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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘burial’

The burial

What happens after you die

This is one of an occasional series of articles recounting the stories around my dad’s death from cancer in 2019, and what happened afterwards. More specifically, this post follows on directly from this one about his funeral service.

Personally speaking, I don’t have much experience of funeral services. At my dad’s I was steeling myself up to have to say thank you, afterwards, to all the people who had come along who I didn’t know at all. I remember as a child, being taken to church: the priest standing at the door as everyone filed out, shaking their hand and thanking them for coming. Somehow I had assumed we’d probably have to do the same thing, thank everyone for coming and for feeling suitably sad. Indeed, the undertakers asked if we wanted to stand outside the church and speak to the other mourners. The Mother, though, wasn’t ready for anything like that. She wanted us to get going as quickly as we could.

“As quickly as we could” is a bit of a misnomer for a funeral, of course. The Rector at The Mother’s church had already told us she liked to lead processions from the church to the cemetery on foot. At, it turned out, a fairly glacial pace, one step at a time. The cortege followed, and I tried to carefully drive at a matching pace without accidentally rear-ending the hearse. We crept through the village lanes linking the church and the cemetery, waiting at junctions for passing traffic, watching old men stop and remove their hats as we passed. The whole journey was well under half a mile, but it felt like an age.

Naturally, the rest of the extended family had all reached the cemetery well before us, and had all half-blocked the lane outside the cemetery with their cars to some distance either side of the cemetery gates. Not exactly knowing what to do, and with the limousine carrying my father’s frail sisters right behind us, I blindly followed the hearse through the cemetery gates and up the path. We just fitted through: but of course we did, you have to be able to get a hearse into a cemetery after all. We sailed slowly up the single path that runs up the middle of the field. The village cemetery is nearly full, with only a few spaces left available to people who lived within the bounds of the parish,*, so my dad’s grave was tucked away down at one corner at the far end, a mound of wet clay marking it out. Hand-dug by a professional artisan gravedigger, because the parish council has put a ban on mini-diggers. My mind naturally wondered if this would be a selling-point in Bishopston or St Werburghs.

We gathered around the muddy hole, its edged protected with fake turf. When all of us were in place, everyone decanted from their cars, the pallbearers carefully carried the wicker coffin over and solemnly lowered it into place. The Rector said her piece, and we scattered soil; then, one by one, flowers from a bunch of white roses. The undertaker had suggested this idea, “but don’t buy them from us,” she’d said. “Go to a supermarket before the funeral and pick some up, it’ll be a third of the price we charge.” So we had dutifully stopped off at Morrisons on the way there, for a bunch of white roses to be thrown into the grave. I took them round the mourners, offering them out to my various aunts and uncles and cousins in rough order of consanguinity downwards. Behind the hedge at the edge of the cemetery, a horse started neighing. The Child Who Likes Animals was trying to get away and look for bugs and minibeasts in the undergrowth.

I took out my phone, trying to be relatively discreet, and took a photo of the coffin lying in the grave with soil and roses scattered on top. The last one. Soft rain had started, and the relatives were all heading to their cars, ready to head off to the waiting buffet over on the other side of the village. The bespoke artisan gravediggers were, I assumed, hiding somewhere round the corner ready to start their hand-shovelling as soon as was tactful, as soon as we were all out of sight. Loading the family back into the car, I gingerly reversed back down the path and out to the lane, dead slow lest there be any elderly relatives directly behind me. It wouldn’t really do to drive over somebody at a funeral.

* If you already own a plot but want to open it up to add another body, then the village council charges you about fifteen times more if the new body comes from outside the parish. Can’t be doing with outsiders moving in for eternity, I assume.

In the lead

Or, two Hallowe'en posts in one week!

