The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities has received much criticism on this blog in the past week.
I have received an assurance from the FCBA Secretary that a response will be forthcoming.
The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities has received much criticism on this blog in the past week.
I have received an assurance from the FCBA Secretary that a response will be forthcoming.
Parents respond to the Mortonhall Investigation Report
We are pleased this morning to publish the responses of Tim Morris, Chief Executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management to four questions we emailed him last weekend concerning the recommendations of the Bonomy Report which was set up in the aftermath of the Mortonhall Investigation Report. We are extremely grateful to him for taking the time to do this, the more so because he is under absolutely no obligation to do so. GFG questions in black, Tim’s response in blue.
1. I am not aware of any published figures regarding success rates for the recovery of ashes resulting from the cremation of ‘babies and infants’ (Bonomy) by crematoria in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Have the figures been collated?
I’ll forward the Institute’s newsletter this week when it goes out to our members. We are working closely with Sands who will also be sending out correspondence this week.
The report has been well received by the Institute’s board and we have commenced implementing the specific recommendations. We are certainly pleased in respect of:
* The definition of the terms ashes and cremated remains are to be defined in legislation as this effectively clarifies beyond doubt the ‘fundamental issue’ and difference of opinion between the FBCA and ICCM.
* Forms and register are to be made statutory documents as this will force a common approach and provide security of information for parents.
* The national investigation of every case in Scotland will be undertaken by Dame Angiolini as this might bring closure for some bereaved parents and get to the bottom of the root cause.
* The Scottish Government is making representation to its counterparts in England and Wales as we believe that the Ministry of Justice must now become involved.
* The recommended inspectorate. This is something that the Institute suggested in 2000 and 2004.
* Opposition to policy and guidance for the sensitive disposal of babies has been swept aside.
Institute members have been sent regular newsletters since this issue first arose informing them of progress with regard the work of the Commission and is the only organisation within the cremation sector that has posted the reports and newsletters on its website.
On a closely connected matter the main reason for the Institute’s first policy statement made in 1985 was to cease the clinical waste route for babies. This continued to be a hidden scandal for years. At last, and following a 30 minute documentary the Minister ordered a cessation of this route for babies just a month or so ago.
There is no legal definition of ashes.
Perhaps you prefer to call them ‘cremated remains’. Or ‘tangible remains’. Or even ‘total recoverable remains’. Selecting just one term and assigning an exact definition to it was one of the jobs Lord Bonomy set himself in his report. The fact that there remains no legal definition has resulted in confused and misleading guidance to the parents of babies who have died.
Does it really matter what you call them? Yes, it does. It comes down to what you think ashes are.
Are they what remains of a dead human after cremation?
Or are they the remains of a dead human + coffin + anything that was placed in the coffin after they have been cremated?
On the one hand, the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities offers this directive to those who advise the parents of children who have died:
“In cases where bereaved parents desire the cremation of an infant or of fetal remains, they should be warned that there are occasions when no tangible remains are left after the cremation process has been completed. This is due to the cartilaginous nature of the bone structure.”
The inference of this directive is that ‘tangible remains’ are the remains of the body. The ash from the coffin and anything in it don’t count.
On the other hand, the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management defines ashes as both the remains of the body + coffin + anything in it. It all counts.
When this clash of definitions was pointed out to Tim Morris, chief exec of the ICCM, in 2013, he responded: “I have only heard about this distinction in the last few months.” Yup, the two representative authorities have been reading from different hymn sheets.
Everyone agrees that cremation is complete when the last flame has flickered and died. No one is suggesting that metal parts which survive cremation should be considered ashes.
And common sense tells us that the FBCA directive is nonsense. How on earth could you possibly tell skeletal remains apart from coffin ash? Only a fool would try to separate them.
Bonomy takes the view that everything that remains at the end of a cremation is ashes. His opinion is reinforced by the “widespread perception among the public” that this is so, “and that if that is not the perception among crematoria staff, then it should be.”
He identifies the conflicting perception of “representatives and staff of Cremation Authorities and Funeral Directors” who believe that “’ashes’ are what remains of the cremated baby.”
In doing so, he gets to the root cause of the misleading advice given to the public: the misguided “understanding that the bones are not sufficiently developed to produce remains led crematoria to convey to Funeral Directors, clergy and healthcare staff that there would not be, or were unlikely to be, ashes following the cremation of a baby” – because coffin ash doesn’t count.
