In an as-told-to piece in today’s Sunday Times, extreme expeditioner Ed Stafford describes the hardships he underwent when he was dumped naked on a desert island. He found the loneliness and isolation especially difficult to bear.
“My best technique for staying sane was something the Australian Aborigines taught me. I built a stone circle and whenever the panic or anxiety got too much I would go and sit in it and feel safe and happy again. It’s a simple technique, but it worked. I think I’d have spin out otherwise.”
A nice thing to have in a natural burial ground, perhaps?
Some people in Funeralworld get in a pickle about formaldehyde. It’s an f-word. Natural buriers won’t have it. Embalmers get cancer from it. MDF coffins are damnably full of it. It’s bad.
The World Health Organisation published its own findings as long ago as 1991. I’m grateful to the Funeral Consumers Alliance for putting us on to it. The findings are illuminating. Here are some extracts:
Under atmospheric conditions, formaldehyde is readily photooxidized by sunlight to carbon dioxide.
Formaldehyde kills viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and has found wide use as a fumigant. It is a disinfectant with a broad efficiency
There is some natural formaldehyde in raw food
Formaldehyde is readily absorbed via the respiratory and gastrointestinal routes. Dermal absorption of formaldehyde appears to be very slight. Increases in blood concentrations of formaldehyde were not detected in rats or human beings exposed to formaldehyde through inhalation, because of rapid metabolism.
Formaldehyde is carcinogenic in rats and mice. It produced nasal squamous cell carcinomas in rats exposed to high concentrations (17.2 mg/m3) … [Among humans] the causal role of formaldehyde is considered likely only for nasal and nasopharyngeal cancer.
Areas in which formaldehyde is handled must be well ventilated. Normally, mechanical ventilation is necessary.
Formaldehyde is widely present in the environment, as a result of natural processes and from man-made sources.
Formaldehyde in soil and water is … biodegraded in a relatively short time.
Formaldehyde is toxic for several aquatic organisms, but its ready biodegradability, low bioaccumulation, and the ability of organisms to metabolize it indicate that the impact of formaldehyde on the aquatic environment is limited, except in the case of major pollution. Similar considerations apply to the atmosphere and the terrestrial environment where hazards will only occur when massive discharges or releases lead to major local pollution. The non-persistence of formaldehyde means that effects will not be permanent.
Dr. Berndt Heinrich, 72, emeritus biology professor at the University of Vermont, spends much of his time in a cabin in the woods with no electricity or running water, studying animals. His latest book, “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death”, is about how animals die and how they recycle each other:
It’s not so much about death as life. The carcass provides a huge amount of concentrated food for the animals who are recyclers.
I first started thinking about it when a former student, Bill, wrote saying he was terminally ill and what would I think about his having a “sky burial” on my property in Maine? He wanted to leave his body to the ravens. Bill did not want to be cremated or buried in a sealed box. He wanted to be recycled and have his body provide food for other creatures.
Does that name Bill ring any distant bells? No? It ought to. Bill Jordan? Still not with it? Okay, you give in. You first read about him here, on this blog, in May 2011, when he broached his (some would say eccentric) desire that his remains‘return to the living molecular plasma that the surface of the earth nurtures and maintains. Consequently, I am almost obsessed with having my corpse laid out upon the surface, to fulfill the needs of the natural world. I am attaching a short musing on the subject.‘ Do go back and read it; it’s one of the best things we have ever published.
Dr Heinrich addresses the bad reputation enjoyed by scavenger species, vultures and ravens particularly. He says ‘It’s because of their association with death — they are blamed for it. Ravens get blamed a lot for killing a lot of things when, in fact, they mostly eat the dead and the nearly dead. It’s an illogical association that comes from a lack of understanding of what these animals do. Consider what would happen in the ocean if nothing ate the dead fish. Eventually, the ocean would be up to the top with dead fish. If there were no recyclers, nature would stop.’ He adds: ‘Ravens are very appealing. I’ve never met a raven I didn’t like.’
There’s an insight here into the public perception of undertakers.
Interesting isn’t it that of all species, humans go out of their way to avoid being recycled in this way?
Read more about Dr Heinrich in the New York Times here.
We send our best wishes to Tracy O’Leary as she launches her simple, fuss-free burial service, Woodland Wishes, for the people of Cambridgeshire. Her service allows for as much involvement by families as they want. We like the unstuffy text on her website.
Tracy’s an old friend of the GFG. She heads up the Winterwillow coffin enterprise, an initiative of the Wintercomfort charity, which “supports those who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes by offering them basic amenities, opportunities for educational development and recreation, and a range of services designed to help them achieve greater autonomy.”
Our congratulations to Simon Ferrar, a good friend of the GFG, on the opening (at last!) of his natural burial ground at Clandon Wood.
We don’t think it was the official, ceremonial opening, which is set for the new year. He’s invited us to come along. We’ll be buying a new hat for that.
Wild grasses and flowers were sown across 25 acres in June and there will be flower trails through the woods.
“As a business it should look after itself. The meadow in winter will be grazed by sheep and goats so we don’t have to run a tractor over it,” he said. “We’ve also got a burgeoning wildlife population. We have had deer, a badger, foxes. The wetland has got ducks, geese and heron. There’s nothing for them to eat yet so they don’t stay but they know where the water is.”
