Friday, 14 May 2010

to bury or not to bury?

Sorry if anyone's been wondering where I am - took a holiday from blogging to do very many funeral ceremonies, and if there's anyone out there who might be interested, here's a couple of thoughts arising therefrom.

Burial is allegedly greener than cremation, we're told. Cremation: huge quantities of fuel, small concentrations of nasties in the, er, emissions (well, they don't actually smoke, do they?)and so on. Those favouring the combustion route point out that with new regs coming in, "scrubbers" to get rid of mercury etc there may not be much in it - I'm told that over time, graves seep a little methane, which is a much worse greenhouse gas than... look, am I putting you off your supper? Sorry. But a corpse isn't a person, it's what a life leaves behind, so it's a purely practical issue, disposing of The Dead, isn't it? No? Aha! So how do you want your remains to be remaindered?

"I want to be buried/cremated/have it done like this or that/have my ashes made into a diamond and hung round my beloved's neck/made into cufflinks so I can keep an eye on her/him..." etc. Surely the only kindly question is "what would suit best those who will mourn me?" (Let's assume "me" is not a complete shite and someone will actually mourn her/him.)

Well, my view currently, for what it's worth, is that when I finally pack it in I want to be.... no, sorry, that should be: what I think would suit my mourners best is - burial. I used to think cremation, because I don't like the Cult of the Dead Body and its Resting Place. I hate polished granite, industrial tombstones that are trying to last For Ever. "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings..." (good poem, worth looking up, but you probably know it already.)

One's death will itself fade and die.Tombstones should furr up with lichen, fade, tilt, be part of the passing of ages, unless you are truly great. In a corner of Westminster Abbey there is a modest slab that says only "O rare Ben Johnson." Wonderful, despite mispelling his name. All around are thundering great mansions of stone memorials to over-inflated egos, good luck, ruthlessness and power. I hope rare Ben is there in 1000 years.

Where was I? Ah, yes. The meaning of a life stays on with the people who matter, the body is - residue. But that's me, not them. And it's two recent burial ceremonies I've been involved in that have changed my mind about burial.

The first was in a rough sheep-grazed field up a very steep hillside track, 15 minutes hard slog from the road below by foot or a tricky drive, even in a Land Rover. The body to be buried, on this private land, had belonged to a man who had bought a ruined stone bothy and used it as a holiday home for many years, having restored it but kept it very basic. (No running water or electricity.) When I arrived to meet members of his family, his son was digging the grave with a small mechanical digger.

The family members were spirited, grieving but enjoying some laughs. Generally, they were quite inspirational about the man's life. When his son sent me through notes he had prepared with input from other family members, I knew this would be a memorable ceremony. So it proved.

His widow read his favourite poem, "Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas. You may remember the last line, "time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea." She read it well, and wept a little when she had finished. She was still able to laugh at some of the anecdotes. I thought her entirely admirable.

The illustrative anecdotes I had been supplied with generated knowing nods, affectionate laughter and some more tears. An old family friend read a brief but very effective tribute of her own. I ought to mention that by then the gale had stiffened and we were battered by hail and sleet. This added an indescribable power to the whole occasion, which was true, raw and deeply moving. Towards the end, I was almost howling "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" into the sleet.

We trudged back through the inch or two of snow into the bothy; we all really needed the hot drinks and cakes that were on offer, it wasn't the usual polite funeral tea, it was very necessary.

I felt I had been educated in how to say goodbye to someone. Of course, we haven't all got the advantages of a beautiful hillside with a view of mountains, and a handy bothy. But although the ceremony would have been less powerful in a more conventional setting, it would I think still have been a splendid funeral because of the attitude of the bereaved family.

The second ceremony was actually not dissimilar, although it was a beautiful day. It was set in a council cemetery, but it was the council cemetery to which all such might aspire. This too was in an elevated position, with magnificent views out to sea. A family friend sang an unaccompanied folk song most beautifully and once again I had been given so much lovely material with which to write a tribute. The man's oldest friend read one poem and was clearly deeply moved to do so; I read the other two. This oldest friend did a very sensible thing and took a photo or two of the gathering and the grave.