This ‘understanding’, let us be clear, seems to have resulted from ignorance that skeletal remains can be recovered from a baby of 17 weeks’ gestation. So it is with ill-concealed understatement that Bonomy concludes: “The extent to which that information was accepted without question by healthcare staff, as illustrated in the MIR, is surprising.”
Bonomy wants cremation law in Scotland to define ashes as: “all that is left within the cremator at the conclusion of the cremation process and following the extraction of all metal.”
But as he points out, crematoria in Scotland comprise but 10% of the UK total. We clearly need a clarification of the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, too. The sooner the better.
The Bonomy report lays bare the reasons why some crematoria have been able and willing to recover ashes from infant cremations and others haven’t. Given the enduring and agonising distress and uncertainty this has caused to an uncountable number of parents, it can only be a matter of time before the media give it the treatment it deserves. The BBC has already been extremely active in Scotland and at Emstrey crematorium, Shrewsbury.
The inconsistencies of practice highlighted by Bonomy are of the gravest possible concern. Some crematoria have recovered ashes in 100% of cases, others in none: 0%. The science shows that a foetus as young as 17 weeks’ gestation will, if cremated gently, yield ash. This being so, and given the extreme sensitivity of the matter to the parents of babies who have died:
Why on earth has best practice not been applied in all crematoria in the UK?
How is it that some crematorium managers and technicians seem to have lost all sense of duty to the bereaved?
Bonomy’s recommendations are comprehensive. If applied, they will make the future a better place. If you haven’t read them, you really ought to because no one escapes criticism; everyone has something important to learn. Here are some of the most important. The bold is mine.
In legislating, devising policy, drafting information and guidance documents, and making arrangements for and conducting baby cremations, the baby and the interests of the family should be the central focus of attention. Parents and families should be given time and space to reach the correct decision for them.
“Ashes” should be defined as “all that is left in the cremator at the end of the cremation process and following the removal of any metal”.
All Cremation Authorities at whose crematoria ashes are not always recovered should liaise with a crematorium or crematoria where ashes are recovered more regularly to share their experiences and information about their respective practices.
As an urgent interim measure, the ICCM and the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities (FBCA) should form a joint working group … to consider the various practices and techniques currently employed in baby and infant cremation in full-scale cremators with a view to identifying those practices which best promote the prospect of recovery of ashes inclusive of baby remains and compiling guidance for cremator operators.
The ICCM and FBCA should review their respective technical training programmes.
The power of the ICCM and the FBCA to put things right is limited. No one has to join either body. Perhaps in consideration of this, Bonomy (explosively) proposes “an independent Inspector to monitor working practices and standards at crematoria, provide feedback to Cremation Authorities on how they are performing and to report to the Scottish Ministers as required.” A national inspectorate. It makes you wonder why we don’t already have one. That would really shake things up.
Bonomy concludes with a recommendation whose humanity shames all those who have been complicit in the shoddiness that has caused so much grief and will cause much more as the full story comes out. He asks the Scottish government to “consider whether there should be a national memorial dedicated to the babies whose ashes were mishandled or mismanaged.”
1. I am not aware of any published figures regarding success rates for the recovery of ashes resulting from the cremation of ‘babies and infants’ (Bonomy) by crematoria in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Have the figures been collated?
2. If not, we are aware that in Scotland, until very recently ashes had not been recovered and returned in any of Aberdeen’s baby cremations since 2008, while in Inverness 100% were returned. In Fife, ashes were recovered in 45 out of 87 cremations of stillborn babies and those aged up to one year. Would you expect to see, or are you aware of, similar disparities in baby ash recovery rates between crematoria in the rest of the UK?
3. Bonomy recommends that the “ICCM and FBCA should review their respective technical training programmes”. Has [your organisation] fallen short in its training provision to operators of crematorium equipment and subsequent sharing of best practice?
Tomorrow we shall publish an account by Ken West. On Wednesday we shall publish a response by Tim Morris, chief exec of the ICCM. We shall follow that with a response from the FBCA if we get one.
Britain’s first crematorium, Woking
The cremation culture and equipment used in the UK is not the only way to dispose of human remains, although cremation in the rest of Europe is similar – driven as it is by a commonality of environmental regulation. The cremators used, and the legislation which controls their use are mostly (but not all) the same, but funeral practices do differ.
