We avoid death with language, we think it softens the blow.
Passed away, flying with the angels, gone to a better place, gone, lost, departed, promoted to glory, born into eternal life, passed on, kicked the bucket, pushing up daisies, resting in eternal peace, entered their peaceful slumber, graduated to heaven, called home, gone to the happy hunting ground in the sky, breathed his last, bid farewell to the world, didn’t make it, lost the battle, gave up the ghost……… I have always been fascinated by the language of death. The words we choose to associate with the state of being or becoming dead.
The language of death avoidance is perhaps never more evident than it is in most daily papers. The standardized formatting of most death and funeral notices have become ridiculous. Not often, but sometimes I read one that really makes me smile, in just a few words I seem to have quite the sense of the person who has died. But how many people ‘passed away peacefully’? The more I spoke with families who had experienced the death of a loved one, the more I knew it was often not that simple. Sometimes it was not even that peaceful. And yet, somehow, as a society, that is what we expect to read when we turn to the death notices in a paper. The couched language has some kind of hidden message, of wrapping the death with love and kindness not to offend the readers… and yet more and more I spoke to families who wanted their notices to be honest. Personal. Reflective of the life and death of the dead. It’s a brave move to write a death notice that way but there is a raw honesty to it that seem to help people begin to look at the days and weeks ahead – because the reality is that the death notice is often the first thing that family will write. Before a eulogy or tribute, before they plan a funeral or ceremony, often before they have made any of the decisions they are going to be called upon to make in the time ahead.
But it’s not just language, we can avoid death in how we treat it as well. Many people don’t like to think of their own death, they feel as if they are tempting fate or they are so terrified and uncomfortable they find they are unable to negotiate their way through the necessary thoughts and decisions they will eventually be called upon to arrive at. So we lock it away, we put it in a box, we know it’s there but the longer we can go on ‘living’ without it, the better. Or so it seems.
Death is our constant companion. It is never far away – as resilient as the human body is, it is also incredibly fragile.
There are many reasons we should call things what they actually are.
When it comes to children, there is a necessity to have them understand the nature of death and what it means for the one who has died and for them to live on. Parents have been told for decades now in relation to children and various subject from body parts to social situations that a child’s development will always be better if the right language is used with them from a young age. Death is no different. So many times I have heard adults talk about how they remembered experiencing the death of a relative but only from a distance and usually they were left wondering ‘where is this better place grandma went, can I go there… and when will she be back?’ Even in my own young childhood I was kept at home away from the death of my grandfather and his funeral – it deepened my trauma and sense of loss, having been quite close I was essentially denied the opportunity to say goodbye along with everyone else. To experience that grief as a family and learn about that imperative step in the grief and loss process. I am glad however that I was never given any illusion that he was gone away. It would not have been softer. I knew he was sick, I knew he had been in terrible and unmanageable pain. I had sat with him daily when nurses would come to change his gangrenous wounds. And I am grateful that I was told he was dead, no longer suffering.
The same can be said for the disabled community. As a funeral director I have seen many times when well-meaning carers and family members come in to arrange a pre-paid or ‘at need’ funeral and have someone with them who required a form of disability support. Quite often they are unintentionally shielded, talked over, left without explanation – this can exacerbate their trauma and grief – it is unnecessary. In an effort not to upset the sensibilities of these people we can actually do more harm. Recently we attended a forum and one of the speakers told of how she was approached after a talk she had given about death to a group of disabled people and, in short, the gentleman asked if she would be able to help him find his mum who he ‘lost’ 10 years ago… That’s a decade of abandonment issues on top of grief because no one wanted to tell him ‘she died’.
