At a recent funeral at Usk, assisted by Helen Williams of Treasured Funeral Ceremonies, a family posted a notice in the memorial shelter where people gathered for the funeral. We think it explains why people choose natural burial beautifully...
Today is the opening of our new Woodland Trail at Delliefure. John Diffey, the custodian at Delliefure, had this wonderful idea to encourage people to explore and absorb the beautiful surroundings of the natural burial ground and the Scottish wilderness.
Around each corner, there is an interesting or picturesque feature making the trail feel like a true adventure and drawing the explorer further into the woodland.
Begin by enjoying the beautiful open glades of the burial ground, with a range of different flora and fauna to be seen; this leads you to the riverside with picturesque views downstream and then you will reach a viewpoint at the northern escarpment. The more adventurous can continue on and scramble down banks, hop streams and explore the valley below. The walk offers a real diversity of terrain and wildlife habitats with riverside vistas.
Come and explore this truly special place.
Doing it yourself can be quite daunting, but can help considerably when coming to terms with the death of someone close. Over the years we have picked up some tips which we like to pass on…
It is perfectly possible to do everything yourselves, if you have the support and physical capability to do so. Our page on Family Led Funerals helps with links and advice on what to do. It is also possible to organise most things yourselves, , whilst still receiving support from a local funeral director for 'logistics' - collecting the body, placing the body into a coffin, storing in a refrigerated room until bringing it to the burial ground, where you can take over again.
The funeral director can provide bearers for the burial and lower the coffin into the ground for you and then leave. It can be less inhibiting and more personal if you arrange beforehand for them to withdraw after lowering so that only family and friends and perhaps a funeral celebrant remain to share the time around the grave. Most funeral directors are most happy to do this, after all it frees up the men and hearse to go to the next funeral. The funeral director will quite often suggest that he remains nearby in case help is needed. They take their responsibility for the welfare of the family very seriously, which is thoughtful, though sometimes not necessary.
It can be a good idea if the body can be brought to rest at the burial ground before anyone else arrives. Sometimes a family member will have a van or people-carrier and will take a shroud or coffin to the mortuary at a hospital or coroner's department where staff will help them put the person into the coffin and into the vehicle, from where they drive directly to the burial ground. On arrival, they can place the coffin across the grave, or on trestles until the mourners arrive (perhaps within a service space or memorial shelter) and move the van out of the way.
One family had a private burial early in the day and set up seats in the shade of a shelter on the other side of the meadow. There, they welcomed people, who were given no set time to arrive, before inviting them to pay their respects to the person who had died, already in the grave. That way they had the opportunity to greet, hug and engage with family and friends on an individual basis. This way, they received a great deal of support and comfort from people as they trickled in.
"A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be." - Thomas Lynch Funeral Director and writer.
Some families hold small very intimate and personal services, especially when a baby has died. Others, particularly when a younger person has died, hold much bigger gatherings. All stay for as long as they wish.
We find that families who arrange things themselves need more support and talk to us a great deal more than those who rely on a Funeral Director. They often need help with forms, and an idea of what others have done beforehand which made the event special. Regularly we have to chase the coffin size because it either hasn't arrived, or been made, or they didn’t realise the urgency of that information; getting the grave-size right is critical for a burial.
On the hottest day of 2017 I had to take a spade and extend a grave by another six inches in front of 250 people who had gathered for a DIY funeral. I realised we might have a problem when a family friend, who was standing alongside me as I checked that all was ready, asked if I was sure the grave would be big enough, "He was a tall man." Sure enough, instead of giving us the external measurements we need, the family had given us the supplier’s internal measurements for the coffin, which were well under. No one minded, most hardly noticed.
We try to make it as straightforward as possible for people to go it alone by giving as much information as we can on our website where, for example, there is a practical guide for carrying and lowering the coffin.
Larger funerals that are not choreographed and have no structure or 'master of ceremonies' to lead the way are sometimes awkward. Funeral celebrants can help with this and bring their own creativity, experience and ideas to bear. It helps to have a framework for families to follow.
"We are free at funerals to choose our own music, write our own liturgies, dispense with a grave altogether and be scattered. Or not to have a funeral at all. We are free, and somehow a little bit lost at the same time." - Denise Inge from the book, Tour of Bones.
Image by Monmouth-based artist John Exton © Leedam 2016
Trying to make sense of things after a death is never easy and we have an instinctive need to do something tangible to show our respect. Cut flowers are the normal choice, but at a natural burial ground there are no grave markers with vases and no obvious place to put them. Should we bring them at all?
Cut flowers seem to be more in the tradition of the cemetery and death rather than the cycle of death and life that is represented by our natural burial grounds. Even cut daffodils, though lovely, will soon fade and die. They always seem somehow out of place lying down on the ground.
One alternative, that is both subtle and beautiful, is a scattering of rose petals - periodically to be found on some graves, and always poignant.
Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh
We recently received a call from someone looking to change careers and become a natural burial ground operator. His vision is to create a destination sculpture trail parkland similar to the little known Jupiter Artland on the western edge of Edinburgh. I wasn’t aware of Jupiter Artland and was keen to see what enthused him so much – so we visited to find out.
Immediately on arrival at the entrance to the Artland you know you are in for a treat – the front gates, designed by Ben Tindall, sparkle richly and invite you in. The driveway, initially flanked by woodland, opens up majestically into a spiralling, grassy, alien landform through which you drive. On through wildflower meadows, round the front of the 17th-century mansion house to a well concealed car park.
Set in the one hundred acre grounds, the artwork trail starts in the stable yard of the steadings where a shop, café and indoor gallery begin your experience. Out of the back door, the trail leads off into woodland where clearings feature remarkable works of art by well-known artists. We thoroughly enjoyed our two hour meander around the grounds and certainly recommend a visit.
The question is – does that environment offer what bereaved families seek from a natural burial ground? The answer is - no. The artistic richness certainly appeals, but the levels of activity by visiting families, groundsmen and staff are off-putting. The feedback we get most consistently says that people enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the surroundings at our natural burial grounds. They are places of escape from the hurly burly of everyday life.
What lessons can we learn from our visit? I think that art and sculpture can enrich the experience of a place, but that must not detract from its natural beauty. A sculpture trail and parkland needs paying visitors for economic sustainability, but at the cost of peacefulness. The mood of a burial ground is different from a visitor destination, and the mix wouldn’t work.
Yesterday at Leedam HQ we received some paperwork in a bright red envelope. Ha! A red letter day? We love a distraction so we spent some time finding out about the origins of the phrase ‘red letter day’. First off, a letter in a red envelope does not make it a red letter day.
Pity the poor rubricator - the medieval chap whose job was to write in red ink. He only got to do the titles and initials of chapters and the important dates on calendars – the red letter days. It was one up from being a scribe (black only) but was he was jealous of the illuminator who was more skilled got to use blue and gold?
Why red we wondered? Basically because it was cheap and plentiful. If you wanted blue you’d have to buy Lapis Lazuli and make ultra-marine. Given that in those days Lapis Lazuli came from north east Afghanistan via camel trail then ship this made it incredibly valuable.
Rewind to Roman times and they circled the important days on their calendars in red. If you go back even further to the Egyptians and look at what the average Hieroglyphics pencil case looked like there were only two colours. Guess what?
Further back still to cave drawings and yup you've got it …
If you haven't been able to visit the meadow, or if you'd like to see those views once more, this video looks around the burial ground, its beautiful mature trees, the memorial shelter, and takes you to glimpses within the panoramic view across The Vale of Glamorgan and the city of Cardiff.
Find out more on Cardiff's website:
On a sunny March morning, we visited Bath Natural Burial Meadow to meet three families and help them plant their memorial trees. These were planted in the orchard we are restoring there, that is on the left as you enter the burial ground.
The apple trees play a crucial role in what we are trying to achieve at the meadow at Bath - to maintain Midford's, and the Cotswolds', natural beauty. Each new tree and burial also safeguards the site against future development.
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Watch our other videos on YouTube: Leedam Natural Heritage
At a funeral, everyone you know and love takes time to say their goodbyes. So why rush it?
Choosing a natural burial means you have as much time as you need. There's no need to cut down the speeches, everyone can say their piece, and you can play that favourite song all the way through.
Families have spoken to us after being at one of our natural burial grounds and have told us how poignant the ceremony was 'compared to cremations'. By taking their time, they found the day was more fulfilling, and that they had been able to organise a service to truly reflect the person who had died.
Desert Island Discs
Every now and then something resonates with what we do. Today there was one of those moments on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs when it featured the acclaimed garden designer Dan Pearson.
Listening to Dan Pearson describe his approach to his wild style of garden design had so many common threads with the way we approach the natural burial. While he was talking I noted down some of the words and phrases he used:
“A place of escape and a place of immersion; somewhere to be yourself completely with an enormous amount of freedom – a place where you feel happiest. A tranquil escape from the clutter and hubbub – I let things go almost to the brink of being lost.”
About music in the garden, he said “I prefer to hear the call of a wood-pigeon, the sound of seeds pinging out of their pods.”
Having designed a garden for Maggie’s Centre for cancer support in West London, he spent time there with people who were experiencing his garden. Moments are precious:
“Seeing blossom swelling, then popping, then dropping and then petals falling. Time becomes very precious; it is viewed through the way things grow through the seasons.”
"...to be transported into a place that feels free from their immediate issues. Users have said that they are taken away from themselves. The gardens allow them to continue, simply to continue and take one step at a time.”
These are the emotions and objectives we have towards the landscapes we choose for our natural burial grounds. They cannot be simply fields – there needs to be a sense of place, something special about them, something that feels right. We hope we achieve this and that families who choose our natural settings find solace and comfort from doing so.
Stories and thoughts from the Leedam camp.
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