Natural burial ticks alot of eco-boxes—but how many emo-boxes? They’re good for butterflies and vetches and voles and honeysuckle—but are they any good for living people? They may satisfy the head, but can they ever satisfy the heart?
Over in the US, Thomas Friese is developing his website, Perpetua’s Garden, as a place where people can debate human and environmental needs in the matter of memorialising their dead and, he hopes, discover solutions which will enable cemeteries of the future to fulfil a satisfactory dual function. I am indebted to Mr Friese for enriching my own thinking about the matter, and for the link to the following story.
Here in the UK, there’s trouble up at t’natural burial ground in Bridport, Dorset. Angry grievers have, according to the local paper, branded it an “overgrown disgrace”. Most of the graves are now covered by a sea of grass and weeds just as nature intended. Mrs Jill Tuck can no longer see her brother’s grave. When she complained to the council (the owner), she was told she was not supposed to be able to see it. Mrs Tuck is having none of that. She and her husband are going to strim the burial ground. In what we may take to be injured tones, the council protests that they’re not supposed to do that, nor should they plant trees “willy-nilly”.
The council has a point, of course. Mrs Tuck seems completely to have missed the point of natural burial. And it’s not as if the council did not spell out what she was signing up for:
The woodland burial area offers a natural form of burial in an area of wood and grassland and is situated at the far eastern end of the Cemetery. The site contributes towards the creation of a sanctuary for wild plants, birds, butterflies and other small wildlife.
Trees, shrubs and hedges have been planted and pathways cut in the field where wild flowers grow. The burial area is managed to create a peaceful area in natural surroundings. Accordingly, a natural environment is being created and developed that is comforting to visitors and future generations.
But was this enough information to enable Mrs Tuck to make a radical decision at a time of great grief? Was she very carefully talked through her decision? Was she brought to an understanding that natural burial means making what is emotionally a very tough choice because it means, literally, losing the plot?
The two hardest things about natural burial: it gives you nowhere to go (no demarcated grave to stand beside) and nothing to do. Sure, yes, it’s not the grave that commemorates the life, it’s the entire site. But here’s the point: is this site a memorial landscape or is it just any old landscape? What makes it a memorial landscape? And can a landscape like this meet the emotional needs of any but a very few?
Mrs Tuck is not alone. Mrs Henley-Coulson buried her husband in the natural burial ground at Bridport. After two years the grave was so overgrown she lost her way—and started tending someone else’s grave by mistake. Did anyone carefully explain to Mrs Henley-Coulson before she committed herself that you don’t tend graves in a natural burial ground; that it’s not the the grave that commemorates the life, it’s…
Mrs Henley-Coulson has planted bluebells, primroses and cowslips. On the wrong grave. As she rightly says, “Someone is going to have a surprise in the spring.”
She goes on to make some good points. She says:
“Your head is all over the place when you lose someone … Ideally I would like a meeting with the council. I feel they should give leaflets stating what your rights are and what you can expect … I want to know what rules apply – are we allowed to cut the grass ourselves, are we allowed to plant bulbs? What type of trees will they plant themselves and will the grass disappear when they are established or will it resemble a wildflower meadow? All these things are important. We, and I mean everybody, have just suffered a bereavement and cannot always think logically. In my own case I had to make the decision and on reflection feel it may have been the wrong one.”
Stand at any natural burial ground and watch the visitors. Most have eyes for only one thing: the grave. Everything else is peripheral.