Tombs of our time

by
10 February 2017

John Davies explores changing burial practices, and the Church’s response

Tim Daw

Secular yet sacred: the Long Barrow, All Cannings

Secular yet sacred: the Long Barrow, All Cannings

IT IS the morning of the winter solstice at the Long Barrow, All Cannings, Wiltshire. The newly risen sun casts its rays through the entrance, illuminating the stones at the far end of the chamber and confirming the barrow’s sacred geometry; for it was designed to be aligned to the winter-solstice sun.

”It’s amazing to think that just three years ago to the day we cut the first turf here,” Tim Daw, the creator of the Long Barrow, reflects as he takes a few photographs that will later go up on the barrow’s Facebook site. This was the first burial mound to be built in 5000 years. Not long after its launch, in 2014, the 340 niches for the interment of cremated remains had already found subscribers.

Other entrepreneurs have fol­lowed suit. In October 2016, the company Sacred Stones (uncon­nected to Mr Daw, but whose barrow was designed and built by the same people) opened the Willow Row barrow near St Neots, Cam­bridgeshire, and is now con­structing Hopleys Barrow, in the Wye Valley, and a new Long Barrow at Soulton, in Shropshire.

 

MR DAW is fascinated by the changing burial practices in the UK. “Looking at pre-history and other cultures, we date and define people by their funeral practices. And these have changed so much in this country: from the black attire, horses, drawn curtains, straw on the streets, to nowadays, when everyone wants celebrations, bright colours, and so on.”

Perhaps the fundamental change in burial practices during this period has been the disconnection between the ceremony and the disposal of the body. Whereas traditional funerals combine both elements, increasingly the bereaved opt for “direct disposal”, and arrange for a farewell ceremony after the event.

Indeed, a recent report from the National Association of Funeral Directors states that about 85 per cent of its members now offer some form of direct cremation. The website Good Funeral Guide (www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk) suggests that “Most people who opt for direct cremation or direct burial could easily afford a traditional funeral, but they choose not to, not feeling the need to have a formal, public, ceremonial funeral at which the body of the person who has died is present.”

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THE Natural Death Centre, founded in 1991 by Nicholas Albery and his wife, Josefine Speyer, has been influential in this area. Its stated aim is to “help break the taboo around dying and death, to bring the dying person back to the centre of proceedings, to empower people and make them aware of their legal rights and choices, taking the power away from institutions”.

Albery’s own funeral, in 2001, involved a bamboo woven coffin, a Quaker-style ceremony, a pro­ces­sion, songs, music, poetry, a re­­count­­ing of memories, Tibetan prayer-flags, a Christian blessing, a tea party, and a dance around the grave at the end of the day.

This unique event advanced a now widely embraced paradigm of personalised farewell ceremonies, which are prepared and controlled by the mourners rather than by cor­porate funeral directors and religious institutions.

Cremated remains are now often retained in family homes, buried, or sprinkled in locations special to the deceased or bereaved, or kept in columbaria (public places of storage with niches designed to hold cre­mation urns). The columbarium at Golders Green Crematorium, opened in 1902, is a celebrated early example.

Burials and scatterings are not the only choices now available to the bereaved. A retired Anglican priest, the Revd Alex Gowing-Cumber, talks of his encounters with people who use cremated remains as the base material for body tattoos, or vinyl recordings. “In an age of virtual space, a physical space of remem­brance is less important to many people,” he says.

 

NATURAL burial is also increasingly popular. The Association of Natural Burial Grounds says that there are now more than 270 man­aged sites in the form of meadows, woodlands, and neatly kept parkland, where funerals can be held and memorial trees planted.

The Arbory Trust (”The first Christian woodland burial charity”) established the Barton Woodland Burial Ground in 2000 on ex-glebe land in Cambridge. The original site covered about 19 acres, and now extends to almost 40. The Trust’s website states: “We have no geo­graphical or theological boundaries governing those who may be buried at the Arbory Trust — people from all races and religions, from near or far, are genuinely and regularly welcomed to the burial ground.

”The Glebe is a beautiful place to be, offering a natural beauty and openness which many churchyards and cemeteries cannot.” Instead of stones and monuments, there are simply wild flowers; the gates are never locked; and people are encouraged to come whenever they want to with their children, picnics, and even dogs.

The Arbory Trust’s burial ground is fully consecrated, but the trust’s founder, the Revd Peter Owen-Jones, suggests that the Church’s thinking on this subject needs to be stretched. In the magazine More To Death, he wrote of “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.”

 

“THERE is certainly a kind of ritual-symbolic carte blanche on several tables just now,” the director of the Durham University Centre for Death and Life Studies, the Revd Professor Douglas Davies, says. “The long-barrow approach is interesting, not only for those of a pagan-style dis­­position, who can locate these in­­novations within their own historical-mythical image of the past, but also for innovators whose en­­thusiasm can be contagious.”

Mr Daw is one such innovator whose Wiltshire construction em­­braces an openness to all forms of spirituality and belief. “One jour­nalist, early on, wanted to frame a story about the Long Barrow being created as a reaction against the Church, pitting paganism against Christianity, but it’s not about that at all,” Mr Daw says.

