Tuesday, 20 May 2014

So what is "natural" about a "natural" burial ground?

There is so much to life that cannot be lived through and by words, and yet words are so important; they are, mostly, where we live, most of our waking hours.

So how we use words, and what we use them to mean, really matters. We mislead ourselves and are easily misled.


What a lot of (fill in your own expletive) this word often covers. E.g: The city is unnatural, the countryside is natural. 

Well, this planet peoples, and trees, and lichens, and sturgeons, by which I mean, humans are, obviously, one of the life forms the planet has developed. 

We evolved here, just as bower birds and swallows did.  Out of raw materials we find in and on the planet, we make very intricate nests where we rest, work, reproduce, etc etc. We put a lot of them together and call it a city. 

A city is just as natural as a village - or a swallow's mud nest or a bower-bird's astonishing nest, both of which are made out of raw materials the birds find on the planet. Whether or not our cities upset ecologies and threaten our survival and that of other species is a different issue. It is clearly in our nature to make cities, towns, villages.

Which brings me to "natural" burial sites. People in the funeral business are fond of dividing practice into traditional and ...er... something else. Alternative? I think myself there's only a good funeral, which is one that the family wants and needs, and a bad funeral (which can be bad for many reasons!)

And here we go again - we have "natural" burial grounds, as opposed to "industrial death" crematoria, "gloomy, Victorian" cemeteries, etc. Well, all that is largely a matter of preference, or tatse. Why cloud the decision-making with a spray-on epithet? Why polarise a matter of choice for bereaved people? Enough already with the assumptions.

 A "natural" burial ground that I know, and admire in many respects, is simply a cemetery amongst trees, with very small or no headstones. You might think it is more peaceful, or beautiful, or consoling. I might agree, but I don't see what is more "natural" about it than a graveyard. 

I don't like shiny granite gravestones either, but they don't make a graveyard less "natural." They make it more obtrusive in the landscape than a "natural" burial ground, which is what I think people often mean when they reach for the handy spray-on word "natural."

 As we evolved, we began to put our dead into the ground, with various rituals to give the event meaning, and sometimes we burned them first. All this goes back thousands of years, of course. In that respect, cremating and/or burying a body has become "natural" for our species, as opposed to simply leaving it to decompose where it falls, which is what other animals do.

But if you want to do things differently and need to sell a product - which may well have a powerful and worthwhile belief system behind it - just call it "natural." 

I guess the opposite would be an unnatural burial, or funeral. What sort of sense does that make?

This is a lost cause, I know. I wish The Natural Death Centre and the natural burial grounds movement nothing but good, I'm on their side, if sides we must have; but really, we are misleading ourselves, and perhaps even causing unneccessary tensions and anxieties: the title is hogwash!


  1. A well-aimed harrumph, GM, at a priggish descriptor. The same goes for the word organic, of course. Is there anything under the sun which isn’t? I’d only add this to your testy animadversions: If the purpose of natural burial is to recycle corpses in an eco-beneficial way, why no campaign for the re-use of graves?

  2. Pleased you feel this is on course, Charles. Couldn't agree more about re-using graves. Since Catholic cultures such as Spain recover bones from burial niches and re-use them, isn't it slightly odd that in a culture owing much to its Protestant heritage, we are so neurotic about moving bones to make space for bodies?

    It's the RCs that (used to?) believe in the resurrection of the flesh.