Tag Archives: burial

Grave Goods

Over on Facebook at the weekend, William Rathouse shared some fascinating content about how we might want to be buried, and what a modern person might choose by way of grave goods, along with some beautiful photographs where people had arranged themselves in this way. It raises some interesting questions.

I’m never really sure what to think about life after death. My working assumption is that this may be all we get. I do have feelings about reincarnation and ghosts and ancestors, but hold it all in a state of don’t-really-know. What you put in a grave depends a lot on why you are putting it there, I think.

If I wanted tools for the afterlife, my priority item would be a sturdy bucket – one of the most useful bits of kit ever. I would also want a small hand axe, a knife and bowl, a saucepan tough enough to go on an open fire, scissors and sewing needles. I’d want coffee and tea – I’d take my chances with everything else I think. Pens and paper would be good.

If I wanted objects that would speak of my life, it would be a really different selection. A musical instrument, colouring pencils, a pen, a laptop, a walking stick and my walking boots, my runes, some of my books, my octopus mug, my oldest toy bear.

There’s also the possibility of being buried with the things the living do not want to keep. I wouldn’t really want to take anything with me that anyone else had an emotional attachment to and might want to hang on to. In many ways I think it makes more sense for whoever is left to dispose of me (probably my son) to make the decisions about what if anything should go with me, and what needs to go to other people. I tend to prefer having things in use, and anything that was important to me might be better employed in someone else’s hands, living on as a memory of me and continuing to be useful.

There’s a part of me quite likes the idea of being buried with little or nothing – just a shroud perhaps, or naked and covered in ochre. Is there a story I need to tell at the end of my life? Perhaps not. Perhaps it will be good just to fade into the soil and leave nothing for anyone to ponder over. Would that read as a choice to some future archaeologist, or would it look like I was very poor and uncared for? So much of how our stories read depend on what we think the context is anyway.


R.I.P. Off! or The British Way of Death

By Ken West

In the 1960’s I killed barn owls. It was not a conscious decision. The people in control instructed me to spray the new wonder chemicals, invented by the Americans, over the old cemetery. The weeds and long grass disappeared, as did the voles, the food source of the owls. Nobody noticed – or cared!

This happened all over the UK. Ten years later, less ignorant and in control of cemeteries and crematoria myself, I introduced conservation management in cemeteries. The results were astonishing. Acres of rare pignut, a plant that once fed the poor, appeared, followed by voles; the owls returned.

Years later, and offering a Funeral Advisory Service, two women, possibly pagans, wanted advice on burial in their garden. I told them it was feasible, but that it would depress the property sale price. I discovered that they sought garden burial because this was the only way that they could be buried under a tree and thereby satisfy their environmental and spiritual philosophy.

Because of these events, I wrote a feasibility study for natural burial, the first time that human burial was integrated with conservation. This was accepted by Carlisle City Council and we opened the world’s first site in 1993. It was a traumatic time; funeral directors hated the idea, not least the prohibition of embalming. They were apoplectic when I first mentioned cardboard coffins. Natural burial was also a threat to cremationists because it highlighted the energy and pollution problems with the process. Increasingly labelled a weirdo, I was grateful for the support from pagans, environmentalists and the artistic community.

There are now more natural burial sites than crematoria in the UK (270+) and the idea is going universal. It has created the market for green coffins and reinvigorated burial. It also gave greater emphasis to the emerging funeral celebrant, expanding options for more spiritual and earth centred services.

After 45 years in the work, I retired with new purpose; to get people to discuss death and dying (see www.naturalburialcreator.co.uk). My first book, a specialist title, was ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’ published in 2010.

Based on my experience introducing natural burial, I wrote “R.I.P. Off! or: The British Way of Death” to show how the funeral market is stitched up; how it shuts out innovation. I wanted to convey information, without the dry blandness of a self help book, so that the reader could take control of a funeral themselves, even to the point of doing one without a funeral director. But, as nobody wants to read about death, how could I appeal to readers? Bookshops welcome writers on children’s stories and romance, but not death. I opted for black humour, and a series of cameos based on true events; an expose of the funeral world.

Getting to the other side has never been easy; or cheap! The Egyptians needed their ornate tombs; the Romans to cross the River Styx and the Vikings to sacrifice an entire longship. The Americans renamed this palaver the death care industry and set new rules; the funeral director became a salesman in a black suit, the coffins were given fancy names like ‘The Balmoral’ and nobody was allowed to mention the word death.