the undertaker the climax of the process is the cortege. As the ceremony gets under way with all its majesty, emotional intensity and great grief, the undertaker and his or her staff are off duty, oblivious, often larking.
The rise of the personalised funeral and the secular celebrant throws into even greater relief the inadequacy of undertakers as event planners. Ask any family, when it’s all over, which person was most important to them, the undertaker or the celebrant, and they’ll likely pick the latter. It’s enough to make celebrants feel that the tail is wagging the dog. They’ve got a point. Does it anger them? Of course it does. Celebrants are the principal drivers of change in the way we do funerals.
In the olden time, when all funerals were conducted by priests, no client, rightly, would ever blame the undertaker if the ceremony was awful.
But when an undertaker refers a client to a secular celebrant, that changes. All at once the undertaker is answerable for the quality of that celebrant’s work.
A really good celebrant makes an undertaker look really good. But no bad undertaker, however dreadful, can make a celebrant look bad. This is a revolutionary development. The balance of power has lurched away from the undertakers with the exception of those few who prioritise the emotional needs of their clients and involve themselves in their farewell rituals. It has created an interesting and potentially beneficial instability. Undertakers complacently suppose that celebrants are dependent on them. It’s time for them to wake up and smell the formaldehyde. Guys, it’s exactly the other way about.
There are some superb celebrants out there. They bring to their work skills of a high order. They are listeners first and foremost. They are wordsmiths: they must write literate ceremonies. But they must deliver them, too: they must be good performers. That’s a rare combination of talents.
There’s a wonderful variety of celebrants out there. That’s important. A celebrant speaks for the family and friends of the dead person. He or she is their representative. All the more important, therefore, that the celebrant is ‘one of us’. Staid middle class professionals do not want to be represented by some kindly scruff wearing a pony tail and suede shoes any more than a bunch of pagans wants to be represented by a starchy ex-headmistress.
What chance is there that consumers get to choose for themselves the celebrant who will best represent them? Very little. And this despite the fact that good celebrants are of inestimable commercial value to undertakers. You’d be amazed how difficult it is for brilliant celebrants to find work or be paid what they’re worth.
The tail is definitely wagging the dog.
Every undertaker now has a small stable of celebrants: one frontline strict humanist, one frontline pick-‘n’-mixer (the sort who says yes to a hymn and a couple of prayers), plus a couple of standbys. No more. If Brad Pitt turned celebrant and offered himself to most undertakers they’d say, “Thanks, mate, we’ve already got one.” They take no account of gender, appearance, accent, social class, education, ethnicity or performance style. You’d think they would offer their clients the publicity materials of all those celebrants who’d ever entered their doors, give them a steer and let them choose someone like them. Oh, no. Want a pagan? Over your dead person’s dead body, so far as most undertakers are concerned.
To what do we ascribe this? Stupidity? Well, okay, yes, up to a point, you’ll rarely go wrong there. But the principal reason is time. They simply haven’t got time to let clients go home and faff about interviewing celebrants. They need to book the crem. They need to find a time when everyone’s free and the hearse is available. There’s no time like now, now while they’re all in the office, everything done and dusted in one meeting.
Thus are clients denied choice and celebrants work.
The undertakers’ business model being what it is, their ideal client is the little old lady who makes all the arrangements for the funeral in twenty minutes and is never seen or heard again until the day of the funeral. Can it accommodate the growing requirement for personalised, participative funerals? In most cases, no.
It’s broke. Let’s not fix it. Let’s move on. Dead people and those who love them deserve good celebrants. Celebrants deserve a status which accords with their value, and they deserve the remuneration which goes with that. Consumers owe it to themselves to survey who’s out there and make their own choice, not to outsource it to an undertaker.
To find the right celebrant for you, go to: the British Humanist Association; the Institute of Civil Funerals; the Association of Independent Celebrants; the Interfaith Seminary. Many celebrants work independently of any organisation. Try your luck: type ‘funeral-celebrant’ into Google.
There’s a tragic story doing the rounds of the papers concerning a lad in Scotland whose father buried him in the garden of his ex-council semi.