The most common cremator type in Germany has a different construction. It is called the ‘Ėtage’ or ‘Durchfall’ oven, and the chambers of the cremator are stacked vertically. The coffin is charged into the top chamber. When partly burned, the remains fall into the next lower chamber, and then finally into the third or ‘ashing’ chamber from which the completed cremated remains are retrieved. This type of cremator tends to be more energy-efficient (after coming up to normal working conditions), and is very suitable for continuous operation.
Differences in practice centre on the relationship of when the cremation takes place as opposed to when the farewell ceremonies take place, and this influences a number of details of practice.
Some countries (for example Scandinavia and German-speaking countries) have farewell ceremonies soon after death but the coffin is stored for cremation at a later date – sometimes several weeks after the farewell ceremony. Consequently, the cremation is almost a ‘production line’ operation, carried out separately from family participation. This enables the actual cremation process to be planned in an orderly manner and it also enables extended periods of operation to be used (even 24 hour operation), with more efficient use of energy and facilities.
It is not uncommon for a single cremator to carry out as many as 5,000 cremations in a year (for example in Moscow) compared to an average a few hundred per cremator per year in the UK – in the same make of cremator! There are tantalising savings of energy and greatly reduced wear of the cremator construction – there being no repeated start-up and shutdown of the unit each day. The crematorium is still operated in a most dignified and tasteful way and cremated remains are returned to families.
The remainder of Europe tends to carry out cremations as in the UK, and the family is present at the farewell ceremony at the crematorium, with cremation immediately thereafter or within the same day. There is one noticeable difference in that is common for the whole process to include family meals or refreshments in elegant and purpose-designed facilities, (whilst the cremation is taking place in the crematorium building), finishing with the presentation of the cremated remains to the family to be taken away. A solemn, dignified and effective way, which is held to assist and promote closure for the family.
There are a wider range of practices used throughout Asia with big differences according to the ethnicity of the populations. Environmental protection is an ever-growing need in Asia and modern crematoria are moving towards close regulation, with advanced cremators and emission abatement systems.
The practice in Japan is quite different, and there are more than 1,200 crematoria throughout the country. The cremator is constructed differently, and the base is removable, so it can be moved in and out of the cremator on wheels. Coffins are inserted into the cremator on ‘chariots’ on which they burn. After the completion of cremation the remains, still on the vehicle, are removed, allowed to cool and then placed in a room set aside for families who then select pieces of bone of the deceased for retention.
The Bonomy report is published today in Scotland. Its 64 recommendations will address cremation practice in that country and, by extension, throughout Britain. They will impact the NHS, funeral directors and cremation authorities, especially the ICCM and the FBCA.
Shockwaves are expected.
Lord Bonomy’s brief was to “examine the policies, practice and legislation related to the cremation of infants in Scotland and provide recommendations for the future which will ensure that no-one in Scotland ever again has to suffer the distresses that were highlighted by the Mortonhall Investigation Report.”
Reminder: from 1967 until 2011 parents of babies who had died antenatally or perinatally in Edinburgh were informed, on the authority of Mortonhall crematorium, that there would be no ashes after cremation. Hundreds of families were affected.
This is not just a Scottish problem. For a medley of muddled reasons there seems to be no mandated practice nationwide for the cremation of infant remains nor any general awareness that ashes can be recovered from foetuses as young as 17 weeks. As a result, there are probably vastly varying outcomes from crematoria everywhere. Here’s just one (Scottish) example. Until very recently ashes had not been returned in any of Aberdeen’s baby cremations since 2008, while in Inverness 100% were returned. In Fife, ashes were recovered in 45 out of 87 cremations of stillborn babies and those aged up to one year.
What would the picture look like if we had figures for the whole of the UK?
George Bell, manager in charge of Mortonhall for 30 years until 2011, has distanced himself from criticism and blamed funeral directors for giving the wrong advice to parents:
“I feel for them and apologise if [parents] have been given wrong advice which led them to choose cremation and not have the option of burial … I tried my best to make sure that the message got out that there might not be the opportunity of recovering ashes after the cremation and we provided alternatives but unfortunately relied on frontline professionals. I must emphasise the crematorium staff didn’t make funeral arrangements.”
Bell also blames politicians:
“Sadly there’s no legal status for non-viable foetuses and as an industry we have worked hard to try and raise standards but to raise standards we need the legislation to go with that. I think the industry needs clear legislation as to what the procedures are. There’s no legal definition as to what ashes are – I think this needs to be addressed.”