Since the man whose body we were burying had lived and worked in London until he retired, and since he had a reasonably high-profile and successful career, there will also be a memorial event in London so we did not have to worry about trying to cram too much into the usual fairly brief burial ceremony. The daughter asked me to include, if nothing else from the Anglican burial service, the words "ashes to ashes and dust to dust" at the committal; I added a few more Anglican words besides, without turning it into a quasi-religious pastiche, and it seemed very suitable to me.

What I learned from these two burials is that if it is possible to bury someone in a place that means something to the family and that meant a lot to the person who has died, then the freedom of a graveside ceremony compared to the constrictions of a conventional crematorium, the focus a grave gives to the bereaved, and the elemental nature of lowering a coffin into the ground seem to me preferable to a cremation, and to hell with the methane. Burial is, in England at least, generally more expensive than cremation, but if the family can afford it, what price on getting such things right? Especially if you don't waste money on a revolting polished granite slab.


  1. How good to see you back in the land of the living!

    Yes, burial is a lot more real and elemental than cremation -- but would cremation begin to equal it if we saw the coffin into the flames? Or atop blazing on a pyre?

    Your methane problem (8 x worse than CO2) is solved by insisting you are buried in a hole no more than 2' 6" deep. Then you will enjoy a good, aerobic decomposition. It's illegal, I know, but that needn't be an impediment.

    Religious folk would say, of course, that the soul remains embodied - so that we can arise on the D of J in our restored remains. So a corpse remains, strictly, a person. Not that a lot of religious folk actually see it that way.

    Memorials are good; headstones are good. But not one made of Portland stone, please. We Portlanders have got very little island left to cling to on account of the depredations headstone industry. There are alternatives...

    Hey, you've had some marvellous funerals. I envy you.

    And, once again, welcome back! (I do enjoy commenting on other people's blogs. It brings out the Jonathan in me!)

  2. You describe the best sort of funeral, where contributions are heartfelt and meaningful, and where the place matters as much as all the rest.

    I've bequeathed my body to the anatomists, if they'll have it, but have specified burial afterwards. I understand that medical students usually attend such funerals. It'll make a change from the usual cremations.

  3. Thanks Charles, and I promise, no Portland stone - slate is the answer, easy to carve, quiet,and still plentiful. And needless to say perhaps, most funerals I do are not as profound as those two - though each one teaches me something.
    Margaret, I really applaud your anatomical intent. I am thinking about it, but family feelings are significant, and might be deeply troubled. But a bunch of disrespectful medical students at a burial could be just the job - cheer up and pass the Scotch! (Not that I care to stereotype anyone...)

  4. Having read
    with thanks to Patrick McNally and the good doctor,my view of anatomical donation has been enriched and moved on. It's a remarkable insight, and really rather moving.

  5. I'm not sure that medical students will be necessarily "disrespectful", but as I won't be there, nor will anyone who knows me, it won't matter.

    When My friend Nan died a few years ago, her body went to the Department of Anatomy and we all had a memorial meeting in the Town Hall. Nan was a Quaker. She used to say that she might like a Humanist funeral, as she wasn't sure that anyone would want to say anything about her at a Quaker meeting. She needn't have worried - lots of people contributed.

    Anyhow, the point of this comment is that, some time later, her son received a lovely letter from one of the students who'd benefited from Nan's bequest, with a copy of the eulogy she'd given at her funeral, attended by Anatomy Department staff and students. It expressed their gratitude for her "generosity", and stressed how much they appreciated it. Of course, I wasn't there, but if there was any disrespect during the dissection, it would be understandable - humour is necessary to cope with such things - I doubt any was shown at her funeral.

    Of course, they're not obliged to take a corpse and sometimes refuse it.