At the time I write this blog there are several stories in the news and on the radio about the problems that religion in general is facing – and the Church of England in particular.
Linda Woodhead’s research, showcased on radio 4’s Analysis programme discovers a large gap between the official values of the CofE and the commitments of most ordinary people – Anglicans included.
Yet the research I conducted on the Religion and Society programme on woodland / natural burial discovers an area of deep convergence between people of all faiths and none. And the Church of England is a central player!
My aim was to understand the growing practice of natural or green burial, and my research focused on a pioneering site in East Anglia.
Launched in 2000 to offer woodland burial, the Arbory Trust is a registered charity established under the auspices of the Church of England. Its burial site is located in Barton village near Cambridge, and its administrative office is the Diocesan office of the Church of England in Ely.
The Trust says that it offers “a real alternative to churchyards and municipal cemeteries, many of which are either full or nearing capacity.” Despite being a consecrated, Anglican affiliated site, those buried or wishing to be buried at Barton Glebe woodland burial ground come from all religious denominations and none, as well as from all over Britain and overseas.
The Church’s cultural capital has been instrumental in securing the acquisition of land and establishing the authority and credibility of the Trust, and the consecration of the site has given the Trust almost unique status amongst many other natural burial providers (there are about 230 natural burial grounds in Britain alone).
I interviewed people from many backgrounds to discover why they chose to use the burial ground. Those I spoke to were Anglican, Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Salvation Army, Quaker, Unitarian, Pagan, Humanist and Atheist.
Amongst those who identified themselves as having no faith, none felt deterred from utilising Barton Glebe woodland burial ground simply because it was a consecrated Church of England affiliated burial ground. The priest who serves Barton parish believes this is because natural burial represents “a circle of life… even if people are not religious they can identify with our kinship to the natural world. We are part of the natural world and go back to it in that way.”
Some others who had pre-registered for a grave plot had actively chosen Barton Glebe because it was consecrated and endorsed by the Church of England. For example, a number had interred a spouse at Barton Glebe because it expressed continuity with the deceased’s faith and/or life in the Church.
For those with a religious faith, God’s creation was often associated with natural burial. One woman told me that she’d chosen the woodland burial ground for herself, as opposed to a traditional cemetery because, “it’s not about these great monoliths and what goes on after…. It fits in with my understanding that we are one with the whole of creation. You know, we go back into that oneness with creation again as far as I’m concerned.”
Barton Glebe allows people of all faiths and none to “identify with our kinship to the natural world…to go back to it in that way seems appropriate.” It permits “being very close to creation” – all statements from people I interviewed who intended to be buried there or had already buried a relative there.
These sentiments can be understood within a diversity of religious traditions and none, and I think this is why religious values were not commonly articulated when I asked people why they supported natural burial as opposed to cemetery or churchyard burial or cremation. They did not need to be, since religious values are neither threatened nor explicitly fostered through natural burial practice. However, the natural world aligns with religious-spiritual values, so that people can perceive truths of their faith or spirituality being validated in the natural order. It “roots the community in what really matters,” as one woman who has pre-purchased grave rights at Barton Glebe put it.
So while recent polls reveal a gap in certain social values between Church leadership and laity, it is encouraging to see diocesan employees investing energy and vision to respond to the religious-spiritual beliefs of many lay people in setting up natural burial grounds. May others follow their example!
Dr Hannah Rumble.
Department of Anthropology, University of Aberdeen
To read more about this research that was co-authored with prof. Douglas Davies in 2012 see the publisher’s website: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/natural-burial-9781441122964/
Dr Hannah Rumble is a Teaching Fellow in the department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. She is a General Council Member and Early Career Researchers Representative of the Association for the Study of Death and Society and has co-authored a book with Prof. Douglas Davies published in 2012 with Continuum/Bloomsbury called Natural Burial: Traditional - Secular Spiritualities and Funeral Innovation. You can read more about her research at www.drhannahrumble.com