As well as environmental responsibility, Mr Ferrar said more people are taking emotional responsibility for their own deaths.
Mr Ferrar came up with the idea for the business when he attended the natural burial of his aunt in November 2005 and found the experience comforting. Change of use planning permission was required to put a burial ground on the site. Mr Ferrar said there were no objections and more people were concerned the land would become a huge housing development. Instead the property, which is in the green belt in the Surrey Hills, will be protected as a nature reserve. A timber and glass pavilion is to be completed next year to be used for services.
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.
I am filming with Bernard Underdown, Gravedigger of the Year, at Deerton Natural Burial Ground. We are standing beside one of Bernard’s freshly-dug graves talking with ever-so over-egged animation about graveyard myths and superstitions. We exhaust the topic, look over to the camera, and the cameraman says, “Lovely. Perfect. Again, please.” In answer to our mildly miffed expressions he explains, “Car. That car. Sorry.” The noise of a passing car has intruded on the microphone. Bernard and I dig deep into our reserves of flagging spontaneity and reprise.
On the other side of the burial ground I see five people arrive, then stand and survey the ground and chat contemplatively. It is starting to rain and they put their umbrellas up.
One of the group detaches herself and comes over to us. It is Wendy Godden-Wood, the owner. Bernard and I come to the end of our re-take. We’re on a continuous loop now, we ready ourselves to start again. The cameraman says “Great. That’ll do.”
Wendy explains that the four people have come to buy plots. They are mooching, looking for the spot they like best, the spot where they’d like to spend eternity.
People say we’re a death-denying nation. Don’t know about that.
Filming the Good Funeral Awards with Sharp Jack Media, the production company making the documentary for Sky, entailed going all over the country to shoot people in action and get their backstories. It was fun. Perhaps the most fun was watching the crew on ‘just another job’ become emotionally enmeshed by the loveliness of the people they met. It was a life-changing process for them.
It was also exhausting and, from time to time, nailbiting.
Perhaps the nailbitingest moment came as they filmed a funeral in Devon followed by burial in Bidwell Woodland Burial Ground, a lovely place where you have to tote the coffin a good way to the grave. It’s hard work just trudging after it.
All went well at the outset. The funeral was in a village hall and it reduced one of the crew to tears even though it wasn’t an especially sad funeral because it was for a very old man who had led an incredibly rich and generous life. We set out for the burial ground in bright sunshine. It was a timeless sight.
The nailbiting bit came after the coffin had been lowered and it became evident that there was just a little over a foot between the top of the coffin and the surface. Local authority rules (not the law) prescribe a minimum of 2’ 6”, or 2’ where soil conditions allow. I had to have urgent discussions to determine whether it was wise, politic and in everyone’s best interests to film this. There could be protests and all sorts from them as knows best.
All agreed that it should be filmed. The owner of the burial ground, the richly characterful, serenely resolute and intelligent Andrew Lithgow, knows his law and believes that human burial must make good environmental sense. You don’t get the customary dark, cold, inert six feet under at Bidwell, you go back to nature usefully.
What about foxes, badgers, all sorts of foragers digging up the body? That’s what they all say happens, everybody says it. What do you do about that?
They don’t. As Andrew has it, why in heaven’s name would they want to dig up dead bodies? They’ve far better, fresher things to eat.
Another graveyard myth. So good to have that one knocked on the head. Burial depth in natural burial grounds has been, let’s confess it, a bit of an obsession here at the GFG. We are at rest now, enjoying our favourite song.
Back in 2001, The Telegraph ran a story about the Church of England opening its first woodland burial site, Arbory Trust, a consecrated 40-acre plot in Cambridgeshire with trees and flowers replacing gravestones.
‘Other sites cater for pagans and ‘New Age’ followers and do not offer a Christian burial,’ claimed the newspaper in its indomitable way, adding. ‘Unlike other woodland sites, the trust does not plant trees on top of coffins because of the implication, which is contrary to Christian teaching, that people are reincarnated in the tree.’
Two years later, The Telegraph revisited the subject, this time stating ‘Churches across Britain are to set up woodland burial sites because many of their existing graveyards and cemeteries are full’.
It quoted the Rt Rev Anthony Russell, then the Bishop of Ely, saying he believed that such burials would prove popular. ‘The woodland burial sites not only provide extra consecrated space, they also meet the wishes of people who want to be buried in an environmentally friendly setting which is close to nature,’ he said.
Almost a decade later, I searched the list of UK natural burial grounds on the website of the Natural Death Centre, and found just two consecrated sites: the aforementioned Arbory Trust and Bedfordshire’s St Albans Woodland Burial Ground, consecrated by the Diocese of St Albans.
Does anyone here know if there are more consecrated sites not registered with the NDC or if the CofE’s bid to unburden graveyards has not yet taken off—beyond people choosing cremation?
Meanwhile, traditional cemeteries from Clitheroe Cemetery in Lancashire to London’s New Southgate Cemetery have established wooded areas for people who wish to have more natural surroundings. Here.