A Short History of Burials
The manner in which we have disposed of our dead has varied considerably over the centuries. But in the main it has been shaped by two major influences: the constraints of religious practice, and the limits of space.
For example, cremation was not uncommon in the Bronze Age, but its popularity declined with the rise of Christianity. And whereas the Christians wore white at funerals and celebrated the passing of the dead as a relatively joyous event, the arrival of the Normans in 1066 brought with it a fear of the dead, and the mood became sombre, with an emphasis on God's Judgement Day, sin and punishment.
Up to the 16th Century, burial was for most people a very temporary affair: bodies were buried for a few years, then dug up and the bones put in a Charnel House. This was an efficient use of land and materials (as coffins were used only for transporting the body). By the mid 17th Century, permanent private graves became more usual; but as the population increased, this led to a shortage of space. This limit on space hastened the development of cemeteries in the 19th Century, and soon after, the re-introduction of cremation.
In Britain today, most people think of death in terms of a hospital, a funeral director a gleaming coffin and either a church service and burial in a cemetery, or a trip to the crematorium. Sympathy cards are sent, black is often worn, the mood is solemn and people often spend more than they need to, or can afford to. This concept of funerals seems well engrained in our national psyche, though it is in fact a Victorian invention. Funerals have changed little in the 20th Century, except that cremation is now the norm, accounting for 70% of disposals.
In 1993, however, the Municipal Cemetery at Carlisle opened a Woodland Burial area in its grounds, the first of its kind in the world. The idea was simple: bodies could be buried in coffins made of wood, cardboard, wicker or any easily biodegradable material, such as the once-common wool or linen. Families were encouraged to be more active in the funeral process, and burial was in a field area, with no headstone being used. In order to promote wildlife and native flora, a tree would be planted on each grave, eventually turning the site into a woodland. Many of these ideas are not new, but merely a recycling of old practices.
However what is new is that this latest variation in human burial practice has not been the result of religious influence or any geographical or physical constraints; a new factor has come into play: a desire to maintain and improve the environment in which we live.
Woodland Burial ('natural' or 'green burial' as it is also known) is quickly becoming a popular choice, with about 200 sites now open around UK.
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