A burial to die for?
Bill Hartley attends a green interment
Any listener to BBC Radio Four’s The Archers will be aware that the village of Ambridge has a Green Burial Ground. It gets frequent mentions as characters ranging from the dairyman to Jim Lloyd the retired professor of classics, refer to it in reverential terms. Indeed so embedded has it become in the fictional landscape of Ambridge that one could believe it had been there for decades. The working class character Mike Tucker gives freely of his time to ensure that it is well maintained (a point of some significance about which more in a moment) and middle class busybody Linda Snell maintains a watching brief. The care and attention lavished upon it by this cross section of the community mirrors the way a pagan sacred well might once have been looked after by its devotees. Perhaps the Green Burial Ground is another example of ‘balance’ offsetting those stuffy old Christian characters who persist in anticipating their final resting place to be St. Stephen’s churchyard.
I had always been slightly suspicious of this faddish extension of the Green Movement. After all if you put a body in the earth it will eventually decay, so what does a Green Burial add to this?
Since The Archers has never gone into any detail I took advantage of an opportunity to find out for myself.
The burial ground where I attended an interment was well hidden amongst some farmland just north of Sheffield. We mourners parked our vehicles on a grubby patch of cinders and then looked around fruitlessly for some point of reference to let us know where we might be going. Eventually a converted People Carrier with darkened windows arrived and I correctly guessed that this was the stand in for a hearse.
Fortunately the undertaker had been here before and the cortege led the way towards some scrubland, its ‘natural’ state having been achieved by allowing the land to become overrun with clumps of coarse grass interspersed with hawthorn bushes. The latter had to be circumvented carefully to avoid being whacked in the eye by the thorny branches. Overall it seemed like one of those scraps of land that a farmer has no use for because crops won’t prosper; a far cry from the sylvan scene conjured up by The Archers scriptwriters. In this part of Yorkshire the same effect is achieved when nature colonises an abandoned colliery slagheap.
Presumably in order to help maintain this pristine natural look there was only one footpath leading to the burial area. It didn’t however take us as far as the graveside. At least the ground was dry but I couldn’t help but wonder how the elderly or infirm might pick their way across the uneven surface without a significant risk of falling. It would seem that some basic Health and Safety so pervasive in life is neglected in death when a Green Burial is involved.
The worst part of making one’s way across the ground was inadvertently treading on graves. The only marker allowed at a Green Burial site is a small plaque, easily concealed by the unkempt grass. Once the grave has settled then there is little to denote its presence. Having done this a couple of times I began to feel distinctly uneasy because of the natural desire most of us have to respect a burial place.
The whole concept of Green Burial is of course to accelerate the process of decomposition. This green extreme extends to the choice of coffin and in this case one made from wicker had been chosen. Interestingly I learnt that these are more expensive than the standard chipboard and veneer models usually offered by undertakers. This is where I really start to have an issue with green burials. An elongated laundry basket is, in my opinion, barely on the right side of decency. Anyone who has helped shift a laden wicker basket may anticipate the problem. The weight of the contents makes it shift and creak. Young mourners brought up in the modern trend of keeping death as well hidden as possible, seemed to find this unnerving because wicker coffins lack the rigidity of traditional models. Worse still the weave of the wicker makes it possible to glimpse the contents. What should have been a simple dignified internment was carried out amidst an air of uneasiness that this mourner wished to see over and done with quickly. I felt some relief when the ersatz coffin was lowered into the ground and we could vacate this dismal piece of scrubland.
All burial grounds will eventually reach their capacity when no further interments are possible. Even so they continue to be places of remembrance and reflection, visited not just by relatives of the deceased. Over time a cemetery will evolve into a part of the landscape with the funerary monuments created by past generations perhaps becoming worthy of preservation as an interesting part of our heritage. What I wonder will happen to a Green Burial site when the land reaches its capacity? Unlike a traditional cemetery where relatives may return and care for a grave, all traces of a final resting place will eventually be obscured by vegetation. It seems unlikely that future generations will show the kind of veneration that The Archers scriptwriters bestow on Ambridge’s Green Burial Ground and the eventual fate of the one I visited will be to exist as a burial site only on local authority records.
BILL HARTLEY is a freelance writer from Yorkshire