Friday, June 18, 2010

Coffin up

Howl by Pants

I think I really need to start a new label - parallel universe. I spent most of the day considering a subject for this, my 500th post. I imagined I would turn out something thoughtful. And then I found this story. It would appear to carry the necessary, er, gravitas.

Sydney's first 'natural burial ground' has just opened! Hurrah!

One doesn't like to be a party pooper but wasn't Australia just one big 'natural burial ground' before the British arrived with their hang-ups about hygiene and epitaphs? Forty thousand years vs a couple of a hundred - mmm, I'd say more of a rebalancing of the natural order of things than the great social advancement being claimed by the Minister for Lands, Tony Kelly who presided over the grand opening of St Francis Field.

Should you choose a 'natural burial' for your Sydney-based loved one, rest assured this does not involve being chucked down a lime pit but rather skipping the chemical-intensive embalming process and being laid to rest in a 'biodegradable' (i.e. cardboard) coffin. On second thoughts, the lime pit sounds rather more pleasant, but let's move on.

So your dearly departed is tossed into the modern day equivalent of a pauper's grave saving you several thousand very useful readies. And the news just gets better. There are no headstones. Bonanza! Not so fast, ungrateful offspring. Your adored antecedent might be turning into organic fertiliser faster than you can say 'what time's the will reading?' but just because a grave is unmarked, it doesn't mean it's untraceable. Naturally, the age of surveillance has the perfect solution, as the minister gleefully explains,

'The latest GPS technology is used to ensure the location of the deceased is noted and recorded. Tenure is also limited to 30 years, with the option to renew if desired. In this way the St Francis Field may become a sustainable burial ground for Sydneysiders for generations to come.'

Yes, all that will be left of your esteemed expired will be a little tracer of the type they put on whales. You will be able to take your flowers to a set of co-ordinates and beg an indeterminate patch of untended ground for guidance at times of great emotional need. You will probably be able to locate your still-present-in-spirit dispatched via your mobile phone. You could perhaps use some of your maximised inheritance for a suitable upgrade if your present phone doesn't have the appropriate 'app'. Perhaps your pre-deceased has had the decency to programme in a series of pat text responses just in case.

What's this about a thirty-year tenure? Bones tend to last an awful long time in the ground. Is the local authority going to dig them up if someone doesn't pay? Perhaps they'll just turn off the little beep in the ground that was keeping that poor soul's memory alive. How sad is that?

But why, Mr Kelly?

'Together with renewable tenure, natural burials are just another way of making better use of a scarce resource, while still maintaining a wide range of options to cater for the personal, cultural and religious preferences of Sydney’s diverse community.'

Of course. Australia has hardly any land to spare for burying dead people. It is such a tiny country. The 'resources' for burying the equivalent volume of at least one family member a week in non-biodegradable garbage for every household in the country is easily enough located. But we won't go into that right now.

And finding a one-size-fits-all solution, quite literally, for the diverse 'personal, cultural and religious preferences of Sydney's diverse community'? How clever is that? Perhaps very clever in that so many of them would have to find other arrangements. This is a Catholic cemetery, sorry, 'natural burial ground'. 'Sustainability' in the interment business is possibly not as broad a church as is suggested by the Minister.

I have put it in my will that I want a proper burial, in a proper coffin, with a proper headstone. I feel my 'carbon' frugality over a lifetime has earned me that much. I don't mind if no one visits. Well, I'm confident I won't be in a position to be offended, put it that way.

Although even my dearest friends will tell you I'm not exactly hygiene obsessed, I am very firmly of the epitaph tradition. I have been a regular visitor over the years to cemeteries, and I don't think my life is the poorer for having visited the final resting places of Karl Marx, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, all the Brontës and Oscar Wilde - whose Jacob Epstein designed tomb is one of the highlights of a visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where one might also go to dance on the grave of a certain Jim Morrison if one is of a mind.

I have frequently sat and enjoyed a quiet lunch in any number of inner London graveyards. Bunhill Row was a particular favourite. It contains the graves of John Bunyan, William Blake and Daniel Defoe. And I have been to Laugharne,'the strangest place in Wales', where Dylan Thomas is buried and his epitaph does, unsurprisingly read,

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

If you like, you can listen here to Dylan Thomas reading his poem The Tombstone Told When She Died. It speaks of a woman's life. A life Thomas draws from scant information. 'Her two surnames stop me still'. He extrapolates from two dates and two names an entire life and, in so doing, enshrines her in our minds forever. How many poems and novels have begun life at a tombstone?

For some of us, that slowly eroding stone might be the only evidence that we ever existed.