Lord Avebury, the Liberal Democrat peer who died on Valentine’s day was noted for the eccentricity of some of his views. He was a conventional supporter of assisted suicide but his expressed preferences for his disposal raised eyebrows.
He was the only person to have his body rejected by Battersea Dogs Home. A keen environmentalist, he was determined to keep his deathprint to a minimum so he offered his corpse to be eaten by strays. The Sun calculated that he’d fill 168 1lb tins of dogfood. Battersea turned him down. They said his ageing corpse wouldn’t be sufficiently nourishing.
His last request concerning his disposal was that he might be buried without a coffin, thus enabling his remains to return to the earth as rapidly as possible and push up a tree.
You know what happened next? Yes, he was told that this is illegal.
One night in the early 1700s, Henry Trigg was making his way home when he heard a disturbance in the churchyard. Looking closer, he saw, to his horror of course, grave-robbers making off with a freshly-buried corpse.
He continued on his way, resolving never to let the same thing happen to him. (He isn’t reported to have tried to stop the outrage.)
Having made a decent stash as a grocer he offered his fortune to any of his relatives who agreed to one condition: that his body be “decently laid … upon a floor in the roof.”
In 1724 he died. His brother did as he asked, popped him, coffined, up in the rafters of the roof of his barn, and pocketed the cash.
There he lay.
In 1774 the barn became part of the Old Castle Inn. He slumbered on. In 1831 a new landlord checked up on him and found him safe and sound. In 1906 East Hertfordshire Archaeological Society had a peek and found him still in residence.
During the First World War, soldiers stationed in the town picked bits of him out.
In 1999 the new owner, NatWest bank, had him decently buried.
His coffin remains there to this day. No. 37 High Street, Stevenage.
Alice Pitman, in the Christmas edition of the Oldie magazine, describes her extremely unwell 88 year-old mother rising to the occasion in hospital:
Eventually a porter came and perfunctorily wheeled her to theatre. [We] followed down an interminably long corridor, the Aged P issuing instructions over her shoulder about what we were to do if she didn’t make it. Her will was in her knicker drawer. She wanted to be buried, not cremated. “I want the worms to eat me!” she exclaimed with reckless candour (a couple waiting for the lift looked horrified). “Don’t waste money on an expensive coffin. One of those cheap wicker ones will do. Oh, and no church service. I’m 99 per cent certain God doesn’t exist. In fact, scrap the funeral altogether. I don’t want one…” “It’s not up to you!” said [my husband], his stiff upper lip betraying a quiver of emotion.
FOOTNOTE: Though her doctors abandon all hope for her, she survives.
Back in the middle ages, established churches hung on to their right to bury the dead when new churches were built nearby to serve a growing population. Burial rights brought in revenue.
This meant that parishioners of churches without a right to bury their dead were compelled to take them to a church which did using designated corpse roads. Some were just a few miles in length, others much longer.
These medieval corpse roads, so called, were pre-dated by long, straight tracks found all over the world along which the dead were carried and which were reckoned to channel the spirits of the dead.
All manner of superstitions attach to corpse roads, and if you want to find out lots more, quickly, you can’t do better than turn to Wikipedia, which has an excellent entry on the phenomenon. The tradition of toting a corpse feet first derives from these superstitions. It was supposed the prevent the spirit of the dead person from legging it back home. It would be interesting to conduct a poll of undertakers to discover how many actually know this.
A quick google reveals just some of the corpse roads — also called coffin roads, lych ways, etc — which remain walkable:
The Lych Way in Devon
Hindon to Enford (Wilts)
Teffont to Dinton (Wilts)
Bohenie to Achluachrach
Pass of Glencoe to Dalness
Ulverston to Coniston
Wasdale Head to Eskdale via Burnmoor
Mardale (Haweswater) to Shap via the Goggleby Stone
Rydal to Grasmere via Rydal Water and Dove Cottage
Arnside to Beetham via the Fairy Steps
Johnby to Greystoke
Garrigill to Kirkland
Borrowdale to Brigham
Bellever to Lydford (Devon)
Zennor St Ives (Cornwall)
Aston to Blockley and Stretton to Blockley (Warks, Gloucs)
We still have working corpse roads, of course; we just don’t call them that. We call them the ring road or the bypass.
One of you dyed-in-the-wool deathies out there ought to compile a gazetteer of corpse roads so that fellow-deathies everywhere can catch some fresh air and keep the memory alive.
Posted by Richard Rawlinson
I’m extending the Easter holiday with a visit to a village in Bordeaux, where my friends’ house overlooks the graveyard of a Medieval church. With death oft going unseen and unspoken in our secular times, a graveyard is a reminder of our mortality, prompting us to contemplate the inevitable final day, contextualising it and ritualising it. For centuries, corpses wrapped in shrouds have been delivered to this graveyard on biers carried by family and friends, consigning their dead to the eternal care and protection of the Church.
It’s got me thinking about options for resting places. Big cemeteries such as Pere Lachaise in Paris or London’s Highgate are akin to museums in which to visit the famous dead. Village graveyards can offer scenic beauty and tranquility. Metaphorically speaking, would you prefer to be in stimulating urban company or resting in rural peace?
Reason tells us it shouldn’t matter either way: when we’re six feet under we’ve either ceased to exist or our souls live on outside the body. But, whether religious or not, it often does matter to us where we rest, and not just for the convenience of visitors to our grave.
I like the idea of being in a churchyard because it’s within a community of the living, not a remote place just for the dead. And yet I don’t have a strong preference for being buried alongside family and friends. Love ‘em dearly but I don’t envisage souls as being grounded to any specific place.
