Charles Cowling

I wonder what people who visit graves think their loved one looks like now—or whether they think about it at all. I was talking last week to Ken West, the man who gave us natural burial, and he opined that they think of them as uncorrupted.

People shut their eyes to decomposition, whether violent and accelerated in a cremator or slow and buggy underground. My big bone of contention with many green burialists is that they babble happily about bluebells and bluebirds but bury at six feet. They know perfectly well that people who opt for natural burial fondly suppose they will nourish the earth and push up daisies (or bluebells). They also know perfectly well that at six feet they will turn into methane and sludge. So they keep schtumm about it.

Thus is death prettified and an elemental event made into a sentimental event.

Perhaps the ultimate reality of death is not the extinction of life but the return of the
body to the earth. And perhaps the death cannot fully be comprehended until folk get their heads around the body’s dissolution, both the stink of it and the buggy merriment.

It makes best sense to return a body to the earth naked. Yet we like to dress up beautifully for big occasions. Well, so long as a corpse is clad in beautiful biodegradables, can we not both nod at the vanity and justifiably refuse to apologise for it?

Which brings me to my third and last greatest hit of the National Funeral Exhibition, a product which is both beautiful and elemental: the leaf shroud created by Yuli Somme and Anne Belgrave at Bellacouche.

It’s not a winding sheet, it’s an alternative to a coffin. While a conventional shroud can seem stark because its wrappings reveal (starkly) the outline of the body, the leaf shroud, with its five layers of felted wool, softens and rounds it. The top layer, decorated with felted leaves, can be detached at the point of burial and kept.

It’s a marvellous piece of making. The body, wrapped in a wool cocoon, is fastened to a frame with gorsewood toggles.

The leaf shroud is archetypal in a Jungian sense. There’s a connection with pre-history and a timeless way of burying our dead. It strikes the same chord and exerts the same hold on the imagination as open-air cremation or a Viking funeral. Isn’t this what Beowulf might have been buried in?

Even if, to you, the leaf shroud is none of these things, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s undeniably lovely.

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