The record shows that there is no agreement among cremation authorities about what ashes are, either:
“The FBCA (Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities) consider that ashes consist of cremulated bone to the exclusion of any other source of ash obtained from the burned coffin, clothing or soft toys cremated along with the baby. The ICCM (Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management) considers ashes to include all ashes from the cremation, both cremulated bone as well as ash from
items which were mementos or part of the fabric of the baby’s last resting place. Tim Morris, Chief Executive of the ICCM, was interviewed on camera about this distinction by Mark Daly of the BBC in a broadcast in April 2013 when he indicated that: “I have only heard about this distinction in the last few months.” “[Source]
Things have subsequently gone from bad to worse in Aberdeen, where it is now alleged that babies were cremated together with adults — playing to the direst public misgivings about what really goes on in crematoria.
In England only one case has been reported so far but you wonder how many others might have been and may yet be. The culprit is Emstrey crematorium in Shrewsbury where only 1 in 30 sets of ashes have been given to babies’ families since 2004. The fact that it is run by Co-operative Funeralcare is at best semi-relevant. The verdict of a former Emstrey manager, Ken West, is devastating:
“I see absolutely no reason why cremated remains were not produced. The issue for me is they were not captured. They were either in the flue system or workers didn’t take the trouble to check whether there were any ashes before introducing the next cremation. So it’s very possible those babies’ ashes got mixed in with the next cremation.”
On this blog Ken West has written:
“I was a cremator operator in the 1960′s and ashes were always returned for baby or infant cremations … At no time have I ever accepted that no ashes exist. Had I accepted that then I would have considered cremation unacceptable and advised burial as the better option.”
If it has been demonstrated that ashes can always be retrieved, why does the ICCM continue to advise: “The hospital must inform parent(s) that ashes may not be recovered from cremation.”? And why does the FBCA advise: “In cases where bereaved parents desire the cremation of an infant or of foetal remains, they should be warned that there are occasions when no tangible remains are left after the cremation process has been completed.”
Elish Angiolini’s Mortonhall Investigation report expresses impatience with this muddled thinking: “The existence or otherwise of ashes following the cremation of foetal remains ought to be a matter of fact; either there is some residue from the human tissue or there is not.”
The FBCA states that there may be no tangible remains left after cremation because of “the cartilaginous nature of the bone structure.” This sounds scientific, but is it? Compare it with this:
Experimental research has been undertaken to quantify the percentage of bone (bone ash or calcined bone) remaining in human skeletons following cremation. Trotter and Hixon (1974) studied skeletons from an early foetal period through to old age. This included 124 male and female foetuses of American Caucasoid and Negroid ancestry, which ranged in age from 16 to 44 weeks gestational age. It was possible to record the ash in even the youngest and lightest skeletons, the lightest being a white male of 16 weeks gestation which weighed 3.4 g pre-cremation. [Source 2.8]
Note: the above research is all of forty years old.
Compare the FBCA statement also with this. In a photograph of the cremated remains of a 17-week-old foetus at Seafield crematorium:
Bones [are] identifiable on the image include the femur, humerus, mandible, ilium (pelvic bone), the pars lateralis and possibly basilaris of the occipital bone (skull), radius, ulna, clavicle and a minimum number of 12 ribs. It is likely that the fibula is also present but it is difficult to distinguish clearly. [Source 2.8]
Given the extraordinary sensitivity of this issue, the recommendations of the Bonomy report are going to make for very interesting reading. We can’t give you a link because we are without an internet connection today. We believe this will take you to it.
“By all means have memorials. Make them out of Government stone if you like. Make them uniform. But you have no right to employ, in making these memorials, the bodies of other people’s relatives. It is not decent, it is not reasonable, it is not right.”
“When the widows and mothers of our dead go out to France to visit the graves they will expect to find that equal honour has been paid to all who have made the same sacrifice and this result cannot be attained if differences … are allowed in the character and design of the memorials.”
The words in the first quote were spoken by Viscount Woolmer in a parliamentary debate in 1920. He spoke for many — but by no means all — parents of dead soldiers who either wanted their sons home, buried in the village churchyard, or commemorated more fittingly, in accordance with their beliefs and values, where they lay. By what right did the British Army commandeer their bodies and prescribe their memorials?
