The Enfolding Earth – our full and entire connection with Nature
Walking in a French cemetery, I was struck by the lack of anything remotely natural. Paths were heavily gravelled, tombs, gravestones and other monuments were made of stone or concrete. There was an implicit nod towards Nature reflected by ceramic flowers and carvings of a bird or ivy climbing up a cross, but this was definitely a place where Real Nature was not welcomed. Although this was a large cemetery surrounded by a high wall, I was alone for most of the time I was there and the place seemed very dead; no birds, no growing plants, no voices, no children.
Over the wall was a beautiful park, full of abundant life – birds singing, insects humming amongst flowers and trees, children playing, people enjoying the sun, Nature. Charles Cowling of the Good Funeral Guide elegantly puts things in perspective for me:
“ With the honourable exception of those cultures which cleave to ancient customs (some Jews, Muslims, Tibetan sky burialists), our corpse disposal practices define humankind’s disconnection from the Earth; they seem to assert that we are not of it. Call it fastidiousness, call it aloofness, call it squalid squeamishness, we do not behave in a way which acknowledges that we are in debt to it and have a duty to return to it in the most useful way we can. We’ll never save this beleaguered planet of ours until we get real and embrace our oneness.”
Humans are the only species that cremate their dead. Some cultures have been doing it for thousands of years and every culture seems to have it’s own practice, whether it be burial, cremation, sky burial (in Tibet, where remains are offered to carrion birds), mummification or disposal at sea. In the UK, it’s only since the 1950s that we have favoured cremation over burial. There are a few reasons why the trend has tipped that way, but in the last decade or so a new approach has been welcomed by those of us who want to see more environmentally benign funerals. ‘Natural’ burial (i.e. no enbalming or synthetic materials) is making a come-back and many landowners all over the country are opening burial sites, often within an established farming system. For instance, combining livestock with natural burial is a perfect combination. Animals can be allowed in for short periods to keep the grass down and as there are no headstones, hay can also be cut from the site. Other sites are part of tree planting schemes, thus eventually turning into woodland. Orchards or ‘sylvo pasture’ (combining tree crops with livestock) are another possibility.
Dirt (American word for soil) indicates that soil is dirty; likewise we talk of something dirty being ‘soiled’. However, I know that if I bury something in the soil, the life in the soil will immediately set to work to clean it away, transforming it magically into nutritious humus. Far from soil being dirty, it is a complex series of interlocking systems containing all the kingdoms of life which can metabolise or sequester greenhouse gases and a vital part of Gaia’s self regulating mechanism.
As a maker of woollen shrouds and ‘soft coffins’ (made from locally sourced wood and wool) my business on Dartmoor is reliant on the trend of returning to burial. In my ideal world I’d like everyone to consider natural burial as an option, even for those living within large cities. We are beginning to see the seed bombing (guerrilla gardening) movement growing food in small spaces within urban areas, and we know that humans need green things growing around them for their mental, as well as physical, health. There is no reason why new, natural cemeteries cannot be incorporated into town planning, places that embrace human life and Nature and allow us to bury our dead, should we so wish. You don’t have to look far in London to find huge natural cemeteries, visited by so many of us as a place to walk and commune with Nature, if not the dead.
The choice between burial and cremation is always personal and often people feel quite strongly about which way they would like to ‘go’. However, it’s worth considering the ‘sausage factory’ approach to UK cremation which takes place in anonymous, characterless buildings, usually in 20 minute slots, ending with a great blast of fossil fuels and a gasp of smoke. That’s all, and it’s over!
Compare this with the possibility of a slower approach in a beautiful natural place where you can take half a day or more to remember someone loved. And then the body is allowed gently, slowly to return to something rich, universal and nourishing for this abundant Earth. Then Satish Kumar’s mantra for the planet; “Soil, Soul and Society” will be truly reflected in the way we celebrate our dead.