While he describes himself as “a Stonehenge geek” who has many pagan friends, the Long Barrow was always intended to serve people from all walks of life, he says. “I promoted it solely on Facebook. And, as I anticipated, some pagans subscribed, but, overwhelmingly, it was just ordinary people who were drawn to what they saw.”

What they saw was an imposing structure of rock and earth of similar proportions to the ancient burial mounds in the surrounding Neolithic landscape. Stepping inside a doorway — so low that you have to bow to enter — into the roughly hewn limestone structure is rather like entering an ancient church. Mr Daw explains that the design is deliberately earthy and rough in form, and yet constructed like a place of worship or prayer. The rationale was to “give people that bit extra of what they want — although they may be not quite sure why they want it”.

Mr Daw designed the Long Barrow’s metal entrance-door him­self. “The most important thing was that it wasn’t a particular religious symbol. My inspiration for it is DNA, which I thought of as life everlasting, going on through ephemeral bodies, eternally. Other people have seen in it Greek gods and Roman intertwining snakes, Celtic knot-work, and all sorts.”

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BOB TRUBSHAW, a publisher in the fields of folklore, mythology, cultural studies, and local history, was at the Long Barrow opening ceremony. “There has to be some overlap between the fast uptake of natural burial, and these new tombs offering an option for those who prefer cremation over interment,” he says.

”Folk may not want the Church, but they intuitively desire the monumental, especially the implicit associations of enduring. A small proportion of Neolithic chamber-tombs have survived as monuments for 5000 years; All Cannings and its siblings implicitly sell themselves as potentially equally enduring.”

Mr Daw says that much of the appeal of the Long Barrow is that it offers a “middle road”. “A lot of people want to get away from traditional church burials, but are not drawn to green burials in woods, or the very secular with no grave markings. The Long Barrow is taking a step back from that anonymous natural route: it’s somewhere in between.”

The Long Barrow is overlooked by the ancient hilltop barrows of Adams Grave, Milk Hill, and East Kennett. “These were the ‘parish churches’ of their day, each serving the com­munities which lived close by,” Mr Daw says. By contrast, the Long Barrow’s “parish” is nationwide, and is also a maturing virtual community: a number of its subscribers com­municate on Facebook.

There are many meaningful, reflective exchanges, Mr Daw says, and “people posting comments about being delighted to meet their future ‘neighbours’, and joking about partying together in the barrow in the afterlife”.

 

REPORTS in the mainstream media suggest that new forms of burial are an urgent challenge to a Church whose burial grounds are rapidly closing. But many dioceses respond that this is a premature assessment: in each diocese that offered figures for this report, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their churchyards remain open, and the closure rate is said to be slow.

Some churches, however, are taking a proactive approach, and are rethinking their burial grounds. St Peter’s, Cradley, for example, has a large churchyard, which is being revived through a project, Green­Space, which is funded partly by the community and also by the Prince’s Trust, Business in the Community, and through a partnership with Dudley Mind. The Team Vicar, the Revd Katryn Leclézio, and her parishioners are “clearing large over­grown areas, creating areas for people to sit and reflect, and including a baby memorial”, besides creating “good biodiversity to support natural wildlife”.

Similarly, when the churchyard at St Mary’s, Warsash, became almost full for burials, the PCC began planning “a beautiful new memorial garden for the perpetual interment of ashes”, designed in the shape of a Celtic cross.

 

THE churchyard of St Mary and St John, Cowley Road, Oxford, has been restored to include a Trinity labyrinth, which doubles as both a community arts project and a public “rest space”. The churchyard website (www.ssmjchurch­yard.org.uk) offers a range of downloadable fact-sheets, inter­active nature and history trails that make use of Smartphone and GPS technology, and even teachers’ guides for Key Stages 1 to 5.

Around the site, heritage and wildlife interpretation boards offer visitors further encouragement for reflective engagement.

The restoration was carried out by a group of volunteers, which included students and senior citizens, and the maintenance regime now involves working sessions on Wednesday mornings, planting days in the spring and the autumn, and occasional special events with wildlife and local-history themes.

Some churchyards are being adopted for community use. For example, in recognition of the cycle of life, parishioners at St John the Baptist, Badingham, created a community garden on an unused extension of the churchyard. Sim­ilarly, St Barnabas’s, Queen Camel, uses part of its churchyard as an allotment: plots are allocated for villagers and the school, and there is an apiary for the village’s beekeepers.

Many closed churchyards are also being imaginatively restored as peaceful spaces for nature-lovers to enjoy. The Alliance of Religions and Conservation reports that there are now more than 6000 “living churchyards” in Britain: its website states that “in some parts of the country, they are the only protected eco-systems in the area where remnants of the local flora and fauna can survive.”

While the challenge to the Church requires further and wider en­­gagement, it is encouraging that churches are viewing the cultural changes in burial practices as a positive opportunity.

In exploring new ways to use the land in their possession, they are revealing the potential in imagina­tively drawing on the wisdom and experience of the Church’s people and history.

 

The Revd John Davies is Rector of the Cam Vale Benefice in the diocese of Bath & Wells.

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