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Burial study breaks new ground

02 April 10

In the space of just 20 years a new kind of burial practice which started in the UK has grown here, and begun to spread around the world.  Natural [or woodland] burial grounds across the country now number over 200, not far short of the number of crematoria.

The first academic study of them is being conducted by Hannah Rumble.  Entitled “British Woodland Burial: its theological, ecological and social values”, it is a Collaborative Studentship project in which she is working on her doctoral thesis in collaboration with the Arbory Trust, the first Church of England charity to run such a burial site.

Hannah has interviewed pre-registered users [who have booked a grave for themselves for natural burial], relatives and friends of those who have been buried in this way, celebrants, clergy, practitioners who run such burial grounds, and undertakers.

Those who choose natural burial repeatedly talk about the ecological value of “putting something back”, their love of nature, and of not wishing to leave a grave which will be a burden to maintain.  Relatives sometimes report a tension between those ideals and their own needs, saying that while attractive in spring and summer, autumn and winter can be very demanding emotionally. 

Many relatives say that these are vibrant spaces, where graves are not clearly delineated as they are in cemeteries and churchyards, so it is possible to visit the burial place of a loved one feeling that it is a very free and personal spot.  However, most graves can only be marked in a temporary way until woodland establishes itself, and that may not meet the need of the relatives in the way that the person who chose the grave anticipated.

Hannah says that fewer people than she had anticipated devise their own rituals, and many ceremonies are still using a religious form.  Civil celebrants officiating in a non-religious way find that nature provides a strong resource of imagery of re-generation and the continuity of life through relationship with the living.

Her background is in anthropology though the supervision of the study is through a department of theology and religion.  She has found natural burial to be an attractive new option in a mobile society in which many people have lost a sense of belonging to a place, but value nature. 

It is a movement still finding its way, she says.  There is a willingness to learn from experience, which sometimes includes questioning the rather rigid rules about what is natural, such as prescribing what flowers can be placed at a grave.  Natural burial is an option which is clearly here to stay, and the results of her study may well help people in future to weigh up whether the choice is right for them or for their relatives. But exact figures are not yet recorded, so what proportion of the 1 in 4 deaths which proceed to burial are in these new natural burial sites is a figure still waiting to be established.

Funeral practices have been neglected in the study of religion, in the view of Douglas Davies, Director of the Centre for Death and Life Studies at Durham University, who is supervising the research project. 

He thinks the academic disciplines studying religion have focused too much on what people believe, and not enough on what they do.  Everyone dies, so the choices made about cremation, burial, and funeral rites provide a window on values which are even more fundamental than belief.

The rapid increase in the choice of natural burial reflects the growth of values relating to ecology, as well as a decline in traditional religion.  It is a practice which is also providing greater freedom of choice about rituals, which reflects society’s tendency towards providing more and more personal options.

He catalogues the stages over which funeral practices have changed in the centuries in which Christianity dominated our society but has now waned in its influence.  The churchyard was a radical innovation in its own day, with the dead remaining included in the community of the living.  The cemetery reflected the growth of suburbia.  Cremation offered a mechanisation of disposal of the dead in an industrial society in which belief in the afterlife was fading.  Death-style and life-style reflect each other.

A common element in the human response to death has been that it should not have the last word.  This is reflected in the order of the words in the name of the Centre he heads: Death and Life. It is a reality that life follows death, which may or may not be an expression of a theology.

For our podcasts, recorded in April 2010, Hannah Rumble and Douglas Davies were in conversation with Norman Winter. 

  • Listen to the complete conversation with Hannah Rumble at the top of this page or download it below.
  • Listen to an extract of the conversation with Hannah Rumble in which she talks about findings emerging from interviews here.
  • Listen to an extract of the conversation with Hannah Rumble in which she reflects on natural burial’s relationship to wider society here.
  • Listen to an extract of the conversation with Douglas Davies in which he explores the significance of  churchyards, cemeteries, cremation and natural burial here.
  • Listen to an extract of the conversation with Douglas Davies in which he explains the value of studying death and funeral rites here.
  • Listen to the complete conversation with Douglas Davies here.
  • Read about the project's findings here.

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