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A tree that embodies the promise of life

26 August 2016

Rupert Martin describes a churchyard project that seeks to promote pilgrimage and healing

Spreading the word: the Tree of Life in Sandal churchyard

Spreading the word: the Tree of Life in Sandal churchyard

WE WERE running out of suitable spaces in which to inter ashes in our churchyard. It had been ten years since the idea of a memorial garden had first been mooted. The pressure was on, but I was not happy with the solutions to the problem, which often left an untidy confusion of small square slabs surrounded by plastic flowers and ornaments.

Given the number of cremations taking place, it needed to be a space which would allow for growth; so the initial idea was for a cross-shaped path, with each quadrant containing space for square plaques. Then this could be increased with the addition of further interconnecting crosses.

As I looked at this shape, it occurred to me that this rectilinear design could be changed into curves to create the shape of a tree, and the idea for a tree of life was conceived.

I took this to a sculptor in Doncaster, Dan Jones, who had created some beautiful relief carvings on the Portobello council estate in our parish. I gave him the passage in Revelation 21.1-2, which describes the tree of life. He came up with a drawing of a tree with roundels for the fruit at the intersection of the branches, and verses inscribed on the branches, with plaques in the shape of leaves.

This was further developed by our architect, Liz Ashmore, into a full-scale tree that would occupy the whole of the 15×30-metre plot that was available, hidden under a sea of brambles. The final addition was a carving of the river of the water of life, going up the middle and washing around the roundels.

Every element of the biblical symbolism was present: the tree, the street, the river, the fruit, the leaves, and even the throne, a seat that was commissioned from a furniture designer to fit into the curved root-ball at the base of the tree.

Half the cost of £60,000 was provided by a generous legacy, and the other half was given by parishioners, or made up by an invitation to pre-purchase leaves for the future. This was a small investment to make, considering that the tree was designed to allow 500 leaves to be placed over a period of 30 to 40 years.


THE end result is a beautiful emblem of the grace of God, representing the promise of life even in the midst of death. And the response from people has been astonishing. This tree of life contains Christian symbolism throughout, but it is a universal emblem that everyone can relate to. In that respect, it has not only a pastoral part to play, but also an evangelistic one, since it has become a place of pilgrimage for many people.

In some ways, it fulfils two of the three roles that Philip Yancey believes will help the Church reconnect with people: the artist, the pilgrim, and the activist. The beautiful carving of the fruit and the river, and the shape of the leaves, are conducive to the need for comfort and healing.

The placing of the first leaves at the top of the tree invites people to walk like pilgrims through the sculpture, along the street and the river that flows up the centre of the tree, and to read the verses engraved on the branches.

It is as if you are entering a heavenly space, surrounded on all sides by the openness of creation, as the tree leads the eye up to the hills of Heath Common, which lies beyond the hawthorn hedge. It is truly a peaceful place, with the sound of breeze and birdsong in the churchyard and the fields beyond.

The management of the tree of life has taken much thought. Fifty cardboard leaves were laid out in an irregular way in each section, to imitate the naturalness of a tree, and the layout recorded. Cores are augured out, and ashes are poured in, which allows two sets of ashes to be interred underneath each leaf. The inscription has only the date and names, carved in the same font to create a unified look. Someone whose son is buried near by faithfully looks after the weekly mowing of the grass.

Flowers and ornaments are not allowed on the tree. Instead, a sculpture has been commissioned in the shape of a large split stone, with cores drilled in the shape of a spiral to represent the smallness of a fossil or the immensity of a galaxy. Flowers or pot plants can be placed there, beneath the 200-year-old chestnut tree that overlooks the sculpture.

We are blessed in having the space in our churchyard to create something on this scale, but I believe that similar creative solutions can be found to provide places of healing and pilgrimage in other locations.

The tree of life has refreshed our ministry to the bereaved in several ways. Those who may not have chosen to hold a funeral in the church, or who have chosen secular celebrants, come to us for the ashes of their loved ones to be interred. We have created a poetic liturgy that is suitable for the natural outdoor setting, to weave around the existing brief service from Common Worship.

We hope that those who visit will experience the healing presence of Christ in this symbolism of a new heaven and a new earth, visualised and embodied in the tree of life.


The Revd Rupert Martin is the Vicar of Sandal Magna, in the diocese of Leeds.

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