My PhD viva took place on the 8th December 2010 after three year’s doctoral research facilitated by a Collaborative Doctoral Award within the Religion and Society Programme funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
The thesis, “Giving something back”: A case study of woodland burial and human experience at Barton Glebe, engages with the recent innovation in British funerary rites known as ‘natural’ burial. It does so through an interview-based case study of one particular natural burial site called Barton Glebe that offers ‘woodland’ burial in Cambridgeshire. This natural burial ground is quite unique compared to the other 207 sites in Britain, because it is affiliated with the Church of England and consecrated. The majority of natural burial sites are not consecrated and are managed by local authorities. Barton Glebe and the Arbory Trust, a Christian charity who own and manage the woodland burial ground, were conceived by Revd. Peter Owen-Jones who presented the BBC’s ‘Around the World in 80 Faiths’ whilst he was an incumbent in the Diocese of Ely in Cambridgeshire in the 1990s.
The thesis presents a socio-cultural analysis of how those in contemporary Britain engage with natural burial, forge continuity of self, identity, memory and tradition in the context of death and funerary rituals. Through ethnographic description and socio-cultural analysis the values, concepts and behaviours aligned with natural burial are documented from the perspective of the bereaved, pre-registered users, site providers, eco-coffin suppliers, funeral directors, clergy and civil and humanist celebrants.
The thesis begins by providing an overview of natural burial in Britain in which historical and cultural continuities between contemporary British natural burial provision and prior disposal practises are compared; especially with the innovation of cremation and the garden cemetery movement in the nineteenth century. It would appear that the legacy of Romanticism is very much alive in the allure and landscaping of natural burial grounds in the UK.
My thesis documents how a natural burial site is not only a physical landscape but also an emotional landscape, in which emotions and memory are socio-spatially articulated through ‘nature’. As the seasons change, so does the appearance of a natural burial ground and therefore the emotional responses of visitors. I also argue that the dead are not necessarily given sovereign status in natural burial grounds – a feature that distinguishes them from other places of burial – but rather, it is the ‘natural’ world that becomes a feature at these burial grounds. This factor creates a therapeutic landscape for the bereaved that is having an impact upon funerary and grave visiting behaviour by becoming more informal and idiosyncratic. My research shows however, that whilst the dead may not be granted sovereign status in a natural burial ground, they very rarely become anonymous. Bereaved visitors to natural burial grounds have many unobserved strategies for preserving the identity and location of the deceased, as the thesis documents.
A grave planted with spring flowers at Barton Glebe.
My research also documents a variety of attitudes to ‘eco-coffins’ and motivations for families or individuals to chose natural burial. Interestingly, the desire to not be a burden upon surviving kin through grave visiting and headstone maintenance is one of the most commonly given reasons for individual’s choosing natural burial. This is also a reason that has been well documented in cremation preferences and a number of those interviewed in my research had indeed changed their wills from a preference for cremation to natural burial. This begs the question of to what extent the innovation of natural burial threatens the cremation industry.
My thesis concludes that the motives to “give something back” and to “return to nature”, often articulated by those who pre-register at natural burial sites, allows these people to affirm their core values and imagine continuity of identity beyond death, whilst the desire to “be of use” grants personal salvation for some pre-registered users. Natural burial presents an opportunity for gift-giving and salvation in the context of death therefore.
Natural burial is also the latest innovation in burial provision that allows the bereaved to adjust to life in the absence of those held dear, by emphasising continuity in the cycles of life and death in ‘nature’. As one widower explained, at Barton Glebe death becomes “just like the leaves falling off a tree.”
Barton Glebe in July 2008.
The AHRC’s Religion and Society programme generously funded my doctoral research.
Each year the AHRC provides approximately £112 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,300 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.