Thursday, 25 March 2010

Thursday 25th March 10, 'Natural Burial' Conference

I got up at about 6.30 so I could leave the house at 7.15 and be on the 7.44 to Sheffield. The train was crowded but I took my laptop so I could reply to assorted emails and delete some, as my inbox is too full again.

Just the other side of Leeds, the train stopped and after 10 minutes, an announcement came through that due to a broken down train in front of us, we were going to go back into Leeds and then take a different Sheffield the conventional way, although 20 minutes late.

I went to the taxi queue and asked people if anyone was going to the University... and luckily, there were a pair of sisters, farmers from Herefordshire who were going to the conference. So as well as having some interesting chat, the cost of my share of the taxi was just £2.

The Natural Burial conference was fully booked, about 100 people. It was hosted by the Department of Landscape, but with help from Sociology too... I registered, gave in my cheque and donned my name badge, and found people to talk to and share my interest in greener funerals.

In the lecture theatre, the head of the department Professor Paul Selman welcomed us and introduced the team. Andy Claydon told us about the mapping they have done. They have got 207 existing sites in the UK, 24 in the planning stage, and 11 proposed sites. The UK has the greatest concentration of 'green burial' sites, although the concept is spreading to Holland (2 sites), Germany, the US, Canada and Australia.

The difference between a traditional burial ground and a 'natural burial' is pretty small, in my opinion. A cemetery around a church or one of the big Victorian 'park' cemeteries have lots of headstones ('memorialisation') and graves in rows, and often little wildlife value. The graves may be deep enough for 4 coffins, with the top coffin lid being a minimum of 3 feet below the surface of the soil. Natural burial can be woodland burial or meadow burial, may be in an existing woodland, or a field which is becoming a woodland. Natural burial grounds often don't allow headstones, and most don't permit solid wood or chipboard coffins, or bodies which have been suffused with embalming fluid. Natural burials are often higher up in the soil profile, at 2 or 3 feet below the soil surface, which in theory gives a greater chance of an aerobic decomposition, reducing the amount of methane generated, which is one of my main 'issues' with ordinary burial.

The survey of British natural burial grounds showed that there is a lot of variety in their size, ownership, management, intended habitat and services available. Demand is growing, but it is still a tiny percentage of the total number of body disposals, as 70% in the UK are cremated, although this wasn't common until the 1940s.

After the coffee break, Jenny Hockey spoke about her research which was sociological, looking at the sites through the eyes of bereaved people. This was very moving, and showed why the relatives chose to inter their loved-one at a natural burial ground rather than a traditional cemetery or to go to the crematorium.

Then there was the report about the interviews with the funeral directors, celebrants and local community, also interesting. I learned such a lot!

Lunch was OK, but nothing was labelled so I had to try and guess what was meaty/fishy and what was veggie. The nicest looking thing there was one of the 'PJ taste' staff, a very petite student with a cheeky smile. But I had a cheese sandwich instead....

The afternoon session, back in the lecture hall, was started by Ken West, and enthusiastic and humorous retired chap who in his working life had done over 100, 000 funerals, based in Carlisle. He is one of the founding fathers of the natural burial movement. He took us through the legislation surrounding natural burial, which is far from simple or clear.

Then John Mallatratt from the Association of Natural Burial Grounds talked about that and its parent body, the Natural Death Centre. Lots more learning!

Then we broke up into our chosen workshops, and I went to one called 'the long term future of natural burial', and then 'the opportunities and constraints of natural burial', both of which were reasonably interesting. These were followed by the plenary feedback session... and suddenly it was 4.30 and time to finish. What a day... I learned SO much, a real eye-opener to a world I knew very little about.

I'd arranged for Ali to pick me up at 4.45 so we could go for something to eat together before I went home. I stood on the corner of Crookesmoor Road and Conduit Road, and the big church on Crookesmoor Road near this junction looked very familiar. It had been done up and was in use, but about 18 or 19 years ago, soon after I moved to York, my friend Rat moved up from Northampton to York, and lived on Haxby Road for a year or so, then moved to Sheffield, and lived in that church, which was squatted. I went to stay with him for a few nights, it was quite an experience! I'd love to know what happened to him... he has a very distinctive tattoo on the top of one of his arms, an eye with a tail, drawn by my then partner at a party in 1988, which he got tattooed on the next day...

And, weirdly, when in Blue Moon later with Ali, my old partner M came in and we chatted for half an hour, which was really nice. We also chatted to Jillian Creasy and another of Ali's friends, so it was a very social time.

I got the 8.56 train back to York and was glad to get into the house at 10pm to rescue the situation which was just getting a bit out of hand, pre-bedtime pre-teen madness.

I had a very late night, writing things up and catching up on emails, washing up, paperwork, but nothing planned for tomorrow so that's OK.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

It was good to meet you yesterday and my supervisor and I were talking about you on the way back to Durham.

With regards to your green angle on NB and NBGs I thinks there's plenty of scope for further research: particularly with regards to the eco-credentials of cremation, 'traditional' burial and natural burial. Ken West has already started this off with an article he wrote for the FSJ (Funeral Services Journal).

It's a debate I haven't got into in my anthropological/sociological PhD research. I'm more interested in the idioms of the practice: so if people understand NB to be greener, why and how do they understand this. I don't feel it is my place in my research to comment on different modes of disposal with regards to impact on the environment other than reporting the views of others.
Have you checked out Charles Cowlings blog? (he's the author of the Good Funeral Guide) - i think you and he would have a lot to talk about.

Your run down of yesterday was helpful in jogging my mind. By the time i got abck to Durham I was knackered!

Best wishes,

Hannah Rumble

Centre for Death and Life Studies
Dept. of Theology and Religion
University of Durham