Nature vs Culture in cemeteries

12 Dec

If I have one gripe with many green and woodland cemeteries it is that they don’t think deeply enough about the consequences to humans and human culture of making cemeteries more “natural”. This regards above all finding a place for enduring memorials in natural cemeteries.

This morning I came across an interesting story from the UK, in which the same conflict emerges in another aspect:

For the time-pressed (or if the link expires), the story essentially concerns the conflicts between mourners in a woodland cemetery and the deer that wander in and quite naturally eat the fresh flowers laid on burial sites.  As a woodland cemetery, it is a good sign that the deer like to visit. But what happens when they eat all the natural flowers  so that, paradoxically, all that remain are the artificial ones?

This simple example illustrates well the possible conflicts between nature and culture that can only become more evident as woodland and other “green” cemeteries multiply. I find nothing wrong with more natural cemeteries – on the contrary,  Perpetua’s Garden aims to be just that. But people need to be clear that natural cemeteries set different boundaries between nature and culture than conventional cemeteries and the consequences need to be accepted. When a cemetery is intended to be a closer part of nature, it is only logical that situations like the above happen.

The issue of the flowers can be extended to memorials and in general to all that is human (ie cultural) in the cemetery. We want a cemetery that blends into and is friendly to nature – this means that we must accept that the human cultural aspect is curbed: that the flowers get eaten (or we use artificial ones) and that the stone memorial is forbidden. That flowers get eaten and must be replaced is a small concession to nature’s cause which we can easily accept; but not being allowed any kind of enduring memorial means the line has been drawn too far on the side of nature and human culture has lost its place altogether in the cemetery. The disappearance of the flowers upsets the direct descendents of the deceased – the absence of personalized, enduring memorials may not be noticed until later, when nature has naturally taken back its domain and no signs remains whatsoever, not even where the body rests. Then it is too late and human culture as a whole suffers.

Where does nature’s place end and culture’s begin, where do we draw the line, what are our priorities and what compromises must we make? Ideally we think about these things in advance and do not have to learn only by our mistakes. Perpetua’s Garden also sets this question as one of its tasks.


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