Green cemeteries and natural cycles

Fundamentally, our problems in this field all derive from our society’s unprecedented denial, and consequent lack of psychological understanding, of death: the vaults, the embalming, the caskets, but also the whole morbid and forbidding aura of our cemeteries. If, as Mark Harris points out in his Grave Matters blog, we could begin to understand human death in the context of a natural cycle, we might be able to face it more bravely, more sincerely, more constructively. The current conception of green cemetery is a step in the right direction. But we are not there yet, even conceptually the idea needs refinement… In their initial enthusiasm, new movements, particularly reactionary ones, may go too far in the opposite direction, just to be different from what they oppose. Simplistic absolutism may even take control for a while. For the movement to have a future, this must then be moderated, corrected. This is normal and healthy. With the green burial movement, this takes form in the banning of all enduring grave markers from green cemeteries. As I’ve said before, this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Such “green cemeteries” may really be green but they will not really be cemeteries. To return here to Mark’s thoughts about human death in the cycles of great nature: if we are to have a sense of death and rebirth in a cemetery that is relevant to human beings, then enduring symbols of humanity have to be integrated into the natural cycles of the cemetery. That is to say, symbols that outlast many cycles of nature, that resist even as nature goes through its processes. Otherwise what results is a beautiful natural landscape going through its cycles without reference to humans and their hopes of continuing beyond these cycles. Once upon a time we had these: in an old-style country cemetery, visitors could contemplate their own mortality in a gentle, thought-provoking way as they watched an old tree scattering its yellowed leaves over the weathering grave of a relative; in the spring they could then silently rejoice as the same grave was surrounded by singing birds sitting among the fresh green shoots of new leaves and flowers. Such an integration of the human and the natural provides hope and strength and meaning. A 21st century reconception of such a cemetery could indeed provide a new venue for us to confront death in a beautiful, hopeful, and not at all off-putting context. The current vision of a green cemetery only needs the addition of beautiful weathering boulders, even small menhirs, inscribed with names, dates, and simple profiles of the deceased, set among the slowly maturing trees and the naturally evolving landscape. A modern-primitive look that would appeal to our naturalistic tastes and retain the human element of a cemetery is what we need.

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