On Death and Nature

It’s been a while since I wrote anything and I have a bit of time while I’m waiting for some people to get back to me with answers (or even some funding), and there are other reasons for the quiet period since I last posted anything.

My father in law died four weeks ago – he had a big heart attack and that was it. I’m not going to say anything else much at this point, because obituaries will be appearing and I will post links to them (or screenshot them on here). Other than he was an absolutely lovely, generous man and a fantastic grandpa to our girls. We are all very sad as you can imagine. The funeral is in 10 days time and covid restrictions have relaxed a little, but it will still be a small ceremony.

Chalk downland wild flowers Weymouth Avenue cemetery, Dorchester ©Miles King

But it has got me thinking about losing my own dad, and then my brother, in a relatively short space of time – just three years between them, both from cancer.

And that of course is now put in the context of 150,000 people who have died in one year in the UK, from Covid19 (and not forgetting the Duke of Edinburgh).

I wrote about my dad’s death – or rather I wrote about what happened to his ashes, in this piece from two years ago – and I wrote about losing my brother Simon in this post from just after I started this blog. Simon’s very good friend and fishing buddy Bob Hornegold also died just a few months ago.

It’s at times like these that things like belief in an after life – or in my case not having a belief in an after life, in the Christian sense, come to the surface. And I also ponder on whether we have some sort of visceral need to create physical memorials that help us remember those we have lost, outside of Christianity or other religions?

In an age when more and more people are not following the established customs of funerals or interments in churchyards, I wonder whether something is being lost. For those who do reside within the Church of England (or indeed opt for municipal burials), it is very clear that they value that capability to visit their lost loved ones and remember them – and in doing so benefit from the nature that is not just present, but thriving in churchyards and cemeteries.

This is something I explored with Mark Betson (now National Rural Officer for the C of E) in our 2013 project “The Nature of God’s Acre“.

I have also been thinking about memorials in relation to Covid19 and bouncing around some ideas for how memorials could be created in a way that specifically provides solace through nature. I hope to talk more about these soon, but you’ll have seen the National Trust’s Blossom Circles idea, which is not unrelated. I was interested to find out about a movement creating new long barrows, where ceremonies and interments are happening outside of any recognised religion, such as this one at Soulton Hall.

And purely by chance last Spring, I found a new wildlife site within a few hundred metres of where we live, in a local Town Council managed municipal churchyard. I think there must have been a slight interruption in the regular mowing regime caused by the first lockdown, coupled with the incredible Spring weather we had last year (very different from this cold one) which enabled a flush of chalk downland flowers to appear, just when I was really getting to know my local patch on incessant lockdown walks.

Death and nature (that is non-human nature) are intimately intertwined, but that relationship is not often articulated, at least not in Britain. This is partly because we don’t talk about death nearly enough, and I think this is a particularly British (or perhaps English) problem. I am old enough to remember when people didn’t use the word “cancer”, instead referring to “the c word”. Yes that phrase now means something else (or is that just the “c bomb”.)

Now we talk about cancer but even so conversations about death are problematical. And this year of all years, with so many families struggling to come to terms with untimely deaths in tragic circumstances, should be a massive kick up the backside for everyone to talk more about it. After all, it is the one inevitable thing everyone faces (yes taxes too). I speak from experience here, not having dealt with my father’s death, and having that come back and knock me down two years later.

I suppose nature and death are so closely linked, because death is one of the most natural things that happen to modern humans, living as we do, our very unnatural lives. We might have believed we’ve escaped the restrictions of the Nitrogen and Carbon cycle (no of course we haven’t) to produce more food than we can eat and create more energy than we know what to do with; beaten off formerly common diseases with vaccines and antibiotics (spoiler – new ones appear) but we haven’t escaped death.

Evidence for burials with flowers goes back to about 50,000 years – in our close cousins the Neanderthals, though this evidence may not be conclusive. Regardless, we know that flowers have played a fundamental role in ceremonies around death for millennia and continue to do so today. Those cut flowers sent to the grief-stricken may have been grown in a greenhouse in the Netherlands, but they symbolise a deep relationship between nature and death.

It’s become a bit of a cliche that people have found a new appreciation of, and value in nature in their lives, during this past Pandemic year. I wonder whether that appreciation and value will continue now we appear (I know it’s early days) to be emerging from the darkness, in both senses.

Perhaps strengthening that relationship between death, and the consolation and reassurance that nature brings, is something that we can hold on to.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in churches, churchyards, covid19, Death, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to On Death and Nature

  1. Mick Canning says:

    I struggled with my father’s death, thirty years ago, but dealt better with my younger brother dying unexpectedly five years ago by allowing my grief to flow unimpeded. I also found writing him a letter helped, saying all the things I would like to have told him.
    I have also allowed myself to feel comfortable about my own death – I won’t seek it out, but when it happens that’s fine. It’s natural. And that gives me a relaxed attitude towards what happens in my life – I wonder if that is how people used to feel when death seemed closer; all around them. And no, I’m not religious.
    Not sure if all this is relevant, but anyway.

  2. David Dunlop says:

    Whether the living river
    Began in bog or lake,
    The world is what was given,
    The world is what we make,
    And we only can discover
    Life in the life we make.

    from London Rain by Louis MacNeice

    My condolences to you and yours, Miles

      • Miles King says:

        I’ve received this comment via Linkedin which I am posting here with permission from the commenter, Peter Buckley. We met when he ran a leadership course with the Windsor Leadership Trust, which I attended.

        “A truly beautiful and poignant blog Miles. Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective on something so very personal and universal. I empathise with your feelings and emotions having lost my mother just as the first wave hit, yet thankfully did have the time to hold her in my arms talking of times together and Dad.
        Reading your words prompts me to share the following powerful quotation from Laurence Freeman OSB which I feel speaks volumes as much about your blog as the themes therein:

        ‘‘It is the white space between the words on a page that makes it readable. Without periods of silence and non-action, our words and our deeds jumble up into meaningless spirals of stress. We need a web of silence spread around the world just as extensively as the web of technology.

        My thoughts and prayers are with you at this time.”

  3. Sorry for your loss, Miles. All the best.

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