The words in the second quote were issued by the Trades Union Congress and reflect the growing democratic values of the time.
Today, most people, probably, regard the cemeteries for the dead of World War 1 as oases of peace and serenity, the antithesis of the horror and brutality that spawned them — beauty born of ugliness, a marvellous creation. Far from being impersonal in their uniformity and scale, you may feel, they are poignantly respectful of each and every person they commemorate.
But you can see what brought Woolmer to his feet. And he had a case. The dead, in law, belong to their families, not the state.
The story of what we now know as the Commonwealth War Graves is told in the book Empires of the Dead by David Crane – a good read. The British Empire war cemeteries were the achievement of one man, Fabian Ware, pictured below, whose name, today, is almost entirely forgotten. For a man who dedicated his life to ensuring that the dead would be forever remembered, that’s quite an irony.
Ware was an imperialist. Today, his political philosophy looks as authoritarian as it does democratic. The life of man, he believed, is a constant struggle between the pursuit of individualism and submission to the needs of the collective. But when push comes to shove “the individual is submerged in the family … the family in the nation … and so the nation … in the highest attainment of human collectivity the world has yet seen … the empire … So long as patriotism … is the controlling force … no sacrifice will be thought too great in the cause of unity.”
Freedom of the individual must be subordinated to the need for national unity.
For all his democratic values and dedication to the collective, Ware was never a committee man. This explains how he was able to get so much done. The Imperial War Graves Commission — now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) — was his creation and his fiefdom. His achievement was the product of a combination of tireless high-handedness and nimble diplomacy. Today, standing as his legacy, there are 23,000 CWGC cemeteries in 153 countries commemorating 1,700,000 men and women.
Repatriation of British soldiers was banned in 1915 because it was reckoned discriminatory – only the wealthy could afford to have their sons brought back. At the end of the war the French and Americans brought numbers of their dead home, but ne’er a Brit. Repatriation had never been the practice of the British, and indeed only became official policy in 2003.
British Army soldiers were buried as close as possible to where they fell, side by side, regardless of rank, generals next to privates, beneath identical headstones modelled not on Christian but on classical lines because, explained the guiding architect, Edwin Lutyens, “besides Christians of all denominations there will be Jews, Musselmens, Hindus and men of other creeds, their glorious names and their mortal bodies all equally deserving enduring record and seemly sepulture.”
Most people picture masses of crosses when asked to recall a 1st WW war cemetery. That would be the French and the Americans. There is, though, one cross in every Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery with more than 40 graves. Fabian Ware opposed this because he wanted the cemeteries to be inclusive of all faiths and none, but he was overruled on the grounds that the British Empire was a Christian empire. Hence the Cross of Sacrifice (below) often found together with Lutyens’ faith-neutral symbol, the Stone of Remembrance (above).
At the beginning of the war, no one had any inkling of the scale of sacrifice of human life that was about to ensue. So gigantic did the task of interring the dead become, together with marking their graves and registering them, that the French briefly considered cremating their dead on a chain of funeral pyres. The British Army went into the war with no preparations for the decent burial of its dead. What resulted owes everything to the vision and the hard work of one whose name also deserves to live for evermore: the forgotten Fabian Ware.
British Empire dead:
Buried in named graves : 587,989
Buried but not identifiable by name : 187,861
No known graves: 526,816,
Not buried at all : 338,955 (includes Royal Navy lost at sea)
In the words of an Armistice Day broadcast: “Imagine them moving in one long continuous column, four abreast. As the head of that column reaches the Cenotaph, the last four men would be at Durham.”
“In the UK, the size and number of cremators at a crematorium are selected to enable the ‘duty’ to be accomplished within a normal working day and so the cremator is used for about 8 hours per day and then shut down until the next day. This is not an energy-efficient way of working, and cultural practices have been allowed to dominate at the expense of efficiency.”
Mortonhall Investigation Report 30 April 2014
The report into the Mortonhall ashes scandal was released yesterday.
To refresh your memory: from 1967 until 2011 parents of babies who had died antenatally or perinatally in Edinburgh were informed, on the authority of Mortonhall crematorium, that there would be no ashes after cremation.
All the while (since 1934, actually) two privately-owned Edinburgh crematoria, Seafield and Wariston, had been managing to achieve ashes from foetuses as young as 17 weeks.
There’s a useful summary of the findings of Dame Elish Angiolini’s report here.