So, yesterday’s post was originally going to be this blog’s sole Hallowe’en post for this year. As it happened, though, the other thing I did yesterday was take The Children out to visit one of the local castles, which turned out to have at least its fair share of autumnal creepiness and gloom. It was Farleigh Hungerford Castle, just to the south of Bath, originally built in the 14th century by Sir Thomas Hungerford, first Speaker of the Commons. Nowadays it is almost entirely ruined, a couple of jagged towers propped up and stabilised by English Heritage concrete. The only buildings left standing are the chapel and associated priest’s house.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Farleigh Hungerford castle

I said there was some autumnal creepiness: for one thing, the wife of one 16th-century owner allegedly spent years locked away in one of the castle towers, in top-notch fairytale fashion. The owner himself, Walter Hungerford, was later executed for treason, witchcraft and anal sex; however, how much of that actually happened and how much was just a result of being tangled in Tudor politics is rather difficult to tell.* A few decades prior to that, one lady of the house castle had reached her position by rather nefarious means. Agnes Cotell, wife of the castle steward, had her husband murdered and his body burned in the castle ovens so that she could marry the owner Sir Edward Hungerford. Presumably it was common knowledge; because only a few months after Sir Edward’s death, Lady Agnes and her accomplices were tried and hanged.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Underneath the chapel, a small crypt contains a handful of anthropomorphic lead coffins, mostly adults with a couple of infants. They sit on shaped wooden boards, bodies presumably still inside them, behind an iron gate. Aside from their silver-grey colour the look for all the world like carefully-shaped human pies or pasties, their edges tightly crimped.

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

I was slightly disappointed that no ghostly emanations or mysterious mists appeared on the photos, to be honest. Upstairs in the chapel are a number of tombs and effigies, making me think (as always) of the E Nesbit story “Man-sized In Marble”, in which church effigies like this go wandering on Hallowe’en.

Chapel tomb effigy

Chapel tomb effigy

The older pair of effigies are firmly secured behind iron railings; maybe put there by someone else who knows their E Nesbit ghost stories. Maybe, though, the shiny, glossy marble pair will be getting up and going wandering tonight.

* He was a Parliamentary ally of Thomas Cromwell, and was executed alongside him. Which reminds me, I should really get a copy of The Mirror And The Light by Hilary Mantel, in which Walter Hungerford will presumably appear.

Heart of stone

Or, taking The Mother shopping

The other week, I said how you can’t just bury a dead body without there being an awful lot of paperwork involved, at least not in any sort of above-board way. Moreover, one thing I didn’t even get to was that: when you do bury a body, you can’t just pop the gravestone up at the head of the grave there and then. The rules vary from place to place, but to avoid causing some sort of tragic subsidence-induced gravestone-toppling accident, you have to leave the grave to settle for a number of months with some sort of temporary grave marker in the ground instead. Then, some while later—and potentially when you’ve saved up the money, because gravestones are expensive—you can pull up the temporary cross or whatever and replace it with the final thing.

As the months pass after the funeral, then, you can slowly start thinking about what style of gravestone you might like. The Mother, naturally, was all for just going through the catalogue the undertaker had sent her in the post, but I thought it might be a bit nicer to see if we could find a local independent business to work with, instead of a faceless national chain. “I bet all the ones in the catalogue are hugely overpriced,” I said, appealing to her miserly side. “Why don’t we find a local stonemason instead, who you can go and talk to?” But of course I knew we couldn’t get a gravestone put up until May, and in May it would have been impossible to go looking for one. Eventually, though, I realised that we should probably start thinking about getting one before it became impossible again. So, I made the trip up to The Mother’s house, so I could get the wheels in motion.

I was all prepared to go with the “this will be cheaper than the undertaker” line again, but it turned out she had lost their catalogue anyway. “It doesn’t matter how much it is,” she said, “if it’s for your dad.” If only he’d had the same attitude about me, I thought, and didn’t say.

The other thing I didn’t say, but which to my mind was constantly hanging in the air, was: do that many people choose their own gravestone? It must be all people like The Mother, widows and widowers. How much do they actually think to themselves: this will be my gravestone one day? Do they revel in it, or do they just try to blank it out of their mind? I’m sure The Mother, who has been blanking things out of her mind and refusing to talk about them her whole life, will be doing the latter almost without thinking about it, as she’s had so many years of practice.

