Ke kořenům (To The Roots); natural burial in the Czech Republic

I was really excited to learn that a non-profit organisation called Ke kořenům (To The Roots) had established itself in 2015 to offer natural burial provision and bereavement support in the Czech Republic. When I also learnt that one of the Founders, Monika Suchánská, was an anthropologist (like myself), I became even more intrigued! So I subsequently approached the founders and asked if they wanted to write a guest blog about their organisation and what they do…you can read their response below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The three Founders of Ke kořenům (To The Roots)

Rethinking Death

The Czech Republic is a unique country in many different ways: great beer, beautiful castles, national parks, famous writers, models and hockey players. But there is also one uniqueness that we are not that much proud of; we have got the highest rate of burials without a ceremony. It means the deceased is cremated without a farewell, so no one is there in the crematorium, to say goodbye. This is the case for more than half of the funerals in Prague, and approximately one third in the Czech Republic generally.

The first question that arises is why? It is not that hard to find the answer if you look at our history, from just 30 years ago. Four decades of communism had a big impact upon funerals and last farewells changing them into very quick and simple ceremonies that focused mostly on the work life of a deceased, with no sign of religion or spirituality. After the Velvet Revolution not that much has changed. The quick tempo remained, the speech (eulogy) gets simpler because all the political formulations are now left out. Ultimately, the freedom that the democratic regime brought was very convenient for the funeral industry, but it didn’t lead to more relaxed or creative funeral ceremonies.

However, over the last decade it is getting clearer that something new must evolve from this vacuum-like funeral…Maybe something less formal, just according to bereaved family’s needs and wishes? To get a deeper understanding of why our funerals are no longer functional I did academic research (as a student of anthropology), asking people what they think about today’s funerals. A lot of people consider them to be cold, impersonal, and empty; so much so, that not having a funeral at all, is more acceptable and preferable to having a “bad” one. The most disturbing part about Czech funerals today, according to my research, seems to be that the professional speaker (officiant) talks about the deceased without knowing them during their lives! The second thing people often mentioned was the cold environment of the crematoria ceremony halls.

As three students at the time, we were very inspired by the British Natural Death Centre and researching our own experience of modern funerals we started to think about new ways of approaching the last journey. After writing our theses on the topic of natural burials as a reaction on funeral crisis we were asked to create the first Czech natural burial cemetery in Prague. The Director of Prague Cemetery office was a very innovative and creative person and he saw great potential in this kind of burial. At one of the cemeteries, in Ďáblice district, there was quite a large wood in the center of the cemetery, which wasn’t being used for burials yet. So, in 2012, and two and a half years later, we proudly opened Les vzpomínek (The Wood of Memories). It is a space with a relaxed atmosphere, without any gravestones, plastic flowers or plastic candles. We bury the deceased at the roots of the trees and we create more personal funerals with bereaved families. Rather than doing everything for them, we encourage the family members to take part in the ceremony as much as they have the capacity and desire for. We believe, and now have the experience, that this rite can be a healing and enriching experience. After three seasons (from March to November annually), we created more than 150 unique funerals.

In 2015 we also established a non-profit organization, Ke kořenům (To The Roots). We are focused on work with bereaved families and natural burials. Mostly, we work with people who choose direct cremation without ceremony. We think it is the best starting point for creating a new, more meaningful ritual. We deeply admired the work of Australian deathwalker Zenith Virago so we decided to invite her to the Czech Republic and we organized two public workshops – one focused on the personal relationship with our own mortality and the second one about funeral rituals.

Our aim is to support everyone who wants to take their own path in the final farewell. We see the creative involvement of the family in funeral planning as a way to foster healthier bereavement. Whether it is a handmade urn, DIY invitation, photo album or organisation of a memorial picnic, having something in their own hands can help the bereaved family to connect with the reality of the loss.

Secondly, we do a lot of workshops and public talks on how to communicate about death with your close ones and children. We have also introduced the natural burial movement to other cities and helped them to establish their own natural cemeteries (e.g. in Brno and Olomouc in Czech Republic or Zvolen in Slovakia).

Last, but not least, we pass on our know-how and educate different people in bereavement counselling. We want to contribute in the education around the topic of death. How we feel and think about death, how we handle it in our families and in our daily interaction with our loved ones. We have formed a community who is starting to open to this point of view and we want to offer more information and options to continue broadening this path. So we are very happy that we can host another great workshop this year (June 8th and 9th 2018); this time in Brno with Canadian griefworker Stephen Jenkinson.

