It seems like an age ago that we all tagged along behind the then Bishop of Ely as he consecrated what had been a barren little corner of what was then part of the agricultural desert which makes up the largest part of Cambridgeshire.
The Arbory Trust was very fortunate really on two counts. First of all the then Bishop, Stephen Sykes, was supportive of, what was at the time very much, ‘the idea’ of woodland burial and secondly at that time the Diocese of Ely had some land that was suitable. The Arbory Trust was officially opened in the year 2000 and like many woodland burial sites it has been a huge success. The Arbory Trust was the fifth woodland burial site to open in the UK, since then there have been another three hundred and fifty more. Whilst this is nothing other than wonderful and each one of them will leave behind there vision of a humanity in conscious symmetry and harmony with the natural world, it sadly, I think, is still very much the case that a large proportion of the Christian community and the Church of England in particular just don’t get it.
Really what we are witnessing is a complete transformation of how ‘the sacred’ is being expressed and thankfully the environment, the natural world is now beginning to be seen as intrinsically important and resonant with our cultural understanding of the sacred. This perhaps is testament to a new understanding of ourselves as very much part of the natural order rather than separated from it. Whilst the then Bishop of Ely and others might have thought that it was important that the Arbory trust woodland burial site was consecrated, that very act of consecration confirmed at the deepest level the separateness of what is holy and what isn’t. It drew a line in the fields and by doing so indicated that one field was more holy than another. The location and sense of the sacred is very important to all of us, including atheists, a sense of the numinous; a sense of the mystery and beauty of existence.
But the latter is not more present on consecrated land than it is on unconsecrated land. The woodland burial movement because of its setting both visibly and geographically does not reinforce an idealistic separation between one field and another. It proffers the new and the very old idea that land is not just sacred because human beings happened to be buried within it, it is sacred in itself. Whilst the act of consecration offers protection to land in law it is becoming within our cultural context increasingly spiritually divisive. One solution would be to send the Bishops off with their staffs to consecrate the earth, the whole of planet earth, I am being serious.
The other is simply to opt for the reality that acknowledges all of the Earth as sacred in itself. With the ever increasing rise in popularity of woodland burial many christians are now beginning to cross the line between consecrated and unconsecrated land and choose a woodland burial. Also with the ever increasing numbers choosing woodland burial and despite the meteoric rise of ‘the celebrant’, Christian priests are increasingly being asked to lead woodland burial funerals which is a very welcome development. It will probably take at least another twelve years at the minimum for the Church of England to decide in which field it stands. That decision is probably one of the most important it will make this century.
In the mean time it is quite clear that the woodland burial movement will continue to grow. Whilst the theological and philosophical divisions will remain, most families will choose something and somewhere that they feel comfortable, somewhere that reflects their sense of peace and of completeness. One of the greater things about woodland burial is that it provides a neutral setting, it is in that sense truly multi faith and ecumenical.That a man, a woman can choose in effect to be buried within the context of the sacredness of the natural world whilst honouring his or her religious tradition is a huge step forward. The biggest and most exciting question of all I think is how, in time, each will inform the other.
This article was orginally published in More to Death, the official magazine to The Natural Death Centre.