It’s strange how many Elderly Person tropes The Mother has seemingly adopted. I wonder at what point do they suddenly become the logical way, in your mind, to behave. Her current preferred way to pay for things seems to be to carry around one or two empty coffee jars filled with coins, and complain about how heavy they are. She can’t walk unsupported for more than a few yards without being at risk of toppling over. “You should get a stick,” I said. “The doctor told me to get a stick. Your uncle’s going to make me one from a Brussels sprout plant.” I tried to explain, firstly that he’s probably thinking of a Jersey cabbage; secondly that she doesn’t want an all-natural grown-in-the-ground wooden stick, she wants a nice light sturdy and easy-to-grip medical grade one; and, thirdly, she wants a stick now, not whenever my uncle manages to harvest and dry out a cabbage stem. Nevertheless, without a stick, I still managed to get her to the stonemason’s showroom without her toppling over at any point.

When I was a student I spent a number of weeks making site visits to various disused graveyards around the Isle of Lewis, and I remember thinking at the time: they must be terrible places for family history. Not much of the local stone on the Isle of Lewis is actually carvable; it’s too hard for that. So, most of the grave markers from say 150 years or so ago are plain, rough, uncarved pieces of rock that just happened to be roughly the size and shape of a gravestone. If you wander round one of those graveyards, all you can see are these rough teeth, no inscription, no date, no information. No risk of that now, of course. Moreover, graveyards all seem to have extensive lists of what you are and allowed to put up. I say “all graveyards”; I can quite believe that The Mother’s parish council are particularly pernickity and snob-nosed about it, going by the tone of the signs at the entrance. So, we’re not allowed anything more than 42 inches high; no life-sized angels for Dad then. No kerbstones around the grave, just a headstone. All the inscriptions and designs must be approved by the burials clerk. No inscriptions on the sides or back of the headstone. Incidentally, if you go and have a look around the cemetery you’ll see plenty of graves that do contravene the modern rules.* Clearly, they were erected in a more liberal and tolerant time than we are in now. The modern within-the-rules graves, though, are certainly much more legible than the older ones, to say nothing of those ones I saw on the Isle of Lewis, because they all tend to be in polished black marble with gold or silver inlaid lettering. And, indeed, that was the sort of product the stonemason guided us towards. “It weathers well,” she said.

“Won’t it get dirty from the rain? From all the pollution in the rain?” said The Mother.

“No, it’ll discolour a lot less than a paler colour,” said the stonemason. I’m not sure why The Mother thinks she has particularly dirty rain.

“I hate to be blunt about this,” I lied, “but we do want to plan ahead because eventually my mother will be, you know, using it too.” She looked at me, her expression cold, just as always.

“Oh yes,” said the mason, “a lot of these stones will have space for two inscriptions.” At least we definitely can’t have any of the tacky heart-shaped ones, I thought. “Or you can have one that has two halves, and we will leave one half blank.” My grandparents’ headstone is like that, in the shape of a book; but they died three months apart so the thing came along in one go. It would look a little odd just to fill half of it in for now.

In the end, to be honest, I think it went relatively well. The Mother will be happy with a nice, straightforward, classic design. It might look like most of the other graves in the cemetery, but at least it will look reasonably aesthetic, at least I don’t have to guide her away from something awful, which is mostly what I was expecting to happen.

“Typical,” she huffed, as we got back into the car and I pulled away.

“What?”

“That solicitors over there,” she said. “The first thing it says on their sign is: we can help you with divorce!”

“It’s something a lot of people need,” I said. I often thought, when I was a teenager, that The Mother would have been much happier if they had divorced, when I saw the effect my dad’s frequent sulks and rages had on her.

“Yes, well,” she said, “they shouldn’t.” I turned the stereo on, so we didn’t have to speak.

* I can’t be sure about that last one off the top of my head, to tell the truth. In Greenbank Cemetery, which I wrote about recently, it seems to have been standard practice to put the family surname on the back of each headstone, which must have made navigation an awful lot easier.

Bones

In which we know where the bodies aren’t buried

Archaeology news story of the week: British pagans have decided that archaeologist should hand prehistoric skeletons over to them for reburial. Which is, of course, a silly idea, and one that a lot of archaeologists have a problem with.

