Natural Burial Grounds, and Other Trends in Funerary Practices

Over the bank holiday weekend I visited the South Downs Sustainability Centre – it has lots of things to do, including a camp site, exhibitions, and woodland to explore. But the thing that interested me as an archaeologist was the natural burial site, located at the edge of the site. In addition, it made me think about the future of funerary practices, as well as my own choices (or lack thereof).

South Downs Natural Burial Site. Image (c) Sarah M. Schwarz 2015.

South Downs Natural Burial Site. Image (c) Sarah M. Schwarz 2015.

A natural burial ground is where an individual can be buried as an alternative to usual Western funerary practices, such as burial in a cemetery or cremation. The body will not usually be embalmed (to remain as natural as possible), and will either be in a shroud or in a natural/biodegradable casket. The site itself is left as natural and unmodified as possible, so there are no headstones, no grid-like arrangement like in a cemetery, and is usually in a wooded area or some sort of natural area. (Although you can bury someone on private land in British law, with permission, these burial sites are set aside specifically for the purpose of burial).

So, seems pretty straight forward – basically, the body is returned to the ground in as natural a form as is possible. To me this is quite reminiscent of ancient burials which our distant ancestors would have been subjected to, and this seems quite oddly comforting to me.

While no gravestones or other types of markers are permitted on the site, the relatives are allowed to place native flowers on the grave and there are small, un-intrusive markers which merely mark the plot number but no other details. What I loved was looking at the variety of memorials which had been chosen to mark the deceased individuals – some had benches (made from local wood, left in a natural looking style rather than polished), plants, a flint nodule, and some bird boxes hung from nearby trees.

I sat and thought about how future archaeologists would view the site, and about what sites like this meant for the changing nature of our funerary practices. Although cremations seem to have been increasing in popularity, with the increasing cost of traditional burials you can’t help think about what alternatives will take their place. Recently there were warnings about an increase in “do it yourself” burials, with reports of the “cost of dying” increasing as we begin to run out of space in cemeteries.

But what are the alternatives? So what type of funerary practices might become the mainstream in the future – if there’s any evidence of them at all…

  • Natural burial, as we discussed above
  • Bio Urns have been advertised recently, where your ashes can help a tree grow after your death
  • You could donate your body to science or medical education
  • The Swedish have apparently developed a method called promession, where the remains are cooled, eventually frozen, and then shattered by ultrasonic vibration which leaves behind a powder
  • An upright or standing burial has also been suggested as one way to make the most out of space in overcrowded burial grounds, where the individual is literally buried in a standing position
  • ….and many, many more I have probably missed!

I’d not really seriously considered what I’d prefer, although I do know I want absolutely no sort of religious rites whatsoever (and no memorial bench!), for someone who regularly faces death in both my research and my work there are many who seem surprised by the fact that I have yet to make up my mind. I had considered an extremely provocative statue or headstone of some sorts, in an effort to rebel against the traditional cemetery model – but I have since realised that there are so many more methods to consider, and there will probably be many more to come.

Would I donate my body to science? Having worked with individuals who have, I have to say it’s an option I’d seriously consider. People who make the decision to do so are, in my opinion, truly amazing people and have my utmost respect. My work tells me just how important donations such as these are, and how we really need more people to consider doing so. However, my research has made me acutely aware that funerals are for the living, not for the dead, and that it is an important part of the mourning process that those left behind have the remains to say goodbye to. (If you donate your body to science, you can specify your intentions – but potentially your relatives could be waiting several years for the remains to be returned for a funeral service).

Would I go for a natural burial then? Well, this seems like a rather satisfying and peaceful outcome to me, which does seem like a much more traditional (if rather ancient) practice than a church cemetery which obviously appeals to me as an archaeologist. My relatives could have a beautiful landscape to visit, without the need to stomach a stuffy cemetery. But equally, do I want my body to go to waste when it could have been used to help someone? Even if you can’t donate your organs, donating your body to science could help many more people, in my opinion. However, I feel like I’m cheating future archaeologists of a skeleton to examine if I go for the body donation route (as the remains would be ultimately cremated) and so burial seems like a better idea. I want them to see that (formerly) broken metatarsal, the dodgy shoulder, those congenitally missing incisors, and who knows what else I’ll have going on by the time I die. I thoroughly enjoy finding out about a person’s life through their skeleton, so why shouldn’t I give something back and let a future archaeologist examine me?

However, I’m not going to make up my mind just yet. There are lots of interesting options already available – give it a few more decades and there could be many more that we hadn’t considered (although one I just cannot take seriously is cryogenics, which just seems like a desperate and expensive attempt to cheat death). In my opinion it will be my generation who start to really open their minds to alternative funerary practices, in a way that we haven’t really seen before. After all, we all want to be a little different and stamp our mark on things. Given this need to stand out from the crowd, this could provide a really interesting set of practices for archaeologists to examine in years to come in terms of understanding funerary practices and identity. Obviously this may well be driven by a drift away from religious belief, but it could be an interesting puzzle for someone in the distant future. For example, future archaeologists could be left wondering who gets turned into a Bio Urn (although little or no evidence would remain, probably only in record form), and why are some buried in woodland in irregular graves when some are in regular grids in church cemeteries?

What do you think – have you got an untraditional method in mind for your own funeral? Any other interesting methods I’ve missed off that you’d like to share? (The list was by no means meant to be exhaustive!)

P.S. All of this from a short walk in a woodland and a piece of chocolate brownie – if ideas flow so easily after a brownie in the woods, I may have to go back there again!

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