It is very evident within some nursing home facilities as well. A nursing home is exactly that, it is the home of sometimes a large number of people. Dementia issues notwithstanding, if you were to live with 20-40-60 odd people for any length of time, take meals with them, watch movies of a night, do arts and craft… you’d notice when Jim no longer sat at the table with you or Mary stopped coming to exercise class or someone called Joan started sleeping in the room where Beryl had been two days ago. When someone dies in a nursing home they are often whisked away, behind closed doors. It is not uncommon as a funeral director, to be told not to come at certain times because people might see, or to be asked to wait while the nurses go ahead and get the residents into their rooms to shut the doors. Most always the nurses will accompany you out of respect for the dead, but not often are the residents given that chance to say goodbye as well. Their neighbour was simply there one day and not the next. There seems to be this idea that talking about it will upset people. Every 6-12 months most facilities will have a service or a ceremony to honour those left but at the time, it’s quite a managed kind of grieving. It is not uncommon for a picture and candle to be placed on a table for a few days – and then it is gone. I once arrived to collect the body of a gentleman and as we entered we walked past a picture of him – already on display. Only twice have I heard of places letting the residents know that someone has died and allowing them the opportunity to line up as a kind of guard of honour to say goodbye. To acknowledge the death.
Grief is natural and it can be healthy. It is possible to move into a healthy state of bereavement when your grief is not over-complicated or stifled by these death avoidance tactics.
On the 26th July 2017 we visited a brand new Natural Burial Ground. It was in Wales, called Hay Meadows. And that is exactly what it was. Only recently, had the owners cut a whole crop off hay off the field.
This was our first encounter with the idea that not only could the land be used for more than one purpose, but it actually didn’t have to be woodland or bush at all. Any paddock could be a natural burial ground and the potential existed for not only hay, but sheep grazing, flower meadows or complete land regeneration into bush land.
Hay Meadows only opened its gates in January 2017 and in those few months there had been 2 burials. The owners completely privately own the land and they plan to keep it in the family. He told us that eventually he would like to plant wildflowers there – and indeed only about 2 weeks ago, he involved the local school children and they all walked the paddock scattering wildflower seed.
Once again, we were amazed at the openness, the honesty and the hospitality of these people. The owner knocked off shearing his sheep to take us inside his home, give us tea and talk us through how he set up Hay Meadows, how it runs, the problems they have had and the benefits they have discovered. Here, he digs the graves himself. He has the machinery and he has an intimate knowledge of the plan and lay out and he is able to control the depth this was as well. He allows 3ft from the top of the coffin to the top of the soil.
He had built quite a decent sized car park at the gates, although there would only have been space for maybe 15 cars once you got a hearse in there comfortably. They are such narrow little country lanes about those parts, not room for 2 cars to pass each other and both stay on the road… so room for a hearse to turn becomes quite important.
The owner told us about his grid system, he allows the same space for burial, each plot being 1.5x3m and he works in 12 plot squares. That way, if one plot ends up a little off the grid center, every 12 plots he has the opportunity to start again. The little bits of left over land on the edges of the paddock he has earmarked for baby burials and the burial of ashes. He is quite particular about what goes in the ground and he has strict guidelines. To that effect, he has met with several of the local Funeral Homes and keeps that communication open with them.
As we walked the burial ground we could see the little markers he has laid out indicating the corners of the grid squares, from these he is able to locate the plots. The grass there was lovely. There were some pretty blue wild flowers already but looking a the ground, surrounded on 3 sides by beautiful tall thick hedges and with sheep grazing on the rolling hills in the background, i can only imagine how pretty it will be once all of the newly scattered wildflower seed strikes.
We had just over an hour with the owner, he left us with a copy of his purchase agreement – very interestingly, he has a clause in his which says that if after 30 years the plot has not been required and he has not heard from the owner, he will make every effort to contact them but should that fail, the plot will be forfeit. It makes sense when you consider how much people move about these days, and how lovely to have a way to keep people connected to their burial ground, even if it is only once in every 30 years! Like us, he was keen not to re-invent the wheel, so to speak. He had done a lot of research and has many hours talking to owners of natural burial grounds, finding out what worked and learning from their mistakes.
It was lovely to see such a small and family operated venture in the new and exciting stages of development.
Dalton Wood, Cumbria.
This was the very first natural burial ground that we visited in the UK.
A 30 acre portion of a much much larger Estate that has been in the same family ownership for over 700 years.
