An Interview with Dr. Hannah Rumble

Natural Burials Trends in Britain and Around the World

Dr. Hannah Rumble is a Research Officer in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath (in Bath, UK) and a Teaching Fellow on the Foundation degree for Funeral Services in the Centre for Death and Society. As a STEM social science Ambassador she speaks in schools about funeral rites, natural burial, spirituality and funerals, death and bereavement, and related topics.

Dr. Rumble recently co-authored Natural Burial: Traditional-Secular Spiritualities and Funeral Innovation with Professor Douglas Davies. The book discusses findings from Dr. Rumble’s doctoral research in relation to Prof. Davies’s expertise in the wider issues of spirituality and funeral innovation in contemporary Britain. The book is available to pre-order through the publisher, Continuum Books, or through Amazon.

Dana: How did you come to be academically involved with natural burial?

Dr. Rumble: Completely by accident! I saw the research project advertised on an academic jobsite in the UK, and the ‘natural burial’ in the research title intrigued me. So, I appplied like you would any other job and ended up being the candidate chosen to undertake the 3 years of funded research on natural burial and the natural burial movement here in the UK. As an anthropologist by training I am used to looking at death and funerary rites. It’s the bread and butter of socio-cultural anthropology!

Dana: Can you discuss the difference in trends in natural burial between Britain/Europe and the U.S.?

Dr. Rumble: For a start the UK is the home for this burial innovation that we’ve all come to know as ‘natural burial’. It began very informally in 1993 and since then has grown into a legitimate alternative to cremation or cemetery burial, with over 200 natural burials sites spread throughout the UK.

I think the proliferation of natural burial sites in the UK is what distinguishes the country from its European partners. Germany has about 36 or so sites and so comes closest to the UK in availability of this type of burial provision.

What distinguishes Britain from America in the main is in the title: ‘natural’. In the UK this tends to be imagined and realized alongside landscapes that encompass the pastoral, such as farmers’ set-aside that turns to meadow, or woodlands. But in the US, I get the impression that the natural landscape incorpated into natural burial provision can encompass more of the ‘wilderness’. Also, I gather that in America, concrete lined vaults or graves are common, whilst they’re not at all used in the UK. So in a way, natural burial is much more of a radical break with ‘tradition’ in America, whereas I don’t think it is so much in the UK. We’ve always buried people in the soil directly. Also ‘tradition’ is an interesting subtle difference too. In America, natural burial is aligned with the ‘traditions’ of the  American settlers in the popular imagination. In the UK, our cultural imagination tends to align natural burial with pre-christian ‘tradition’ and practices.

Dana: Can you discuss the trends in natural burial in Britain since the 1990s?

Dr. Rumble: Natural burial began as a political and ecological alternative to cremation but overtime became more the norm. Due to public demand, a greater number of natural burial sites in the UK have had to accept ash scattering and/or interment as one of the services they offer, which from an ecological perspective could seem counter-intuitive or redundant. But these days natural burial isn’t necessarily a ‘green choice’; it’s also about people identifying somewhere peaceful and tranquil where they want to secure their final place of rest. There are even a small number of natural burial grounds that now allow their clients to be interred with their pets’ ashes. I suspect that over time, natural burial in the UK will increasingly become less of a class-based choice or a green choice and simply an inclusive option alongside cemation/ash scattering and cemetery burial.

Dana: Why did you choose the sole Christian-affiliated natural burial ground in Britain as the focus for your doctoral research?

Dr. Rumble: For a start, the Arbory Trust’s natural burial ground — called Barton Glebe — isn’t the only Church of England affiliated natural burial ground. There are one or two others.

This site was the focus of my research simply because it was written into the remit of the research project, as my PhD was funded through a collaborative doctoral award, which meant that there had to be a partnership between an academic institution, in this case the University of Durham, and a non-academic institution — the Arbory Trust.

The Trust had approached my supervisor, Prof. Douglas Davies, a few years before saying they thought their natural burial provison was worthy of a sociological study, and like all good ideas, it began with a flippant remark over a drink and the next thing you know, it’s a reality! But I should stress that I found in my research that faith has little to do with their provision. Yes, the Trust is affiliated to the Church of England, because the Diocese in which the natural burial ground is located helped the Trust set up logistically and financially, but people with any faith or none at all can, and are, buried at the natural burial ground.