If you want to open a cattery in the UK you need a licence. Cat care is regulated. If you want to open a funeral home you need nothing of the sort, no exams, no professional qualifications, no previous experience—nothing. Anyone can do it, scoundrels, incompetents, sex-workers, school leavers, sociopaths, stand-up comics. The care of the dead is anybody’s business.
Shocking, isn’t it? Scandalous? Something must be done?
No. Definitely not.
First, an undertaker doesn’t do anything that you couldn’t, in a way that a plumber, say, almost certainly can. The dead are wholly safe in the hands of amateurs so long as they (the amateurs) are up for it, for there’s nothing you can do to a dead body in a well intentioned way which that dead body will actually mind. Looking after our dead is not the exclusive preserve of a secular priesthood possessed of arcane knowledge. No, you could produce a training manual in three sentences: Keep cool. Wash it. Pop it in a box. (The bit about keeping cool is deliberately ambiguous.) For DIY embalmers, on the other hand, one sentence will suffice: Don’t. (It could so easily all go wrong and you’ll have to redecorate.)
Many undertakers would have us suppose that they are professional people. Some shore up this aspiration by accruing professional qualifications. They diligently study for exams and are duly garlanded with the Diploma in Funeral Directing (Dip FD). They want to inspire our confidence in them, and good for them.
For a professional qualification to be of any use it must assign value to that which is objectively measurable. The hallmark of a good plumber is technical expertise, and boy do we want a measurement of that.
But the hallmark of a good funeral director (virtually his or her exclusive attribute) is emotional intelligence. There are no criteria for the objective measurement of that, neither can there be a requisite intellect-size. The Dip FD is an indicator of earnest good intent, but it cannot and does not separate sheep from goats. The right undertaker for you is not necessarily the right undertaker for everybody.
And so it comes to pass that many of the UK’s best undertakers are untrained and don’t give a fig for professional qualifications. Some of the best of the best are self-taught. Undertakers, you see, get better, first, by doing and being, and only then by book-learning. The question of whether or not undertaking is a profession or a trade is a parlour game for job snobs.
The second reason for resisting the professionalisation and regulation of undertakers is this. When someone dies it is the next of kin who is responsible for disposing of the body. If that’s you, then you’re in charge and every buck stops with you. You are, actually, the funeral director. You have to register the death. You have to apply for burial or cremation. You have to see it through. You have to demonstrate that you did. Only you can do those things, and you don’t have to pass any exams first.
The role of the undertaker, if you use one, is secondary, subordinate and collaborative. It is to do those things (and only those things) that you are allowed to delegate and which you don’t want to do yourself. If you don’t need a qualification, why on earth would he or she?
This is why a funeral parlour is not like, say, a restaurant. A meal out is not a participative event; the chef and staff are not your collaborators. You put yourself entirely, trustingly, into their hands and take what you’re given. If that’s toxic food and awful service, that’s their fault and your bad luck.
But an undertaker is your partner, your deputy. The right one for you is the one who listens, understands you, sees where you’re coming from and can interpret your needs and wishes. An undertaker is potentially a person of immense importance to you because he or she can guide you through unfamiliar territory and work with you to create a send-off for your dead person which will be, both, worthy of that dead person and, also, of immeasurable emotional value to you.
If you choose a lousy funeral director then, sorry, that’s your bad luck and it is also your fault, because you failed to conduct the job interview properly. Yes, you have recourse to consumer protection laws, but redress after an event like a funeral is always going to fall well short.
That’s a tough judgement to make on people who stumble on the wrong undertaker, their judgement clouded by strong emotion. A funeral is often described as a distress purchase, but it doesn’t have to be and really it shouldn’t be, any more than a new car is a distress purchase because your old one fell to bits.
Lousy undertakers will stay lousy for as long as they can enjoy, in a predatory way, clients whose emotional confusion and lack of consumer research cause them passively to outsource all decision-making to someone who stands to make money out of them.
Lousy undertakers can never be improved by training courses and goverment regulation.
The only people who can turn around or exterminate lousy undertakers are clients who exert informed expectations. These clients are, of course, the ones the best undertakers enjoy working with most. These are the clients who bring out the best in them.