Les vzpomínek (The Wood of Memories)

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A multi-sensory meditation on settling into the soil

 


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Flicking through the programme for the IBT17 Bristol International Festival, 9-12 February 2017  I was very excited when my eyes, scanning down the programme, came to rest upon Woodland; described by the artists, Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead as: “a poetic and visceral work that describes your body’s fade into the leaf litter of the forest floor. This work connects you deeply to your body, and considers the biological and chemical processes that continue long after you are conscious, as you are slowly and gently subsumed by the earth over thousands of years. Woodland is a love poem to the woods and the forest, as bodies merge with the molecular environments that support life.”

As a social anthropologist who has spent the last 9 years immersed in the ‘alternative’ funeral industry and following the cultural practices surrounding the dead, as well as having written a book and PhD thesis on ‘natural burial’, I simply had to go and experience French and Mottershead installation for myself, driven by curiosity as to how they would present and curate decomposition.

Upon arriving at a small tent erected in a pubic park that borders a beautiful Victorian city cemetery I was presented with an iphone, headphones, blanket and camping mat and told to head off into the ‘listening area’ and search for some ground to lie on in order to begin listening to French and Mottershead’s audio artwork, Woodland,  via an app on a smartphone and headphones. Given that it was a cold, overcast February day, I was immediately glad of the blanket! I chose my spot in some leaf litter and hoped it was free of dog poo.


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It was surprisingly warm under the blanket.

I pressed play and eased myself into the meditative narration of my body’s gradual decomposition over time; a narration that meant I lay there under the trees, among the decomposing leafs, under the flight path of the crows and pigeons for over twenty minutes…

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The narration takes the listener through the 5 stages of a human corpse’s decomposition in woodland; a gentle collapse into soil and one’s erasure through the seasons. Poetic and peculiarly restful and calming. The narrator informs you of the multitude of multi-species becomings, which arise from your corpse as host to creatures, spores and plants of the woodland. French and Mottershead’s immersive digital artwork, was also experientially immersive; one felt quite literally pulled into the ground and enveloped by the liveliness of the woodland floor.

A superb piece of art that I hope they are justifiably proud of and leaves me wanting to experience more of the Afterlife they so deftly curate.

Afterlife: Immersive digital art works offering listeners an intimate, visceral and poetic glimpse of their own mortality.

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Death at the Margins of the State

 

CDAS Conference 2017:
Death at the Margins of the State

09-10 June 2017

The Edge, University of Bath

 

Human beings typically grant appropriate death rites to those deemed members of the community; withholding of proper rites often reflects or symbolises exclusion from the political or moral community. The history of dissection, for example, bears witness to this.

 

Today, the concept of ‘human’ extends in theory to everyone regardless of nationality, gender, abilities, etc., yet in practice citizenship (legal or moral) may for many be precarious or lacking. The stateless and/or those lacking full citizen rights may include asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, those on the wrong side in civil wars, victims of genocide, prisoners, travellers, foetuses, and those deemed to lack mental capacity: their deaths may be endorsed, ignored, stigmatised, or manipulated by the state or powerful institutions. By contrast, those who die to create or defend the state become sacred heroes of the nation. Death and the state are intimately connected, each helping – through inclusion and exclusion – to define the other.

  • What deaths and whose deaths are denied respect?
  • How, why, and with what consequences for defining ‘us and them’, ‘human and non-human’?
  • How do those without citizenship die and how are they disposed of and mourned?
  • How do funerals mark lives deemed worthless?
  • How are marginalised deaths and the bodies of the marginalised dead exploited – by politicians, media, medicine, museums, and the global trade in body parts and ancient human remains?

Abstracts are invited for contemporary or historical papers from any discipline or profession exploring the relationship between death and exclusion from community or state. The conference will interest those in a wide range of fields, including, for example, death studies, politics, anthropology, history, archaeology, international relations, international development, refugee & migration studies, social policy, photography, cultural studies, psychology and funeral celebrancy.

CDAS annual conferences bring together research and knowledge that has hitherto been fragmented. We invite scholars and practitioners from around the world willing to engage openly with and learn from different disciplines and perspectives.

20 minute papers are invited – abstracts (up to 250 words) to be emailed to cdas@bath.ac.uk by 27 February 2017. Posters are also welcome, please send your abstract as above.

 

Further details about the conference and how to book will be made available in the New Year. Prices are likely to be £135 for 2 days and £75 for a single day, but this is subject to confirmation.

 

Conference updates will appear on the webpage: http://www.bath.ac.uk/sps/events/news_0135.html

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Commemorating Diasporic Death at Home and Abroad

Commemorating Diasporic Death at Home and Abroad

Edinburgh: 25 November 2016

IN ASSOCIATION WITH NATIONAL MUSEUMS SCOTLAND

Our eighth and final seminar in the series explores the way that Scottish migrant deaths were commemorated at home and abroad during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Comparison with other migrant groups will also be considered.

