Sunday, 23 November 2014

The house of ash...

Tim Daw has done an extraordinary thing.

He realised that we, the living, need somewhere beautiful, safe and monumental to home our dead.

Normally the cremated remains, the ashes are taken to a garden of remembrance close to crematoria.

 "...dispersed in the Garden of Remembrance at the crematorium under the careful supervision of crematorium staff..."

The final goodbye is supposed to take place just before the body descends to the furnace.

At my dad's funeral, we drew up close to the entrance of the crematorium just as the previous funeral party was leaving. Guys in grey boiler suits were throwing flowers and wreathes from that funeral into wheel barrows and hastily laying out the new wreathes for my dad.

It was ugly.
A default, English funeral.

20 minuets latter...
I expect the people arriving after us had a similar experience.

In my family the message was clear, the dead are gone.
Death means it is all over.
Get used to it!

The funeral over
Me, absolutely not over it...

Despite the concept of of death as the end, that I'd been brought up to believe in. It felt wrong that there was no grave. I didn't know what happened to his ashes, scattered in the garden of remembrance I guess...but if I went there all I'd remember is the men in boiler suits. There is no connection in my mind between who he was whilst alive, and the crematorium.

What makes it worse for me is that I never said goodbye to him...leaving a sadness that feels impossible to mend. I have no place to leave flowers, or to go to, to mourn. In the end it hurt so much I held a symbolic funeral for him at Stonehenge. I needed to place his memory safe within its walls..

Many people, feel as I do that there must be something better than scattering ashes 'under the careful supervision of crematorium staff'.

Tim Daw's answer was to commission a long barrow to be built on his land. Instead of containing long bones and skulls, Tim's barrow is a columbarium; a place to house the ashes of the dead.

Yesterday afternoon I parked my car on the unnamed road close to Cannings Cross, and set off up the lane to take a look at Tim's barrow.

The day was very wet.

Thick clouds rolled off the hills.

Over to my right is Walker's Hill, location of another long barrow, Adam's Grave, a Neolithic chambered tomb excavated in  1860 by John Thurnam who found inside three or four incomplete skeletons and a leaf-shaped arrowhead, and some way over to my left and up on the hills, is Kitchen Barrow about which I know nothing!

As I got closer, I realised that the long barrow is indeed long

I don't know why this surprised me, it isn't as if I have never seen one before.

All this whale-like, weight of earth and stone was a presence of gravity and stability that changed the way things sounded.

I could hear its weight.

I walked around it, thinking of John North and his theories about stars, thinking about rain clouds and mud until I arrived at the entrance.

The entrance is guarded by a double serpent...
Lord Ningishzida

Well not exactly, the symbol is derived from the double helix of DNA and represents the continuity of life, the transmission of life through us.

Tim arrived and opened the gate.

The whole barrow is made of stone covered in earth. Inside are columns and niches all constructed using the same technique as a dry stone wall, every stone fits and balances and squashes to create an amazingly beautiful, golden copper coloured passage, and chambers.

It was longer inside than I'd imagined, also each chamber had a domed roof.

It reminded me of La Hougue Bie in Jersey.

And of a 'secret' church I'd visited in Hella, in Iceland. Used over one thousand years ago by Irish missionaries who found the indigenous Icelanders unenthusiastic about hearing the good news.

The space reserved for me and my family is in the east chamber. Curiously when the barrow was completed, the first to make use of it were the butterflies who also chose the eastern chamber.

Whilst inside the barrow I realised that I had never given a seconds thought to modern cremation urns. One vessel in a niche attracted my attention, I though it was a model of a planet. A sphere of primarily blue and green.

Someone else had left a statuette of Anubis which contained the ashes of a beloved dog.

The atmosphere inside the barrow was far from sad, or heavy or gloomy in any way. It is said that the form of the long barrow came to Britain via LBK culture- linear band keramic. People who originated in the north of Europe between about 6000 and 5000 BC. LBK culture is defined by a pottery style; pottery decorated with linear bands. It was also the first culture associated with farming in northern Europe.

The people who decorated their pots with long wavy lines built long houses; for ceremonial feasts, for the living...and they built long houses for the dead. They held feasts for the living and possibly for the dead, there too.

In keeping with their tradition that the dead should have their own homelike space, the inclusion of pets and ornamental urns is perfect.

Reformation ideas of the dead being nowhere until the return of Christ only help people who have a strong desire to believe this. Most of us need to reintegrate the memories of the person who has died with the present. Pre-reformation belief included the dead in the lives of the living. The living could sponsor prayers, and make donations on their behalf, to the poor.

When all that was outlawed, traditional ways of reintegrating the dead with the living were lost...

I returned to where I'd left the car.
Beside the concrete trilithons that had once been used in an experiment to see how difficult it would have been to make Stonehenge.

An experiment Tim plans to repeat.

The long barrow is beginning to turn green, plants are growing all over it and Tim wants it to be a place where people can come to sit on top of the barrow, to picnic and to be alive with the dead. It is facing the winter solstice sun rise for those of us who like to think of Shamash, the summer sun, his golden hair now cut off, grown weak and old, dragged down by the rain seeking regeneration under the ground in his secret chamber. But ultimately the barrow at All Cannings is a continuity of a much wider, perhaps universal tradition, that the living need a place for their dead.

Link: The barrow at All Cannings.