Archaeologists naturally tend towards conservation. It’s something that’s drummed into them all through their training: you can only dig something up the once, so once you have it in your hands you have to look after it. You store it away carefully, because you never know when you’ve managed to extract all possible information from it. That’s why throwing something away – and that’s what reburial amounts to in many ways – is anathema to an archaeologist. To most practical archaeologists, artefacts like skeletons are a bit of a nuisance. If you’re in the field, they lead to lots and lots of paperwork.* If you’re back at the lab, you have to look after them – artefact aftercare ends up costing about ten times as much as your average dig does, at the least.** But you still have to look after them, because otherwise you’re not really an archaeologist.

A pagan quoted in that article says:

Any story that is reconstructed from [prehistoric skeletons] will be an imagined past, which usually turns out to be a blueprint of the present imposed upon the past

Which is, indeed, true. But it’s also true of modern pagan religions, to be fair. Modern paganism is an entirely modern religion. It draws influences from prehistoric religions, but so do other modern-day religions such as Mormonism. There’s very little direct link between any religion today and any European religion of three thousand years ago, so any claim of continuity is rather suspect. For one thing, there’s a huge variety of religious practise in British prehistory, which suggests that religions changed in nature over time then just as they do now. At some times people were buried in graves as they are now; at some times they were buried, or exposed, and then their skeletons were taken apart and stacked up somewhere.*** At some times, they were cremated. Sometimes they were buried in a “partially articulated” state – which means the body was still meaty enough for some of the major joints to hold together, but rotten enough for some big bits to have dropped off. In East Yorkshire, rich people were buried in chariots; which just goes to show that people from East Yorkshire have always been slightly strange.****

Which of those different types of burial represents different religions? It’s hard to say, because religion doesn’t always determine burial type. Which of them represents any of the various strands of modern paganism? None of the above. There’s no reason why remains shouldn’t be treated with respect; but equally there’s no reason why any modern religion should claim to have responsibility over them.

* especially for skeletons, because there’s all sorts of legal paperwork to fill in to prove you didn’t just bury the body the other week.

** and digs are bloody expensive

*** this, with burial, is more or less what happened from medieval times through to the 18th century; it was only after that that people started to see the grave as “eternal rest”.

**** no, really, the Iron Age archaeology of East Yorkshire really is rather distinct, and different to anywhere else in the whole of Britain.

Recycle

In which we look at the concept of eternal rest

In the news recently: the government is making moves to reuse old burial plots, to deal with the problem of overcrowded graveyards. People are, naturally, a bit shocked at the idea of disturbing one’s eternal rest, especially given the synchronicity between this news and the reburial of Gladys Hammond.

However – and I bet you could tell I was about to say this – the idea that the grave represents your eternal rest is a relatively new one, dating from the late 18th century. It’s in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that all the world’s great cemetaries were opened – Old Calton Hill in Edinburgh, designed around David Hume’s mausoleum; Highgate; Kensal Green; Père Lachaise; the Glasgow Necropolis. Prior to that, the grave was normally a temporary place of rest, unless you were an important person.* After noone around could remember you, up came your skeleton, to go into the local charnel house.** In The Name Of The Rose, set in the 14th century, a charnel house (of sorts) plays an important part in the plot.*** The most famous example, nowadays, is probably the ossuary near the Czech town of Kutná Hora.

All this seemed to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people started to think of the grave as the eternal resting place. Possibly this was connected with the rise of rationalism – people started to care a lot more about the treatment of the body after death, when previously they’d been confident that the treatment of the soul was more important. It led, in turn, to the modern funeral industry, described by Jessica Mitford in The American Way Of Death**** and Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One. The body has become the overriding focus of funeral rituals, and we forget that only a couple of hundred years ago, exhuming the skeleton and reusing the grave was the normal way of life and death.

* If you were important enough to be a saint, of course, bits of your body could end up all over the place.

** Somewhere I have a book of traditional English folk-tales, in which the parish charnel house often plays an important part – persuading someone to go inside at the dead of night, with someone in there already pretending to be a ghost, and that sort of thing.

*** Spoiler: it’s also a secret passageway (highlight to reveal).

**** Originally published in the 1960s, but with a sequel written in the 1990s.