Date: 25 November 2016

Venue: National Museums Scotland

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[Image taken from https://blogs.otago.ac.nz/scotsdiaspora/seminar-8/]

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Life. Death. Whatever.

Life. Death. Whatever. is a month long reflection on life, death and everything in between at the National Trust’s Sutton House in London; a fantastic month-long line-up of great, thought-provoking events and exhibitions that I encourage you all to visit this month.

LIFE. DEATH. WHATEVER.

3RD OCTOBER – 30TH OCTOBER 2016

Sutton House & Breaker’s Yard
2 & 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney, London, E9 6JQ
+ 44 (0)20 8986 2264

Sutton House is open from Wednesday to Sunday from 12 – 5pm.
Standard National Trust admission fees apply.  National Trust members are free.
For more information on opening times and access, please see the National Trust’s website.

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Acts of Remembrance

A one-off screening of Return of the Liberators, which documents an extraordinary road trip that took place in 2015: 96 London Black Cabs, 120 WWII Veterans on a road trip to the Netherlands.

This act of remembrance documented by visual anthropologist Janet Hodgson with the London Taxi Benevolent Association for the War Disabled will be screened at Kino-Teatr in St Leonards-on-Sea on Sunday 6th November. Book tickets here.

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Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies

Skeletons and Social Bodies

Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies Conference

24th – 26th March 2017

University of Southampton

 
(The following was copied and pasted from the SSSB17 conference website)
SSSB is an interdisciplinary conference, and therefore we invite abstracts which cover a range of aspects of death and anatomy. We encourage individuals from all areas and stages of study to consider submitting an abstract, and whether they are from a commercial/industrial or academic background.

You may submit an abstract for a podium presentation, a Pecha Kucha* presentation (see below), or a poster presentation.

 

Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • history of anatomy and dissection
  • death in the modern age
  • dissections, prosections and technology: can we ever replace cadavers in a medical setting?
  • ethics of display of human remains
  • funerary practices through the ages
  • disability and disease: archaeological and medical
  • changing attitudes to death and the human body (eg. the death positive movement)
  • battlefields, disaster areas, and identification of the dead
  • forensic methods, eg. facial reconstruction
  • dead on the big screen: television, documentary, film and media
  • lifecourse and osteobiographies
  • sex and gender, biology and identity
  • morphology and evolutionary anatomy
  • the body social

Abstracts should be no more than 300 words, and should be formatted in a Word file (either a .doc or .docx file). Please include the following information when submitting your abstract: your full name, institution/company, and whether you are applying for a podium, Pecha Kucha*, or poster presentation.

Please submit your abstracts via email to sssbconf@gmail.com by Friday 16th December 2016. If you have any questions, please contact us as soon as possible.
* What is a Pecha Kucha presentation?
 A Pecha Kucha presentation, otherwise known as a ’20×20′ presentation, is a concise presentation format consisting of exactly 20 slides which are each displayed for 20 seconds. The slides are set to change automatically after 20 seconds, therefore producing a presentation which is exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds in length. This type of presentation works best with images and little text, so would work very well for particularly visual presentations or projects.

Further information is available at http://www.pechakucha.org. If your abstract is accepted for a Pecha Kucha presentation, you will be sent further guidance on how to format your presentation. If you have any questions, please contact the organising committee.
 
Call for Workshop Proposals
We also invite proposals for workshops, which will be run on the final day of this three day conference. Workshops should be related to the overall theme of the conference, but can cover a topic not listed above.

In your proposal, please include the following information:

  • title of the workshop
  • organisers and main contact (including contact details for all)
  • number of delegates per group/session
  • target audience/profession
  • any requirements of the delegates taking part
  • facilities required (eg. classroom, laboratory, open space, etc)
  • technical equipment required (eg. computer/audiovisual equipment)
  • outline of the workshop, including aims or objectives
  • relevance to the conference theme
  • any health and safety concerns or associated risks of the workshop
  • is this a new workshop, or has something similar run before? If so, please give details

Organisers will be asked to run their workshops twice (up to two hours each), or can run a four hour ‘drop in’ session. Please specify which format you would like to run when applying, and why you feel this format would work best for your workshop.

Please submit workshop proposals to sssbconf@gmail.com by Friday 18th November 2016. If you have any ideas, we encourage you to contact the committee to discuss your proposal informally so we can advise you on whether we have suitable facilities.
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