Thoughts On An English Churchyard

John Constable, Scene in a Churchyard on a Hill (1833). British Museum

John Constable, Scene in a Churchyard on a Hill (1833). British Museum

Thomas Laqueur, in The Work of the Dead, devotes many pages to the English churchyard. For seven or eight hundred years, until well into the 19th century, the vast majority of English people expected to be buried in the yard of their local church. They regarded such a burial as a right, although local aristocrats and gentry expected something grander — to be buried inside the church itself. Still today, visitors can see the names of the privileged carved on the stones that cover their remains in church aisles, or even spots where they’e been slid into the walls.

English churches face east, toward Jerusalem, and the bodies in the churchyard are also directionally aligned — feet to the east, head to the west. This was the Christian community at rest, awaiting the resurrection, when all would rise to be judged by the savior. In the meantime, it was preferable to be buried on the warm and sunny south side of church, rather than the north. The latter part of the churchyard was reserved for suicides and other folks in ill repute for one reason or another.  A similar “necrogeography,” as Laqueur calls it, can be found in the oldest churchyards along the American east coast.

English churchyards are usually not very large, so it’s easy to wonder how, over hundreds of years, all the dead could have been fit in. The answer is, that as time went by, remains decayed and burial places were re-used. Sometimes, it was necessary to nudge someone aside to squeeze in a new body. This re-use and crowding explains why the ground in a churchyard is often elevated and kind of lumpy. Let’s face it — the churchyard bears a certain resemblance to a compost pile, and Laqueur records one parish priest who took home churchyard soil to fertilize a field.

This got me to thinking about Katrina Spade’s Urban Death Project. My English cousin, Clare Brookes, first called my attention to Katrina’s work. (Clare heads Volkswagen Funerals, an elegant and stylish way to go.)

Spade is concerned about the environmental costs of current funeral practices. Conventional burial consumes a shocking amount of tropical hardwoods, metal, and concrete, not to mention land. Embalming fluids have a number of deleterious environmental effects. A single cremation, according to Spade, adds 540 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Through the Urban Death Project, she is aiming at the construction of special facilities in which thirty or so bodies would be composted over the course of several weeks, decaying eventually into garden soil that might be given to relatives or used in parks.

When I first read about this, I was repelled — even though intellectually I accept Diogenes’ point that the body is unimportant. It can be devoured by wild beasts and its former inhabitant will know nothing of it. Anyway, Laqueur has made me realize that composting went on in English and other western churchyards for hundreds of years, even if it wasn’t called that. Why should I be repelled if it makes a comeback?

Spade doesn’t advocate casting bodies onto sawdust piles, as is done with farm animals, but rather observing respectful rites in dignified surroundings so that the living may be comforted. As Laqueur and others note, a death leaves a tear in the social fabric that must be healed.

Not so long ago, many were appalled by the emerging practice of cremation, conducted in industrial-style crematoria; but today cremation is widely accepted. Now it may be time to turn a new leaf with composting.

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