Tag Archives: green burial

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.


Poem on the Dedication of a Green Cemetery

In October, the Kokosing Nature Preserve, a conservation burial ground, was dedicated in Gambier, Ohio. The Preserve is a project of the Philander Chase Corporation, the land trust of Kenyon College, and offers a natural burial option on twenty-four acres of restored prairie and woodland.

Royal Rhodes, the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon, read a poem of his own composition at the dedication ceremony. Common Sense for Seniors staff took Professor Rhodes course, “Grave Matters,” at the college last summer. He has shared the poem with them and given permission for it to be posted here.

First, a word of introduction from Professor Rhodes:

Poetry such as Thomas Grey’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and Kenyon’s own Robert Lowell’s “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”, and the simple words I add  today give us a language to speak at the edge of language about where we fit in the cycles of life.

I’d like to dedicate my poem to Don Rogan and other Gambier friends, recently deceased, “whom we have loved long since/ and lost for just a while.”


~ written for the Dedication of the Kokosing
Nature Preserve


Far from the madding crowd a poet wrote
lines for a country graveyard’s elegy,
Another on Nantucket wrote of Quaker
graves, and whalers lost at last at sea.

Here we map the labyrinthine heart,
encased in clay, and tender to the earth.
Close is Nature’s final Lost & Found,
where life has lastly measured out its worth.

We hear the static rattle of the crows,
while patterns of the stars are closely read,
and eagle nestlings, fully fledged and fed,
fly where fawns keep pace with watchful does.


Here amidst the grass and nodding oak,
I go to gaze — the living’s awkward spy —
at dawn and dusk, as if my blood awoke
the scrutiny of some eternal eye.

The buried find a permanent address,
and never change their clothes — a suit or dress —
and say, when asked when they are coming home,
that it is in Ohio’s fertile loam,

where all our life prepares us for such sleep,
letting go of things we long to keep.
But now we hear a gently calling bell
whose music gladdens fields of asphodel.


Every culture crafts and makes its own
a sacred tale to tame this nameless zone;
as Orpheus found and lost Eurydice,
a mother’s love restored Persephone.
Love called forth from darkness Lazarus,
such love as strong as death will live in us.
Such light rejects our deeds that burn or rust —
machines we made that grind our hearts to dust.

The landscape is a palette of pastels,
surprising music, mixed with perfumed smells.
Botanicals and fauna all inhabit —
with deer and dogs, the turtle and the rabbit,
all creatures great and small, the nightly bats,
hummingbirds and grackles, bees and gnats —
a biosphere of rich diversity,
a looking-glass for our humanity.

In life, in death, these threads are deftly spun,
and weave us all together into one.