I had to go to Wales to see the burial ground at Usk Castle Chase because it’s just been garlanded with the title of Green Burial Ground of the Year 2008.
Wales doesn’t know it’s Wales, of course: that’s simply the name its present tenants have given it. But it is a ‘country’ with a strong sense of national identity, something which makes me feel, as I drive towards the border, defensively prickly. Patriotism is too often a symptom of a bi-polar inferiority complex; its manifestations can be ill-natured. I anticipate being categorised as English. I am not. I am a republic of one.
My misgivings are groundless. The satnav goes on speaking to me in the easy way it always used. The road signs are intelligible, for all that they leave me coming up gasping for vowels. I am charmed by the Welsh way of slowing you down as you approach a sharp corner. Araf, say the signs, and I fancy they sound like the warning bark of a Welsh corgi: Araf-araf! Arrrrr…!
The burial ground is a large sloping meadow flanked on three sides by woods. Beside it is a simple wooden shelter. It is a blissful spot and the most complete contrast to any other burial ground I have ever seen, whether conventional or green. It is the fulfilment of the idea of a natural burial ground, utterly uncompromising.
There is no memorialisation allowed whatsoever, so there’s none of the possessiveness and territoriality that go with a conventional cemetery – no jealous demarcation and personalisation of plots, no visual jabber of talkative, decorated headstones, sunwashed artificial blooms, dead roses in cellophane, blue chippings, solar powered angels. There is no tingle-wingle from a single windchime. Nothing. Nothing at all but birdsong.
Most other natural burial grounds compromise – because grieving people can’t help feeling proprietorial about the grave site — and permit grave markers (albeit biodegradable and non-renewable), gardening of the plot and a certain amount of what green burial pioneer and guru Ken West elegantly terms ‘grieving waste’ – flowers, plastic pots, stuff. The result tends to be tawdry, half-hearted – in the worst cases, a sort of shanty town of the dead.
Usk Castle Chase probably scores as close to full marks as makes no difference according to Ken’s ultra-puritanical criteria of greenness. I was particularly pleased to learn that they bury at 1.3 metres, allowing bodies to rot aerobically and, therefore, environmentally usefully. Too many green grounds bury bodies at six feet; no one’ll never push up daisies from down there.
On the day I was at Usk I saw no freshly turned earth, no evidence at all that anyone has ever been buried there and no visitors. The words of Psalm 103 express it perfectly: As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.
Anyone thinking about natural burial — and 64 per cent of the population say they favour it — needs to consider all this both from their own point of view and also from that of those they will leave behind. It’s not emotionally easy to embrace the idea that it is the whole place which stands as a memorial to each dead resident, but that’s what green burial logically means.
Green burial ought to be about sustainability in terms of the re-use of graves, too, after, say, 40 years. But I suppose no one would buy a plot on those terms. Not yet, anyway.
(The title of this piece quotes from Andrew Marvell’s The Garden.)