Martin Amis said: ‘The first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.’ I’m no recluse, like socialising and certainly don’t compare myself to Amis (I’m a humble hack, not a novelist) but I also feel alive when reflecting in solitude, albeit on all the interactions experienced when in company. I hope death is something like that: an aloneness that isn’t lonely as we’re all as one; a time of being, not doing, unmarred by the inconsistency and unpredictability of active life; a peaceful state of love that needs no external stimuli.
All things considered, I’d like my funeral to be in my urban cathedral but my grave to be in a village graveyard. English soil, naturally.
Footnote: a study by social psychologists at Florida State University attempted to quantify how visiting a cemetery, or living next door to one, affects behaviour. Actors engaged with those they found walking in graveyards, or in the streets around them, and sought their help with a practical dilemma. They then repeated the exercise away from the burial ground. They reported that the first group was 40 per cent more likely to offer assistance than the second.
I haven’t asked for assistance here in Bordeaux (limited French + surly locals = flawed study). Repatriate me.
A number of popular sayings derive from death and funerals.
One such is the saying ‘Everyone wants a piece of him’.
This is a surprisingly ancient saying dating back 800 years. Here’s how it happened.
When Richard I (Lionheart) died, his entrails were interred in the central French town of Chalus, where he died in a skirmish with a rebellious baron; his body reposes at the Fontevraud Abbey, beside his father Henry II and later his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine; and his heart, wrapped in linen, pickled for posterity and placed in a lead box, was sent on to the Cathedral of Rouen.
When one of the king’s senior barons enquired whether this was really necessary, he was told that Richard was so celebrated and widely loved that ‘everyone wants a piece of him’.
The practice endured into the early part of the twentieth century. The body of Thomas Hardy was buried in Westminster Abbey, but his heart was buried in Stinsford churchyard in his beloved Casterbridge. You may have heard the story that a cat spotted his heart awaiting casketising on a table, and ate it. No truth in that at all.
And no call these days for dismemberment of the eminent dead, it seems.
Next: ‘the final nail in the coffin.’
NOTE TO EMBALMERS: You may be interested to read the just-published scientific analysis of the substances used to embalm King Richard I’s heart here.
Posted by Kitty
ED’S NOTE: Kitty is a relatively new commenter on the blog. She emailed the following to us, and we are pleased to post it. Come one, come all, we say.
I’m not that keen on cats and my name’s not really Kitty. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and being anonymous seems the sensible option.
But I am interested in funerals – good or otherwise.
I was walking through a graveyard with my husband (I’ll call him Tom – I’ve always liked that name) when we both noticed there were a lot of flower holders. Well, that’s what I thought they were, even though not a single one contained any flowers.
Tom asked, ‘What are those holes for?’
I replied, ‘It’s in case someone is buried alive. They can shout through the holes and be rescued.’
He thought about this for a while and said, ‘They used to have bells didn’t they? But holes are much better because they can breathe through those.’
I chose a grave at random and took a photo. I thought no more about it until a few weeks later when I transferred some photos from my mobile phone to my laptop. The headstone was dedicated to a couple with the wonderful name of ‘Hole’. What are the chances?
Last weekend, on a walk through a different graveyard, I noticed a mole hill on one of the graves.
Tom asked, ‘What’s that?’
I replied, ‘They forgot the shouting/breathing holes on that one and the poor person was trying to escape.’
I took a photo.
Posted by Eleanor Whitby
I was wandering around a churchyard on that one sunny summer’s day, as you do, and came upon a few really lovely headstones.
The first was surrounded by a burst of colour in a green area of flat memorials in the council owned section – I loved the smooth, pebble like surface and the little indentation which created a bird bath.
I moved round to the church owned section and was taken aback because all the graves were at an angle to the path – obviously positioned to face East, but it created a diagonal vista across the cemetery which I’d never seen before. There must have been a fashion for rough hewn stones as there were several – but I liked this one’s inscription:
” Oh! Call it not death – ‘Tis a holy sleep”
Then I came across the only wooden memorial – cleft from a huge piece of oak. The owner’s name long lost in the ravages of wind and weather – but just look at how it has dried and stretched and shrunk and cracked, yet still stands tall and proud.
Hiding amongst holly trees, a prickly barrier against would be intruders to the peace of this long lost grave.
This next one then made me stop still for quite a long while – hand hewn by a loving father? husband? brother? So poignant in its home-madeness – I had to touch it and run my fingers over the clumsy lettering that had been chiselled with such love.
As I made my way out, my eye was drawn to this small headstone set back from the path, almost lost by all the cremation plot markers. The angled words completing my diagonal day. What a wonderful inscription, I resolved to make an effort to be more of a light!
In Palmerston, New Zealand, permission to inter ashes in a new natural burial ground has been put on hold. The council wants a period of consultation in order to arrive at a “a better understanding of what sort of natural burial ground people want” in the light of the assertion by a councillor that “cremation is one of the most unsustainable practices you could have.”
Well, well, what a pertinent question! What sort of natural burial ground do people want? What price consensus on that — anywhere? You can tell New Zealand is new to all this.
In one important respect, the regulations for this NZ NBG are going to be a lot more enlightened than we see at almost every NBG in the UK. They’re going to change the bylaw requiring six-feet-under burial and require, instead, burial at a max of 1 metre, with a covering of 40cms (ie, around 15 inches). This is to ensure rapid, vibrant, aerobic decomposition.
Way to go, good people. But don’t stop there.
Yes, you can do even better. Turn your minds also to re-use of graves. What do you say to 30 years?
A burial ground that’s ever-active, 100% financially sustainable — there’s the goal of natural burial.
Story in the Manawatu Standard here.