Dana: How do various religious beliefs support or conflict with the practice of natural burial?

Dr. Rumble: I never found any forms of confliction between my interviewees’ personal faith and natural burial. What I did find however, was that those who had a faith would speak of ideas such as earth stewardship and respecting God’s creation/kingdom to explain their choice for natural burial. Ideas of stewardship cut across all faiths and has been written extensively about in relation to faith-based ecological behavior. But equally, if you’re a non-believer, you can associate a kind of ‘spirituality’ with natural burial and I write a lot about that; how we make meaning of our lives and death through the natural world and how we project and embody our identity and memory through nature as well.

Dana: How does the way one views life and death emotionally effect the tendency towards traditional burial, natural burial, or cremation?

Dr. Rumble: I found that people tend to have an irrational fear about fire, worms or being buried underground that inevitably influences their initial preference for burial (of all kinds) or cremation. Prof. Davies did some qualitative research about this a while ago and wrote about it in Reusing Old Graves: A report on popular British attitudes. Kent, Shaw & Sons, (Davies, D. J. and A. Shaw, 1995).

Hannah Rumble, natural burial, religion, research, academicDana: Can you briefly describe some of the “variety of motivations for the appeal of natural burial” that are discussed in the book?

Dr. Rumble: The rationale or reasons people gave for their choice to have a natural burial, either for themselves or on behalf of the deceased, were very varied. I ended up grouping these into the following major value clusters:
  • environmental values
  • aesthetic values
  • religious-spiritual values
  • consumer values
  • family values
  • romantic values

Obviously there are links, cross-cutting issues and complements between these groups of values that influence people’s decision-making around natural burial in the UK, and most interviewees would refer to two or three of these. It would be interesting to know how a different culture may prioritize these values or identify them differently (that’s the anthropologist in me!). So for example, when I speak of ‘aesthetic values’ in the UK and ‘romantic values’ I am referring quite a bit to the notion of the pastoral idyll that has a long history in British landscape art and Romanticism.

Dana: Finally, is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your work that we haven’t discussed?

Dr. Rumble: Yes! Theoreticlly and empirically there was a lot given to the therapeutic nature of the natural burial ground that led me to conclude that a number of natural burial sites in the UK are the contemporary therapeutic landscape for the bereaved; just as garden cemteries were deemed to be in the 19th century in Britain. Natural burial sites materially embody all those cultural ideas about renewal, healing, peace, tranquility, memory, etc. People were able to make creative links quite easily between the deceased person they were grieving for and that person’s continuing identity and memory in the life presented within a natural burial ground. Also, the sometimes cruel, sometimes sublime cycles of the seasons here in the UK provided a motif for people’s cycles of mourning and understanding of life and death. ‘Nature’, whatever that ultimately means, is a powerful cathartic tool for the people I spoke to.

I also talk about the ‘gift’ of giving ourselves ‘back to nature’. A ‘gift’ for generations to come and a means of projecting one’s identity beyond death. It relates to gift-theory in anthropology, and I use it to talk about the unarticulated motivations people have to choose natural burial. I think there’s similarities in the idea of ‘utility’ of the self that prompts people to donate themselves to medical science or choose natural burial — a recycling, reusing of the body for the greater good.

In short, I think — based on my interviews and ethnographic fieldwork at Barton Glebe natural burial ground at least — that natural burial enables the bereaved and dying to symbolically and literally reproduce the hitherto rotting corpse into an animate, fecund ‘gift’ to ‘nature’ and society’s future generations, which ultimately challenges the  place of the dead amongst the living. The dead become ‘useful’ again rather than a problem to be solved by cemetery management etc. There are certainly powerful, empowering aspects to the symbolic capital of natural burial that will ensure it’s appeal for a while yet!

Thank you so much for sharing your insight with us, Dr. Rumble!

Readers are encouraged to contact Dr. Rumble through her website if they have any further questions: www.drhannahrumble.com

 

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8 Responses to An Interview with Dr. Hannah Rumble

  1. avatar Tina says:

    I agree with the term “natural burial” as much better without the hype the word “green” tends to give.

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  2. avatar Louise says:

    Dr. Rumble has lent some great insight on natural burial in this interview– the work she does is fascinating!