When we arrived here the gate was locked (we found out later that it was only to guard against people dumping unwanted goods, all families still have access all the time). I was a little dismayed, wanting to explore, but not to be deterred Edwin, Joey and I climbed the style and into the grounds. There was a little stand with pamphlets within, we picked up one and started to go for a bit of a wander. Edwin called the number on the back of the pamphlet and 15 minutes later we were shaking hands with the owner of the entire estate -some 2000 acres.
Frances was delightful and more than willing to show us around and answer all of our questions.
This land had been natural woodland for as long as anyone can remember. Walking through the paths here, it was so pretty, still and quiet. There were birds, a breeze blowing through the trees and in true poetic style the sunlight struggled down between the branches. There was a softness to this place and a certain kind of reverence – a place so ancient and somehow lost in time. And here was Frances bringing such a lovely sense of life to the old woods with natural burial.
The tree roots are quite the challenge, the site is set out by grid and when it comes to digging a plot they move the plot a little to the side as needed. Every year the land is re-surveyed and the exact locations are recorded exactly on the master map which he updates through the year as burials occur. He has a grave digger, they dig with machinery as there is a fair content of rock in the ground, the rock gets removed but everything else is put back when the grave is filled.
This burial ground allows markers, a flat stone – locally sourced slate rock to be precise – with a few lines of engraving that is placed on the head of the grave. The stones he says, are an important part of the ecology here as many insects, bugs and the like live under them. It is their habitat.
The graves are 1.5 x 3m in size and they generally go east to west (interestingly, this is quite traditional as Christian burials are done facing east). Wicker and willow coffins are allowed as are shrouds – natural fibers and contents are encouraged. The tried and not-so-true paper veneer particle board coffins (with the plastic handles) which are an industry mainstay, or the solid wood, stained with metal handles are not allowed.
What we were really encouraged by was that he allows the burials for family led funerals. He will always meet with a family, prior to a burial whether they chose a funeral director or not, but Dalton Wood is completely open to people who want to organise the funeral and burial themselves. He will assist a family and help them wherever he can.
As a business model, natural burial makes sense. It is socially responsible and ethical – not just for the environment but for people as well. It is an affordable and financially viable alternative to traditional burial but more than that, there are at-need costs of digging and interment fee are always paid at the time of burial (only the plot can be prepaid) and he can claim a kind of tax break/refund as he has the ongoing obligation to maintain the burial ground. The digging and interment fees are not expensive but they are a guaranteed future income source which as a business makes sense.
It felt really lovely to walk the paths in this woodland, just the three of us, often alone with our thoughts and the music of the birds to set our pace by. Certain trees here are marked with the red and white flag symbol – known all over Europe as the marker for walkers to say ‘this way’… and the peaceful feelings that we left with after having wandered under the thick and unbroken canopy of trees, such vibrant shades of green at every turn, through the moss covered rocks stones and untouched detritus made our time there so nourishing.
There is a rich ecosystem teeming with life under those trees and seeing how shallow depth natural burial is adding to this precious ecology was a real experience.
We walked away with some questions answered, more developing and also full of ideas and wonder about how this could work in the Australian bush.
We have had a big day!
Today we held our November event, Death on Screen. It may have been the cold that kept some of you away but all in all we have to say the day was a success. About 20 people in total braved the cold to join together to watch ‘A Will for the Woods’ and ‘Zen & The Art of Dying’ with a few more turning up for the second screening.
There was an incredible flood of emotion in response to the journeys in the film, the first one in particular.. and all through there were shared laughs and knowing nods of agreement from the audience. But, one of the things I enjoyed the most was the conversations that went around during the lunch break and after each movie. There is so much about the Death and Dying conversation that is of interest to people and we find it so humbling and special that people continually want to share their own experiences and stories. That’s such an important thing, we can learn so much from each other if we are open to both sharing and listening to the experiences of others.
Today we talked about family led funerals, the benefits and complications of doing it yourself… natural burials, bad funeral experiences, the role and relationship of celebrants, and what we would like to see done differently. It was encouraging to see so many new faces who has not attended one of our events before, the word is definitely spreading.
If you’d like to be a part of the conversation, please join us!
Thank you all…