At the tender age of 58, I organised my first funeral, that of my mother, which I wrote about back in 2017.
With my father’s Alzheimer’s and my brother’s early demise from Multiple System Atrophy, I was (and am) the remaining next of kin to sort out such things. It comes with middle age territory, alas. It’s part of being a grown up.
It was only when I had to do this for my mother that I realised how political funerals are, how constrained we are by funereal form and convention, and how many people feel comforted by traditional rituals. Yet, funerals are changing. Natural burial is becoming a more considered option.
My mother died at 89. She had advanced dementia and diabetes, dying unexpectedly peacefully in her nursing home. I had not assumed such a tranquil end; however, she had endured 13 years of the gradual onset of vascular dementia, so whatever she’d done in life, she’d really paid her penance. It is a cruel and awful disease. For Dad to have Alzheimer’s was a parental double-whammy.
My frail father joined her in June this year, after living in the same nursing home, getting chest infection after chest infection, especially as he became less ambulant. They had been married for 67 years when Mum died. Dad had recovered from debilitating pneumonia in 2019, for which he was hospitalised; amazingly, he never caught Covid-19, but eventually lost his strength in 2021, aged 93. The only positive to take is that he ‘waited’ until the severest Covid restrictions were lifted and I could be with him during his final days.
As I wandered the streets of Birmingham back in 2017, I thought about what to do with Mum’s ashes. Should I take her to Appledore which she used to love, and scatter her somewhere? Was I even allowed to? Should I stick her in a pot in the garden?
Then it came to me. I’d contact the Natural Burial ground at Penlow, Woolley, which actually falls within the wider Bude area. My old Mum could end her days in a place I love, Bude.
The lovely Sheridon Rosser responded to my email almost immediately. I went to see her at the site, visiting the woods and the coppice, where I was told my Mum’s ashes could be interred by a tree. After thinking of a Wayfarer (which grows near paths, a welcome sign you are ‘homeward bound’), I eventually chose a Guelder Rose, beloved of birds, and pretty. It is only upon re-reading this, that I realised I subconsciously chose the Wayfarer for my Dad, who recently joined her at that beautiful resting place having forgotten I nearly chose it for my Mum.
Sheridon and I met up again to ‘do the deed’ for Mum. It was a sunny day, albeit cloudy in parts, and I attended alone, as was my preference. This was my goodbye to my mother, placing her in the ground in which she wanted to end her days. OK, she wasn’t in a churchyard with her Mum and Dad, but that wasn’t possible and this is actually lovelier. I thought this as I walked through the large cemetery at the crematorium, that it felt quite impersonal. Where Mum was going was very personal, and anyone can visit the spot at any time, if they wish.
So, Sheridon dug a plot, and it was at that point I realised how natural death is. It was rather like digging a small hole in the garden. I was then able to kneel on the ground, pour in Mum’s ashes, and smooth them over with my hands, quite literally ‘hands on’. Afterwards, I placed her biodegradable oak plaque in position, while Sheridon gently replaced the grass. In the distance cows were lowing, and closer by, birds were singing. Sheridon wandered off, leaving me to reflect and say goodbye.
Mum’s plaque is almost impossible to read now, as the nature of it is that it gradually absorbs back into the ground.
My Dad’s is fresh. Some things had changed since 2017. My Mum’s ashes were gritty (all ideas of ‘scattering’ were close to impossible), while Dad’s were much finer. Mum’s ashes came in a rather grim plastic container, but Dad’s were in a reasonably nice box. Mum had a wooden coffin for her funeral, while Dad had an eco-cardboard one painted in his beloved Birmingham City colours/logo. Once at Atlantic Rest, the only sounds were of birds, bees and butterflies.
I’d read in the news that Zsa Zsa Gabor’s ashes were recently buried (five years after her death) in a Budapest ceremony where a ‘gypsy’ band played and yellow and pink roses were on display, all with much pomp and ceremony, just as she wanted it.
My Dad’s ashes interment were as he would have wanted, no fuss, close to my Mum’s.
As with Mum’s ashes, Sheridon dug the hole, but this time she had a wooden kneeler, which I was able to use to avoid getting damp knees while spreading Dad’s remains. There is something very soothing about pouring ashes, and spreading them with my hands, which is probably hard for people to imagine. It was my last chance to have direct contact with my lovely Dad.
Once he was neatly in place, I scattered some wild flower seeds provided by Sheridon; then, after her infilling with some earth, I was able to place the plaque and varnish it, with environmentally-friendly preserver. It felt rather like putting my Dad to bed, so he could finally rest. Sheridon uses a similar analogy as she talks of ‘tucking the residents in’.
I asked Sheridon if she would take some photos. In some ways, it seemed inappropriate, but I realised that we rarely talk about death and what happens afterwards. I wanted to be able to demonstrate to people what spreading ashes at Atlantic Rest is like. Obviously, some people have more ceremony, and for a full burial, then there is potential for a full-on funeral, but here, it can be exactly as you want, within certain environmental guidelines. A friend said to me that the wooden plaque is a lovely idea as a marker, as unlike a gravestone, it is warm and feels natural. I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s a fair comment.
To be honest, for me, I find the formality of eulogies, committals, and wakes quite difficult. I’m not especially into high ritual, so it is something to ‘get through’, doing what needs to be done.
Spreading the ashes was, to me, was the most important part of the processes we go through at death; it is kinaesthetic, too.
My mother and father had ended their time in Cornwall. Their ashes will continue to nurture the trees I chose for them (Mum’s has come on in the last four years), and I enjoy the tranquillity of the place when I visit.
I feel blessed to have this wonderful facility so close by. Ashes don’t scatter well because they are rather more like grit than ash, so finding a permanent resting place felt right. In a way, Mum had two funerals. One for everyone else, and one for her, from me. Dad had the same, the formal event in Birmingham, and the private one for him, from me. It was good to reunite the two.
In the distance is the sea, nearby is the woodland, and most importantly, it is beautiful and quiet. Mum and Dad are hopefully now resting in peace, and I did my best for them, bringing beautiful closure. It was exactly the right decision, I feel.
My deep thanks to Sheridon Rosser of Atlantic Rest Natural Burial. I hope not to have to use her services again for quite some time!