S&C Contributing Editor Christine Lawrence shares what happens when a loved one dies suddenly and you discover that they want a natural burial with no ‘fuss’. What followed was an interesting journey which brought her closer to her father than she had been for some years.
We buried Dad in the woods. He didn’t want a religious ceremony or to be buried in a churchyard with a slab of marble to remember him by. He didn’t want to go down the crematorium on that sometimes conveyor-belt exit to the next world. He didn’t really believe in the next world. He was anti-church to the extreme – born a Catholic, lived through the hell that was Poland in the Second World War and never got over it – not really.
When he died, we’d not spoken for over a year – long story. Not spoken for a year and I didn’t know – my brother told me his wishes. He wanted one of those eco-burials – to be shoved in a hole in the woods somewhere. I was never sure whether it was his true belief that it would be better to be recycled into the forest or just some perverse way of sticking his fingers up at his family – a way of saying, ‘No-one cares about me now and I don’t want you all standing around my grave or putting flowers on a hump in some cemetery which is connected to a church I don’t believe in.’
He died in QA and there he lay, waiting for me to work out how the hell do you get a body from the hospital into a hole in the woods. Not just the hole but the coffin and all that. Lucky for me there was a leaflet on it and soon I found myself sitting in a woodland grove at the Sustainability Centre in Droxford Road, Petersfield, choosing the place to lay Dad to rest. On the side of a hill, between the trees with views of sheep on the South Downs. I smiled and knew Dad would love it here.
Now what about a coffin? We sat, my partner and I, in an office bedecked with coffins – wicker, raffia, cardboard and even one of wood. We were told we could even put Dad in the ground dressed just in a shroud. I thought about this for only a brief moment before deciding on a wicker one. I shuddered at the thought of undertakers – men in black with top hats and grim faces. But no – you don’t need undertakers to bury your dad in the woods.
The day dawned – a late November crisp and Autumn day. The kind of day I remembered the good times with Dad by, walks in the woods near our home, kicking up the golden leaves and laughing together about life. A short drive took us to the burial site where we met with my two brothers and our children. We needed a few strong young men to help with the bere – it’s a woodland walk from the Centre to the site – all downhill and bumpy. Being autumn the ground was slippery and a little treacherous in places! Dad was in the car – a four-wheeled drive wagon driven by the woman who ran the burial site. She’d gone to the QA that morning and with the help of the mortuary assistant had popped Dad into his new wicker coffin and there he was, lying there in the back of her car. We just had to get him out and onto the wooden bere. Luckily we had strong sons to bear the weight.
My sister-in-law had made a floral decoration to place on the coffin – made of dried flowers and bound with natural fibres – no wires – and she placed this on the coffin. Then we were off.
As I said before, the ground was slippery underfoot and quite steep in places. Ever tried wheeling a bere laden with the six foot long, well-built remains of your dad down a winding woodland path? At each twist and turn the boys struggled to control the roll of the wagon, clinging onto the coffin, giggling and joking as they went. The sun shone through the trees, now bereft of many of the golden leaves that had shimmered and danced the week before when we’d wandered this same path to find the perfect resting place.
There is something final about seeing the hole in the ground that you’re about to put your dad in. When we turned the last bend and reached the clearing where I’d sat pondering on the view it just hit me that this was it. Dad was dead and he wasn’t coming back.
Now we just had to manipulate him from the bere and into the ground. Luckily the young woman who’d collected Dad from the QA was still with us – as a kind of guide. She’d talked us through the process of balancing the coffin on the boards and how to take the weight of the straps and to carefully lower him into the ground. I stood and watched. The hole was very deep and apart from the top layer of soil was completely chalk – a nightmare to dig so I imagine. Incidentally, we were given the option to dig his grave but graciously declined and were grateful for the mini-digger which was peeking from behind a tree a few yards away.
Once Dad was in his grave I felt the need to say a few words – my brothers had agreed that I should be the one – being the ‘writer person’ in the family. So I talked about the good things in Dad’s life – and there were loads although he probably wouldn’t have agreed. I talked about some of the not so good things too, just to keep a balance. Then I read a poem I’d found in a collection of John Betjeman’s he’d left at his bedside – Autumn 1964. Funnily enough, reading the poem made me realise that Dad may have had some sort of belief in the afterlife and all that – the last two lines state, ‘And in the bells the promise tells of greater light where Love is found.’
My brother’s contribution was to bring along a compilation cd that he’d bizarrely made ready for his own funeral – he was only fifty-five at the time! He insisted that he wanted to play the music as Dad was lowered into his grave. The young woman (our guide) had tried it in the Centre building before we walked to the grave and it had worked then but once at the graveside it would not work – just made a booming noise. She even ran back up to the office and came back with new batteries just to make sure – but again just this loud noise was emitted from the speaker. My brother was a little upset although I am convinced that Dad didn’t really want morose music at his funeral. And it was morose. He got his own way that day.
Since then I’ve found talking to my dad much easier than when he was here in person. I can say whatever I want to him now and he doesn’t get upset or ignore me. We’re closer now than we had been for years. And although I don’t sit beside his grave very often – it’s not marked other than by a crab-apple tree which was planted after the burial – every Autumn I remember our walks and he knows I love him.