The very last Natural Burial Ground we visited was not the one we’d originally planned on.
We’d had a wonderful afternoon the day before which included a long lunch with a lady by the name of Rosie who heads the Natural Death Centre Charity in the UK. It was on her suggestion that we got up the next morning and headed in exactly the opposite direction to which we had originally planned. It made for a long day of travel and a late arrival in London but it was exceptionally worth it.
Higher Ground was the name of this Natural Burial Ground but it is also much more. The name really struck me because here they are doing exactly that, taking the higher ground.
Here they provide people with options for their natural burial. They have a wildflower meadow which they alternate with cutting hay in the summer and at least two (maybe more) paddocks that they are regenerating into natural woodland. In the woodland burial section, families get to choose from a range of trees native to the area which are planted at the head of the grave. Each parcel of land is divided with tall hedges and the pasture has a gentle slope to it so that in parts you can see over the hedges into the paddock beyond. They also provide a stunning chapel for services to take place on site. The chapel started as a hay shed for the farm and has gradually been extended and enclosed providing a beautiful space for ceremonies. There is solar power, a composting toilet and a wood heater in there for the winter. They have the ability to play music for people and have a microphone for the front. The huge glass doors not only provide lovely natural light but they also open out to a backdrop of the burial ground. And, there is more. A few years ago, they made the decision to take the leap and offer funeral services as well for those who want to be buried here in their ground. So, they built themselves a basic mortuary, modified a vehicle for transport and now they offer care for the dead as well as the burial. All natural. All ecologically friendly and sustainable.
The have natural mortuary practices, no packing, stitching, eye caps… they use damp cotton wool over the eyes and leave the body in as much peace as they are able. As little disturbance as necessary. It is surprising when you start to consider the real minimum that is needed for mortuary care, how much we truly overdo it all in the western world. And its not about hygiene. Its not about dignity. Often, it is just about making things easy for funeral professionals who are charging the earth for unnecessary procedures. But more about this another time….. (we’ve yet to tell you about some of the fabulous funeral directors we met along the way).
At first we met Tom, a very clever fellow and son of the owner, he did much of the building work and vehicle modification himself (he modified a hearse to double as a transfer van and even built the mortuary fridges himself from flat pack!). He showed us around their Chapel of Rest and as we went we talked about how they do what they do. He walked us through his mortuary, their practices and the services that they offer. The language was quite different here, in fact all through the UK we were interested to find that they don’t refer to viewings much as viewings, they are called ‘visits’ and they call a viewing room a ‘chapel of rest’.
Higher Ground offer a prepaid funeral and prepaid right of burial and people can choose what field they want to be in. They do all their digging themselves, they have a digger to do it but they try to rotate the paddocks of their ground so that no one piece of land is getting overused with people traffic and thus avoiding mud in the colder months.
In their burial ground, they run the plots by grid – old style, with string. They have guide markers plotted out down the sides of the paddock and so for each grave that is dug, they run the string and accurately pinpoint the dimensions. They also allow a little more room than the other burial grounds we visited, here they allow 4m from the centre of one plot to the centre of its neighbour.
They allow for markers here at Higher Ground, a natural wood block with a plaque attached which sits flush on the ground. It is with a little difficulty then that they maintain the ground for cutting hay but it is not such a loss to have to cut the grass a little higher than is would usually be.
They are very strict with what goes into the ground, among other things, they will not allow plastic under any circumstances and they talk people through what will and will not be accepted well ahead of time.
When a family arrives at Higher Ground for a burial, or a service there concludes and it is time for the burial, the body in its shroud or coffin is placed upon a bier and walked through the ground to the place of burial. Family can accompany the bier or indeed lead it themselves. There is a wonderful focus here on family involvement and they work with people to make sure that the family walk away with a little peace at having laid their dead to rest in a beautiful place, in a natural way and by doing do so, performing a gift of giving to the earth.