It appears that people are using nature to increase their mental wellbeing during the Covid crisis. Walking in and enjoying the countryside has burgeoned all over the UK. However, the depth of this interest in nature is less easy to discern. I find it odd that so many people care for birds and recycle waste food during their life yet forget the environment when they die. That is evident because well over 70% choose cremation. Incinerating our bodies creates air pollution and releases all the carbon in the body. Even the crematorium grounds require intensive maintenance including mowing and the use of horticultural chemicals. Consequently, a cremation based funeral actually damages the natural world. That natural world includes children’s lungs, which are extremely vulnerable to air pollution.
This disparity between human actions and nature also exists with conventional burial. Now, as a new resident of a Derbyshire village, an extensive churchyard is a short way from my barn, my home. It is a mixture of old and new graves, with ample ground for further burials. I don’t want to call it depressing but it does sit in an environmental vacuum. The grass is occasionally mown but not what you would call tidy. Only one or two trees have been planted over decades. No signs exist suggesting that it is managed as a ‘Living Churchyard’. That is a scheme promoted by the Church of England to put God’s acre back into its poetical past in 1750, when Thomas Gray penned his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’. It was as if he anticipated our global crisis by noting ‘the moping owl’, the ‘ivy mantled tower’ and ‘the yew trees shade’, none of which now exist in my village churchyard.
This churchyard environment is in direct contrast to the hillside, a few metres away, behind the village. This extensive area is steep and wild, with rank grass and lots of wildflowers. It is too steep to be farmed or mowed, consequently, it is full of prey such as field voles. We know this because kestrels hover over it most days and at night, tawny owls call from the trees. In other words, the wild place is full of life and the churchyard is lifeless.
This reminds me that humans are bizarre creatures. The churchyard is being maintained because the mechanical mower is an icon for care. It appears that our community concern for the dead demands that we mow grass, that we keep it tidy. Nature, meanwhile, in her ‘neglect’, creates all that we love in nature, creatures like owls and kestrels. In other words, what people see as applicable in death is the very opposite of what nature actually does. This bizarre behaviour was my experience in my first employment.
When I began work in 1961 on my 15th birthday, I was put to work destroying the environment. That was in the old cemetery, covered in wildflowers and harbouring a myriad of voles. The old male scythers were dismissed when I, in a team, applied herbicides and other chemicals to control weeds and rank grasses. Subsequently, we used petrol mowers to routinely mow the grass. It all looked very tidy but nobody cared about the impact we had. The butterflies disappeared, then the voles and they were soon followed by the cemetery barn owls. The cemetery was tidy, but sterile.
Some might argue that after we are bereaved, we need to push nature away. Any hint of decay, that the body is going to lose its identity by decomposing, has to be put out of mind. A neat lawn, well edged, disguises the cemeteries function. It becomes a park, a garden. Even the lawns surrounding the crematorium are called The Garden of Remembrance. True nature, it seems, is too much for us. Fortunately, some people see it differently, and embrace nature. How I met these people relates back to another work experience.
The Bereavement Services Manager role at Carlisle appealed to me because their Victorian cemetery was huge and full of promise. After a few years, we had 20 acres of conservation. Often, after my desk lunch, I walked across these old grave areas and my black shoes turned gold with pollen. We ran a programme of popular cemetery walks on the environment considering trees, lichens, birds and mammals. When these walkers stopped to look at the mass of pignut, orchids or the bulbs we had planted, a number always asked whether they could be buried in these conservation zones. They couldn’t because all the graves had been interred a hundred years previously but these people understood; they knew that if we nurtured voles then the owls would, and did, return.
Consequently, I created natural burial for these people. Throw off the absurd need for tidiness; put the environment first by using your body to create new life. It worked, even to the degree that some funeral services were really sermons on the value of oak trees. Even children played a part in services, reading a verse over dead granddad from the ladybird Book of Trees. Some of these people planted the oak tree on the grave and made it clear they would not return, that the promise to the deceased was to be left in the arms of nature.
What can be seen here is the very opposite of the denial of death, typical of cremation. There are no velvet curtains, no pretence that ‘all is well’ and no manicured gardens. Why deny death when the change it enforces can have such a positive impact.
In recent years, a new kind of funeral has been developing based on composting bodies. This idea might well fit alongside a natural burial site. The body will be covered in a special ‘soil’ and in a matter of weeks will be broken down into a form of compost. Ultimately, of course, the molecules of the body are in this compost. They will form the building blocks in new forms of life. Imagine it, untidy, unkempt nature will use your body to create a tawny owl!
Regular Author and Stonehenge Pensioner