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  3. avatar Cynthia Beal says:

    Thanks for this interview. Dr. Rumble’s given some very helpful background here (and I’m going to assign it as reading for my next sustainable cemetery management class!).

    One the most useful things she points out here is the difference between the UK and the US with respect to vaults. During one of my cemetery walks with Ken West, (considered the 1993 founder of natural burial in the UK) I asked him why the British didn’t do vaults. He looked at me (standing as we were in a cemetery filled with collapsed structures all around) and said “We did; we tried them. It didn’t work. They all collapse eventually. You’ll see.”

    Vault free burials have been offered throughout the US for centuries. Every cemetery operator I’ve asked over the past 8 years admits they currently have unvaulted burials on their grounds – though almost all had a rule requiring them today. Vaults are not required by government law – they are required by rule, the rule of the cemetery, and the cemetery can change that rule anytime they like. One prominent cemetery I work with added vault-free burial to its roster and has sold 24 natural burials just this year. Surely that extra income – coupled with zero vault-collapse maintenance in 50-150 years – justifies a little more backfilling and grass tending while the coffin disappears!

    Hannah’s impression of American natural burial as being ‘wilderness’ burial is probably a little superficial, but I think that’s because much of the hype about “green burial” in the US has mostly come from one marketing organization with a bias toward using cemetery ‘profits’ from burials to support wilderness projects, and featuring provocative wilderness-type landscapes prominently in its advertising.

    The irony is that cemeteries – even well-run ones, that have maintenance funds in reserve for the future (very few) – don’t have true profits, in part because a cemetery is “forever” and all excess monies are needed as a hedge against future costs. Most are already in the red, and failing, and fearful to do their accounting properly. I know. I’ve seen the balance sheets.

    Additionally, funeral directors have largely taken over (some cemetery managers would say “stolen”) sales of the two items that have funded cemetery operations for decades – markers and vaults – leaving the cemeteries with the meager and inadequate income from grave-opening services and plot sales only. That’s put cemeteries in an awful financial bind and I expect to see that coming to a head in the next 5-15 years; look for more abandonments and bankruptcies as future costs (and potential fines from groundwater pollution, for example) become obvious.

    So, while I love the idea of supporting wilderness, I think that burial there is romantically impractical, counter-ecological, and keeps the focus off transitioning our existing cemeteries – where the human impact already exists and should be improved instead of abandoned – to sustainability.

    Like it or not, England’s current cemetery landscape is our future, especially in urban areas, and my personal focus is squarely on sustainable cemetery management in existing cemeteries, now, as soon as possible, for as many as possible. Any cemetery, even a closed cemetery, can be habitat – is habitat – and Rumble’s right there, too – we Americans love our wildlife just like UK folks do, and the cemetery is one of the best places in a city or town to collectively nurture that peace-giving life-affirming comfort of nature, leaving the remaining wilderness wild, as it should be.

    Thanks again for interviewing Hannah. You should check in with Charles Cowling next!

    Cynthia

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  4. avatar Hannah Rumble says:

    Thank you for your response Cynthia!

    I completely agree hear what you are saying about the sustainable use of existing burial places and leaving the wilderness as it is, and I agree, my comment about the American notion of landscape as being more aligned with concepts of the ‘wilderness’ is superficial, but it serves to remind us of the cultural framings of nature here in the debate about natural burial.

    I’d love to come to America and visit a few natural burial grounds myself so I can be more informed of the varied scope, layout and practice of these places!

    Should your students read our book on natural burial I’d love to receive some of their feedback and responses to it!

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  5. avatar Susan Morris says:

    Thank you for such an illuminating interview. Readers may be interested to see pictures of some of the UKs natural burial grounds to see the variety – visit the UK’s Association of Natural Burial Grounds, established 1994 as part of the Natural Death Centre charity http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk

    Susan Morris

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  6. An informative interview thank you.
    One of the major differences between the UK and here in New Zealand is that we have had to go through many legal, resource consent and ‘science’ hoops to get natural cemeteries running. We have been successful by pairing with local council authorities and using their land. One benefit of the work is that we have a high level of certainty about issues such as the “naturalness” and enviornmental benefits of this form of burial and cemetery with regenerating native bush. People can check out what we’ve achieved at http://www.naturalburials.co.nz.

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