Once upon a time communities looked after their dead. Many Muslims and Jews still do. Yet, wistfully as we may gaze upon that golden age, let’s recognise that there is no general inclination to return to it. So: undertakers are here to stay.
That being so, it is important to define their status. If we look on the dark side we can say that they have worked at it; they have worked hard to become indispensable. They have vacuumed up the roles of laying-out woman, carpenter and carrier. To these they have added the role of collector of fees for burial grounds, crematoriums and celebrants. They hold all service providers in dependency. They have assigned to themselves certain concocted, half-baked traditions in order to create an illusion of the timelessness of their calling, in honour of which they ponce about in cod-Victorian attire. They have assumed primacy. Many of them have bolstered that with self-importance. Gauleiters, some of them.
The result? Most people believe that they are required by law offer up their dead to an undertaker.
Professionalising and regulating undertakers can only reinforce the perception that they are the default disposers of the dead and, worse, move them a step closer to being the only people licensed to do so.
You are the default disposer of your dead. The undertaker, if you choose to engage one, is your agent. That is your ancient right, and that right defines your responsibility both to yourself and to your dead. Let us honour all those superb undertakers out there who embrace that.
Our dead belong to us. Let us not give them up.
Progressive movements in the world of funerals mostly march resolutely forwards into the past. The past is that place where they did things properly, the place we need to return to if we are to reclaim the care of our dead and the rituals of their passing; the place we must to return to if we are to slough off the professionalisation of death and the supremacy (you could call it the dead hand) of the undertaker.
Not that it’s the undertakers’ fault that they became preeminent; that’s the fault of self-disempowered consumers. Let’s be certain of that.
Even for people who want to distance themselves from the care of the corpse, green burial looks like an attractively retrogressive, daisy-pushing option—low carbon, high ethics, no toxins, primal simplicity, rustic loveliness, all nature rejoices, bluebird sings, deer and antelope play, feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole, etc.
It’s not necessarily cheap. Privately owned natural burial grounds do not benefit from subsidies and tax breaks available to local authority owned cemeteries. But green burial makes an attractive offer. Statistics generated for our guidance tell us that over 60 per cent of us would prefer burial to cremation if we could be buried in a nice place. And, as James Leedham of Native Woodland points out, there’s a saving to be made in not having to buy a headstone.
If you’re planning to go green there are things you need to know. Not all these things are nice if you are going to get real and compel ethical necessity to subjugate aesthetic wishfulness. Real green buriers do it for strenuously puritanical and ecological, not sentimental pretty-pretty, reasons.
Many criteria for natural burial are obvious and easy to adhere to—simple coffin made from locally sourced material, no embalming, local flowers unwrapped in cellophane. No problem.
Some criteria present definite difficulties.
First, you can’t have a delineated grave, neither may you, if you want to do it properly, mark the spot. Most natural burial grounds won’t let you. This can be very hard to bear. No, you can’t plant a tree on the grave—it would be too close to the other trees on the other graves, and in any case trees don’t like being planted in disturbed earth. Those natural burial grounds which have relaxed their strictures forbidding memorialisation now fight a losing battle against shrubs, teddy bears, windchimes and all manner of sentimental gewgaws which, in a natural setting, amount to trash. A thoroughgoing natural burial ground looks as if no one is buried there. If you want to overrule the dead person’s wish that you “Do not stand at my grave and weep”, then you will be able to find it using GPS, electronic marker or unobtrusive wooden markers only.
Second, true greens turn their faces against climate warming machinery. This comprises both machinery used to dig graves and maintain the burial ground, and motorcars used to get there. Almost all natural burial grounds require an object-defeating longer car journey than your local authority cemetery, and subsequent visits rack up what natural burial guru Ken West calls ‘grieving road miles’. If you have to visit after the funeral, therefore, you ought to do it on foot or bike. If you can’t, stay away.
Third, probably everyone who uses a natural burial ground fondly supposes that the corpse will decompose in an environmentally agreeable way in a process graphically described by Hamlet:
‘Your worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.’
