Sitting on a bench in a buttercup meadow off the country lanes where I rode my bike as a little girl, I find surprising comfort in pondering my demise. It is here that I want to be laid to rest, with a simple grave in anatural burial groundon the outskirts of the village where I grew up.
I am a perfectly healthy 47-year-old woman with no reason to think I’ll be shuffling off this mortal coil any time soon. I’m in the prime of life, and yet I’ve started planning my own funeral. My worry is that if I pop off before my husband, Carl, the send-off he’ll give me will bear no resemblance to what I actually want.
With so many sudden, high-profile deaths this year, I mistakenly believed that a discussion about what I would like to eventually happen to my own body was a reasonable conversation to have with my next of kin. “If I go first, I want to be buried in a wicker coffin, so that I can become a part of the earth as quickly as possible,” I started to explain one evening. Instantly exasperated, Carl cut me off with the words: “You’ll be dead – you’ll get what you’re given.”
You’ll be dead – you’ll get what you’re given
Anyone who knows my husband snorts with recognition when I tell this story – this man doesn’t mince his words, concerning himself mainly with life’s practical and immediate realities. A few years ago my parents put their affairs in order, which prompted my father to start clearing out their attic. “Otherwise that miserable task will fall to you, Carl,” Dad solemnly explained over lunch.
“Oh, don’t bother yourself with all that now,” my husband replied cheerfully. “When you go, I’ll just put a skip on your drive and chuck it all in.” Followed quickly with a bemused “You’ll be dead, you won’t care,” in response to raised eyebrows all round.
He’s right, of course. The deceased aren’t troubled by what happens to their old bones, or where their attic junk ends up. If, like me, you believe there is much more to come, you’d hope by then to be occupied with far loftier matters than the stuff you left behind. But the rituals of death matter a great deal to the living. There is enormous comfort in honouring the final wishes of a loved one, and, as I’ve recently discovered, making your own known in the first place. For me, it has been like placing a pin in a map of a destination far, far away. Now I know where I’m going, I feel newly motivated to enjoy the journey.
Interestingly, while Carl balked at this conversation (“I love you, I don’t want to think of you dead,” he told me), our daughters – Bronte, 21, Merrily, 17, and 10-year-old Bridie – did not. The older girls said that to know what I wanted would help them with, if life’s natural order followed, a painful but inevitable experience. When my youngest sweetly, and without any hint of sorrow, asked if I would like my favourite flower – lavender – planted at my graveside, it reinforced my belief that this really was a healthy conversation to be having. It is reassuring to know that she already grasps that when a loved one passes, the essence of who they are remains and can be honoured in simple ways.
Which brings me back to that bench in the burial ground on a plot of agricultural land in the Cheshire village of Mobberley which has, no matter where I’ve been living, always felt like my home.
The bucolic backdrop to my childhood is still part of me – it is where I played, where I learnt and where I met my first love. If I get my wish and am buried at theFriends of Nature Burial Groundthere, then my last moments above ground will swim in symbolism. My funeral service will be held at the church where I was christened and later married my last love, which stands opposite the chocolate-box pretty primary school where I was head girl.
The cortège will pass by the village hall where I practised my dance steps for the annual summer fete and then the pub where I earned my first wages.
Whatever the time of year, you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful final journey. I’m certain it is one that will provide great comfort for the darling children I’ll leave behind – which, of course, is why I’m doing this in the first place. I might not care what happens to me when I’m dead, but they most certainly will.
And so, I called the owner of the site – funeral director Daniel Arnison – to ask how I might make it happen. His is one of the oldest natural burial sites in the country, bought in 1997 after noting an increase in queries about natural burials as people became more environmentally conscious. It appeals to nature lovers like me because, unlike conventional cemeteries, it develops over time into a conservation area having been planted with trees, shrubs and meadow flowers to create a haven for birds and animals.
“We wanted to create a new woodland,” explains Arnison, of Stockport-based George Ball and Son, which has been in his family for five generations. “Somewhere special that was created and is growing in honour of those interred there – my own father included – rather than make use of an existing wood.”
I find that a consoling concept – it speaks to the decay and renewal of nature, and is what makes the idea of my body returning to the earth (as opposed to being destroyed by cremation, which I don’t want) comforting rather than macabre. Arnison tells me that I am far from alone in wanting to plan my own funeral. It’s a rare week when he doesn’t get a call similar to mine.
There is enormous comfort in honouring the final wishes of a loved one
“Sometimes, it’s someone who’s had a diagnosis that means they know death is more imminent for them,” he says. “Others have recovered from something life-threatening, which has made the idea of planning for when they do go feel somehow more important. Others are generally curious about the process and, like you, want to tell their families what they want now even though it won’t be acted on for a long time.”
The Mobberley site is already half full – to guarantee myself a plot I’ll need to pay for it up front, at a cost of £1,300. Right now, I don’t have that kind of cash to spare, but I’ll make sure I find it within the next decade. Arnison expects the site to be full within 20 years.
If I wanted it, Arnison would create a document for me, detailing my wishes, to give to my family. But for now, telling them where I want to be placed in that wicker coffin, that I want a simple flat stone to mark where I lie along with those lovely lavender plants and for my favourite hymn – Lord of the Dance – to be sung for me in church, feels like enough.