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A Woodland Burial by Ted Pitman, Vegan Views 95 (Winter 2002/3)

Having been very involved with green issues for many years, it was only natural that when we died Joy and I would both want a green burial. We discussed our thoughts on the subject at some length, eventually deciding that we would like to be buried in our own garden. The garden had been a field and it was our intention to fence off a small portion at the end as our burial site so that, when the house eventually came to be sold, the piece of land would be made over to our children. The Environment Agency established that there was not a water course nearby which could become contaminated and the local authority could see no health hazard, so we were given the go ahead. We chose a site where there were no tree roots and primed our four sons and sons-in-law that one day they might be called on to dig a hole.

In the mid 1990s Joy and I were co-founders of an organic gardening club. During Joy's secretaryship, she invited a local green undertaker to talk to our group. As a result of the talk, one of our members offered some land to the charity to be used as a burial site. The site is quite close to our home and after some further discussions we decided there might be problems with a garden burial when the house came to be sold, so we changed plans and opted for a woodland burial.

In the summer of 1999, Joy was diagnosed as having breast cancer which had already spread to the lymph glands. After removal of the glands and the lump in the breasts came the usual chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but a few months after the treatment, a scan showed that there were secondary cancers in the skull and other bones. Further chemotherapy was recommended but Joy decided that the quality of her life was paramount and she opted for alternatives: acupuncture, lymph drainage, homeopathy and spiritual healing. We contacted the undertaker, having decided not to ask our sons to dig the grave and discussed, in general terms, the burial and then did our best to live as normal a life as possible.

After some months, Joy felt she would like to spend some time in a retreat. She booked in for a week but halfway through her stay, she phoned me to say she was feeling unwell and would like to come home. When I entered her room I knew that she was very ill and after a day and a half in bed, she died. Her son, daughter, sister and I were at the bedside. Earlier that year, Joy had written a poem entitled 'Rainbow Dream', the first few lines of which are as follows:

I'd like to rest
Forever oscillating gently
In the purest crystal drop
And let the light flow through me
Orange, yellow, green
Changing my blood from indigo to scarlet.

We had a number of crystals in the house, one of which was suspended in the window. When the sun came out, the colours of the rainbow were projected around the room. A few moments before Joy died the sun came out and the refracted light from the crystal lit up her face in the colours of the rainbow. Joy died in midsummer 2001. Had it been wintertime, I would have preferred to keep her body at home until the burial, but unfortunately this was not possible in the height of summer. We had decided on a family only ceremony but, so that friends and neighbours could get together to celebrate Joy's life, I booked the village hall and a caterer to provide tea and buns. The family came back to the hall, met up with the gathering and we spent a couple of hours in lively chat. There was sadness, some tears, much hugging, laughter and love.

Returning to the burial ceremony, we used a cardboard coffin and Joy's body was lowered into the grave as soon as we gathered around. The bearers then backed out of the way, so that only the family formed the group around the grave. Joy and I were both Quakers so at the start of the ceremony I requested a period of silence in the manner of Quakers. I then said a few words about Joy's life, mentioning also that in many of the cards I had received were the words: "Her name was Joy and she was a joy to be with". I then invited others to say a few words if they felt moved to do so. The children spoke about their mother, a grandson read a poem he had written and another family member read a passage from the Old Testament. Finally there was a brief blessing.

Writing this almost a year after the burial, I am convinced that a major factor in helping me to come to terms with Joy's death is that I was totally involved with the burial ceremony. It seems very odd to me that a partner who has shared his or her life with a loved one should, on the death of that loved one, hand over the burial ceremony to be conducted by another person who may be a total or barely known stranger. Some while after the burial my son-in-law said to me, "You know Ted, that was the best funeral I've ever been to".

A few months ago my friend's wife died. He had, some time previously, asked me for information on woodland burials and, as a result of our talks, was torn between cremation (which he suggested to his undertaker during his wife's illness) and a woodland burial. A day or so before the funeral, he told me he had spoken to the undertaker who had come up with a number of reasons why it would not be in my friend's best interests to have a woodland burial. I have recently been to three cremations and in each case I felt that the ceremony was very cold. The family members were obliged to sit in straight rows, the coffin was viewed from some way away, and there was no opportunity for family to gather as a unit around the coffin to share thoughts and emotions.

Ted is happy to talk to any reader who feels that they would like to talk to him. Tel: +44 [0]1458 252723.

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Cross-reference: Environment
Cross-reference: Religion