It’s a desirable ecological outcome for the body to compost rapidly and push up daisies, fatten maggots and enrich the soil. It’s called aerobic decomposition and it happens only if a body is buried in bug-filled topsoil. Any lower and decomposition is anaerobic; the body simply turns slowly to methane and sludge. It is against the law in the UK to bury a body with less than 2’6” of soil on top (2’ where soils conditions allow). But this law arguably only applies to local authority burial grounds and, in law, there is nothing to stop you from burying a body in a shallow grave or even on the surface, so long as it is covered with at least two feet of earth.
Many natural burial grounds bury at an unaccountable, cold, dark and lifeless six feet. This, more than anything else, makes a nonsense of present-day natural burial and is a typical example of what Dr William ‘Billy’ Campbell of Ramsey Creek, the first US green burial ground, calls ‘green-washing’. So far as I am aware there have been no studies conducted in the UK to determine optimal green burial depth. Billy Campbell has done something I have not heard of anyone doing in this country: he fills in graves with twigs, creating micro-channels to speed decomposition and encourage soil nutrients to rise to the surface rather than be leached into the water table.
When asked why they don’t bury closer to the surface, UK burial grounds tend to rehash what may or may not be a rural myth, namely that foraging foxes and/or burrowing badgers will use the burial ground as a restaurant and charge off with dangling limbs in their jaws. Green grounds also point out that if a corpse is buried close to the surface it stinks out the surrounding area. Well, from another point of view you could regard this as encouraging evidence of merry, useful decomposition. Noxious smells may make you gag but they never harmed anyone’s health. And they abate in a short time.
Billy Campbell confounds (or does he?) the myth of foraging animals:
‘Burial is a very ancient and very successful “low tech” solution for the concern that animals would be attracted to bodies. Pioneer cemeteries located in wild areas that contained animals such as grizzly bears were not disturbed. In the last decade at Ramsey Creek, we have seen absolutely no evidence whatsoever that animals are attracted to natural burial sites, despite the presence of dogs, coyotes, and the occasional black bear. Anyone who has ever dug or filled in a grave would be doubtful about such worries. Even relatively shallow natural burials where no casket is used are safe from animal interference.’
Fourth, are natural burial grounds sustainable? Do they have a reuse of graves policy? No, none of them. So, while such burial grounds, by virtue of having bodies in them, ensure the conservation of their sites, they remain in exclusive occupation until Doomsday by far fewer bodies than makes good green, or even common, sense. Vanity of vanities. What’s the solution? It’s difficult. Once a body is skeletised (8-10 years) it’s time to move on. In the middle ages they had charnel houses to put dug up bones in, but they seem unlikely to make a comeback. Would there be any objection to digging up the bones, grinding them and spraying them over the woodland or meadow? Aesthetic objections, possibly—but grinding’s what we do, after all, to bones burnt in a cremator. Legal objections for sure: you’d need an exhumation order to do it. But, let’s get real, it makes good green sense, doesn’t it?
Natural burial grounds have some way to go to become truly green, a truly ethical option, and they shrink from becoming so because they are commercial operations and need to be alluring to the consumer. Billy Campbell’s analysis is this:
‘In the U.K., dozens of “green burial grounds” are cropping up, but no clear standard is emerging. Projects differ widely in terms of aesthetics, social utility and ecological functionality. For example, most of the projects in the UK are so small – often less than 5 acres – or are located so haphazardly that they fail to achieve even modest conservation goals beyond that associated with not using excessive resources for burial or introducing toxics into the environment.
Consequently, the public will be confused, and might not recognize the difference between a superficially green (“green-washing”) project and one that makes a significant contribution to conservation and sustainability. The range of possibilities for the conceivable permutations for greener or more sustainable cemeteries is dizzying, and the market barriers for creating superficial projects are lower than that for creating larger and more functional projects. Without some broadly accepted rating system for projects, we can expect greater market fragmentation and a lost opportunity for funding socially and ecologically meaningful open spaces.
Natural burial grounds have a duty to educate the public and stop permitting aesthetic green-washing at the expense of ethical imperatives.
At the same time, the public has a duty to educate itself and stop being so squeamish and sentimentalising in the matter of disposing of its dead.
And, yes, Mr Campbell, it’s high time we had a rating system.