You can find the full report here.
Here are some extracts of the report that interested us:
* Most meetings between managers at the crematorium and with their line managers appeared to focus on budgets and finance rather than policy or practice. The issue of the cremation of foetuses and babies and whether or not remains were recovered and returned to parents does not seem to have been discussed even though Mortonhall was operating so differently to the other crematoria in Edinburgh over so many years.
* There was little by way of formal training at Mortonhall other than in general cremation practice. When it came to the cremation of foetuses and babies, staff learned from their more experienced peers or supervisor. Likewise, notions of policy and practice were derived by word of mouth with very little other than operators’ manuals committed to writing.
* Despite the complexities and difficulties of this particular aspect of cremation operations, there has been little by way of any local or national written guidance for Cremator Operators at Mortonhall. The absence of any practical formal training to attempt to support staff in recovering remains from infants or foetuses is a significant concern given the misgivings expressed by some of the staff involved. The absence of such training is all the more surprising since the difficulties have been recognized within the professional organisations and discussed by senior members of the profession over many years.
* The official ICCM direction: “The hospital must inform parent(s) that ashes may not be recovered from cremation.”
* The official FBCA direction: “In cases where bereaved parents desire the cremation of an infant or of foetal remains, they should be warned that there are occasions when no tangible remains are left after the cremation process has been completed. This is due to the cartilaginous nature of the bone structure.”
* Dr James Dunlop, witness: “Crematoria are occasionally asked to cremate non-viable foetuses. Many doctors, especially those associated with crematoria, believe that there will be no cremated residue. However, if the cremation technique is modified, cremated remains are produced. These remains can form a focal point for the parent’s grief. Crematoria are urged to ensure their technique yields a residue … [When cremated gently] the outline of a foetal skeleton (it has been described as resembling the skeleton of a bird) can be discerned quite clearly on the base of the tray amid the ashes of the coffin.”
* It is not whether ashes can be recovered from foetuses but the degree of care and modification of the adult processes applied to the cremation of the baby which profoundly affects the outcome.
* Anne Grannum told the Investigation she had always believed there were no ashes from babies. She was not alone in that belief. This understanding was, until very recently, also held by the Chief Medical Officer, pathologists, midwives, medical referees, senior members of the professional associations and Funeral Directors. Her belief was based on the assertion that ashes were the calcined bones of the cremated individual and nothing else. Any residual remains from the process were simply refractory dust and coffin ash.
Mrs. Grannum’s failure over many years to make any enquiry about what was happening at Seafield, where she understood it was said ashes were being recovered, is also very difficult to understand. As business competitors it may have been seen as inappropriate to make a direct approach to Seafield but the matter could have been referred to her senior managers or to one of the professional organisations to pursue. She was not alone in this apparent inertia. NHS staff and Funeral Directors, amongst others, were all aware of the assertions by the staff at Seafield Crematorium of recovering ashes yet no one investigated these claims until the writer Lesley Winton visited Seafield in 2012.
* The contrast in the working practices and the approach to the cremation of babies at Mortonhall with the approach at Seafield and Warriston is stark. The obvious care taken at Seafield and Warriston to provide the very best possible outcome for the parents of the foetus or baby is exceptional. As a consequence of misunderstanding and poor advice in the NHS leaflets, many parents were led to believe that there would be a charge made for a funeral at these private crematoria where ashes were being recovered for parents. Neither of these crematoria have ever charged for such cremations.
Posted by Ken West
The archaeology at Stonehenge is all about digging up funerary artefacts so is it possible to consider how those funerals occurred? Stonehenge is unique, the only certain stone circle in Britain aligned to the solstices. Forget the Druids, as they did not exist in the Neolithic period and never had any involvement with Stonehenge.
The people, a loose federation of tribes called the Durotriges when the Romans arrived, were initially hunter gatherers. The first date we have is 8,000BC when three posts, totem poles, perhaps, were erected at Stonehenge. We have no burials from that period so we might assume, as with most early mobile societies, that bodies were exposed to birds and/or animals. The people could retain the large bones and then carry them back to a homeland location, perhaps the sacred River Avon. Burial had little to commend it, the graves being scattered over a wide area and requiring the digging of a shallow grave with antler picks, which would then be dug up by foraging wolves and bears. We then jump 4,000 years to when these people built communal stone chambered tombs. Early assumptions were that bodies were placed in the chamber and allowed to decompose. This was never feasible as decomposition would be slow, neither are full skeletons found, nor are there sufficient chambers. The chambers were probably used for the storage of the bones of the elite. Around 3,700BC, they built causewayed enclosures, which are banked and ditched circles broken by paths, or causeways, leading inside. Sometime between 4,000 – 3,000BC, the use of the chambered tombs ceased, or at least was infrequent, and cremation/burial began, which neatly brings us to Stonehenge.
Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson’s book “Stonehenge,” summarises the Stonehenge Riverside Project 2003 – 2009, in which he theorised that Stonehenge was part of a much wider ritual area, with Durrington Walls, a nearby henge, suggested as the Stonehenge builder’s camp, and the River Avon linking this henge downriver to the avenue from Stonehenge. The project proved that this was the case, but these ritual components were put in place over 500 years, so let’s consider the sequence of construction.
Both Durrington Walls and the sarsen Stonehenge we see today, date to 2,500BC, and are about two miles apart. The project proved Durrington Walls to be the largest Neolithic encampment in Europe and that it was the builder’s camp, over a 40 year period. No human remains were found but their cattle bones suggested that some of the builders travelled from Devon, West Wales and Scotland. It appears that between 2,000 – 4,000 people met each autumn, and, say, hauled two sarsens from near Avebury, to Stonehenge, dressed them on site, and erected them together with a couple of bluestones. In just 40 years they erected the 82 sarsens with the pre-existing 80 bluestones in four concentric rings, with no human burials involved. The project suggested that 56 of these bluestones had previously formed a larger, outer circle built 500 years earlier, around 3,000BC, these stones hauled from Preseli, in Pembrokeshire. The circle was entered at the Heel Stone, a natural sarsen erected to mark the sunrise. Each of the bluestones sat on human cremated remains, which the project referred to as the Chieftains Cemetery, with 63 bodies, mostly identified through small ear bones. Some were women and children, and if these were double or triple funerals, as it were, it may be that precisely 56 inhumations took place under the 56 bluestones. The remains were placed beneath each stone, and crushed into the chalk that formed the socket. The burials took place over 200 years, from 3,000 BC to 2,800 BC.
The only grave goods found were one mace head, which implied a warrior, and an incense burner, which implied a religious leader or shaman. But the presence of women and children’s bones denied the circle as a warrior or religious burial area, as women did not participate in either, as far as we know. Mike Parker Pearson’s conclusion was that they were an elite, perhaps an aristocracy.
The project also confirmed the existence of a second bluestone circle at the end of the avenue from Stonehenge, where it meets the River Avon. This was constructed at the same time as the Stonehenge bluestone circle, using 25 stones, none with cremated remains. The ritual importance of this second circle is its riverside location. Upon disembarking from a boat, one was immediately into the bluestone circle, which was banked and ditched in glaring white chalk. The mile long avenue headed north, then west on the 450 metre straight stretch to Stonehenge, entering at the Heel Stone. The avenue is 22 metres wide, and had a glistening white chalk bank and external ditch on either side, but little can now be seen. The straight section of the avenue follows three parallel natural chalk ridges, which always marked the sunrise from Stonehenge. Some consider that this is the reason why Stonehenge is where it is; that the Gods put in place this natural feature marking the sunrise. The bluestones in the riverside circle were removed around 2,400BC, the same date as the present sarsen circle and Durrington Walls were constructed. The henge was retained so the ritual possibilities remained in place. Was the funeral ritual to carry the ashes for the 63 bodies by boat to the riverside circle, then create a cortege up the avenue to the Stonehenge bluestone circle, and then inter the remains under a bluestone?
Why did they choose cremation? Was it because the solstice orientation was a form of Sun God worship, which supports the use of fire? Or was it a means of purifying the dead? If so, it is unlikely that burying the ashes, and effectively de-purifying them has any merit. Was the cremation a sacrifice, perhaps related to fertility rites, with the ashes scattered on fields, yet no bone fragments are found in soil? Perhaps the most obvious reason, not suggested by the project, is that cremation reduces a body to a small, peripatetic, pile of bones, which are readily placed under a stone.
