I flew down the M5 last night to attend a glittering film premiere at Arnos Vale. That’s Arnos as in the Lancastrian ‘tha knows’, it doesn’t rhyme with thermos, I heard a bit of that from foreigners who’d come up from Bath. Sorry, no idea who Arno was. Correctly it should be Arno’s. Enough quibbling. I like the M5, it is the holiday motorway. And my wife is a Bristolian; her gran and granfer are buried in Arno’s Vale and I had instructions to say hello to them. Everything about the expedition was promising.
As darkness fell I felt no regret that the cemetery would be in blackout when I got there. I hate Victorian cemeteries with their vainglorious monuments to rich dead guys – though I do get an unquestionably questionable kick out of seeing them succumb to oblivion, the tendrils reaching up, the kerbs burst by insouciant weeds, the statuary slowly nosediving.
In the darkness it actually looks lovely – feels Italian. I may have to re-think after seeing it once more in daylight. They’ve just spent £4.8 million restoring it – but I think there are question marks over its sustainability now that the money is spent and they must generate an income. I did manage to see the old cremator in the basement of the Non-conformist chapel. I hoped to be able to find a photo of it but can’t. Well worth a look if you’re a death anorak, and there’s a bonus, they still have their original cremulator, a huge and cumbersome Heath Robinson construction capable probably of pulverising Kryptonite.
The film premiere was in the Anglican mortuary chapel. No red carpet, no paps, no screaming, but they were all there all the same, the megastars of death: Ken West, who begat natural burial;Rosie Inman-Cook of the NDC; James Leedam of Native Woodland; Ian Quance, president of the ICCM; Stephen Laing, the man who created the Bereavement Services portal, and his wife; Professor Tony Walter and a very nice PhD student I met at last year’s CDAS summer conference whose name I have forgotten. Much nattering ensued. Ian Quance is the bereavement services supremo in Exeter. He offers his clients a menu a bit like those menus you get in some Chinese restaurants. On it are pictures of graves in various states of decoration. You choose the one you like and your dead person gets buried with folk of similar aesthetic values and doesn’t get encircled by Poundlandish neighbours — unless he/she is Poundlandish, of course. What a good idea, we all said. “It’s not for me,” he said, “to tell people how to grieve.” Then we were hushed.
Hannah Rumble, who has recently finished her PhD at Durham University, talked about natural burial and gave us some interesting historical perspectives on it. Then she showed us the film Earth to Earth, which was recently shot by Sarah Thomas, a visual anthropologist, and was created with some input from Hannah as an academic consultant at the pre-production stage, and Prof. Douglas Davis, who has written some very good books and is a very nice man.
The film explores “the concepts, motivations and behaviours aligned with the case study natural burial site known as Barton Glebe, located a few miles West of Cambridge, and one of only two natural burial sites in the UK affiliated to the Church of England.” Lots of interviews with people saying why they like it and what it means to them. Beautifully made, lots to think about, and a great advertisement for natural burial except possibly for the bit where the C of E man says it’s not just for dropouts, which made Ken splutter a bit. All in all we loved it and someone said it ought to be on the telly. Well done, Hannah. Especially well done Sarah, who did the hard camerawork! You can find Sarah’s blog here.
Quotes of the night were from Tony Walter. He observed that, so far has nature reclaimed Arno’s Vale, it is itself an example of natural burial, albeit an ironic one. Then he reflected that the Brits took to cremation early, and invented (reinvented) natural burial. Why so innovative? Because we don’t re-use grave spaces as they do on the continent – we darn well have to be. Gosh he’s bright. He’ll go far.