The chalk downs were never heavily wooded so creating a pyre would be onerous. None have been found at Stonehenge or anywhere nearby. Currently, a modern cremator would produce about two kilos of bone ash. Although Neolithic people might be smaller than ourselves, they would possess higher bone density due to heavy labour, walking, even running, and the opposite of modern people experiencing an epidemic of osteoporosis. Yet the archaeologists find only one kilo of cremated bone so were the smaller bones left in the pyre ash? Even now, many cultures are quite content to collect only the larger bones after cremation and ignore the smaller.
The project concluded that Durrington Walls was the place of the living, and Stonehenge the place of the dead, but is 63 burials sufficient to reach this conclusion? Clearly, these burials took place at Stonehenge but I would suggest that watching one would be like watching a burial at Westminster Abbey or Princess Diana’s funeral: yes, it’s happening but how representative is it? Isn’t Stonehenge identical to the earlier chambered tombs, all about Stone Age grandiosity; a place for the elite. If we reckon that archaeology has located less than one percent of deaths in the area and no cemeteries have been found, we might ask where the anticipated 12,000 other bodies are? The project used the term cremation/burial to suggest that the cremation and burial were integrated; that the word cremation on its own is not sufficient. Was cremation/burial, like chamber burial, only permitted to chieftains or others of rank because of the massive labour it requires to create the pyres? That sounds remarkably similar to Tibet and Mongolia, where cremation is reserved for high lamas and dignitaries because the ground is rocky or frozen, or there is little wood.
So what happened to the common people? The conclusion is simple, the one in which nature does all the hard work instead of the exhausted humans; sky burial. The excess of Stonehenge blinds us to reality. Life was hard, many children died, people lived short lives, proven by the arthritis found in the bones of the spine, even of some of the elite interred at Stonehenge. Seasonal work meant that the period March to September was a struggle to find food, care for the young animals born each spring, store food, cut wood for fuel, and have enough excess to survive the winter. The work parties building Stonehenge clearly did so in the quiet autumn period, when the people were at their healthiest and strongest. In the summer, there was no possibility of building funeral pyres, week in, week out?
What evidence is there for sky burial? On the banks of the River Avon near Durrington Walls, project excavations found three sets of postholes, each of four posts forming a square, the whole surrounded by a palisade. The biggest posts were 50 centimetres across, and estimated at over 5 metres high. The conclusion is that they were towers, looking out over the river, and presumed to be holding platforms. This is not such a surprise because there have been suggestions that the earlier causewayed enclosures could have been designed to expose bodies to birds or animals. Perhaps they progressed to towers as they created more efficient flint axes to cut timber, or did not want animals feeding on the body.
If you think sky towers a flight of fancy, consider that in Tibet, where it may have persisted from the Stone Age, they revere the vulture as a form of angel. This fact reminds me that few, if any, bird bones are found in UK excavations. Is that because the Neolithic people and birds had a spiritual relationship? Imagine, eagles, buzzards, kites, ravens and carrion crows could have fed on the bodies, and probably European vultures, at least in summer. Even in 2013 over one hundred vulture sitings were made over the south of Britain. It is evident that the larger eagles and vultures swallow small fleshed bones so feet, hands and ribs would disappear as well as all the soft tissue. That fits with the overall finding that full skeletons are rare and disarticulated skull fragments and large bones are found scattered about sites. Once the bones were cleaned off, they could be deposited in the sacred Avon. Sky burial is also faster than modern cremation based on an incident in 2013 when a female walker in the Pyrenees fell to her death. Two friends, walking with her, called the police and they took 50 minutes to locate her body. Initially the rescuers could not see the body from their helicopter until they realised that it was covered by gorging Griffon vultures. By the time they got to her the birds had stripped her body of all flesh and only a few bones remained; and she had been clothed.
The birds strip the flesh, free the spirit, remove the potential for infection and reduce the weight to a handful of bones; a peripatetic body, just like cremation. Perhaps it was these bones, of the elect, that were cremated, and not full bodies, which would reduce the need for huge pyres. Perhaps a bone or two from every body, whether sky burial or cremated, was carried to Stonehenge, at some point, for a ceremony, and then deposited in the sacred Avon.
It might be concluded that Stonehenge is neither a cemetery nor the abode of the dead; that the burials were more a form of dedication for each bluestone placement. Stonehenge is more a theatre of dreams, a ritual space; a stage, cathedral and town hall, in which they could ritualise everything in society. Even the solstice celebrations, just two each year, sounds reasonable in that one imagines that they could create the necessary resources whilst also providing for their own needs. The enigma continues.
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