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" Seek the truth and run from

those who claim to have found it "

after André Gide

The Family Tree

June 5th, 2013

beech trees and sun

A Guest post by Maria Ede-Weaving…

We make plans in life but putting things in place for the eventuality of our own deaths leaves a good few of us a little squeamish.  It can feel a little like tempting fate.

Six years ago I sat with my father in the funeral directors as he chose, booked and paid for the funeral he desired.  It was a peculiar experience helping him to select his coffin and the manner of his departure. Dad appeared completely unperturbed by it all, his usual jovial self, whilst I endured an uncomfortable hour, fighting back a growing sense of panic that the day I dreaded would come; on some unknowable date, I would be back in that room, without him by my side, putting his plans into practice.

Since my sister’s death, dad knew that he wanted a woodland burial. On a beautiful August day, two years previously, we had laid my sister to rest in a woodland site on the South Downs. We followed her willow coffin – flowers woven into its lattice-work – through the beech and hazel. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the canopy of trees, and as we walked amongst the wild marjoram that covered the grave site, its spicy scent rose like incense. As my sister was given back to the earth, a lone dragonfly circled us in agitated spirals. It was a moving and extraordinary committal, the peace and beauty of that place – a burial so removed from the Victorian residue of gothic death that imbues so many modern funerals – made those last painful moments a good deal easier to bear.

The woodland or natural burial movement is growing. The burials must be ecologically sound, putting back into the earth only natural, biodegradable materials – coffins, shrouds, grave goods and wreaths must all comply with this eco standard. This care and thought seems to lend the whole process a sacredness that can sometimes be lacking in the commercial world of the modern funeral industry.

As the plots are filled, the woodlands grow, trees planted in remembrance of those buried there. This coming together of the planting of trees and the committal of loved ones, strikes at something deep within us.  It is no accident that we name our ancestral line ‘The Family Tree’; trees, like families, have roots and branches, a holistic system of growth and renewal that echoes the human experience. Our ancestors root us in history; without them we would not be; we draw from their lives, now hidden from view and essentially unknowable but still influencing us in ways that we might only guess at.

The seasonal round of deciduous trees speak to us of our own life cycles; we too have times of budding, of flowering and bearing fruit. We also must shed all that is outworn, letting fall that which no longer serves us, allowing it to break down into an emotional mulch of experience that will nourish our present and help sustain our future. The tree of life tells us that even with our passing, life goes on, that we are intimately connected to all that have lived before us and all that will come after. The woodland system reflects our own sense of belonging; we stand as individual trees yet part of a wider community, each life form helping to support the health of the whole.

On top of all this, the peace and beauty of these places can be enormously helpful when we are faced with the loss of those we love. There is something eternal and timeless about forests; it is easier to still ourselves and connect to our deeper emotional self when we are in them. This process is so important when we grieve; the woodland becomes a place of sanctuary, a verdant holding that we might feel what we need to feel and gently process our loss.

Less than a month ago, as the bluebells and cowslips flourished and the vivid green of spring leaves brought renewed life to the woodlands, my father unexpectedly passed away. The moment I had dreaded arrived, and for the second time I found myself walking that path into the woods.

This time, I followed a cardboard coffin, topped with a natural wreath in the shape of a heart, woven with cypress, hazel and daisies, made by my own family. The birds sang and the sunlight streamed through, tinged with the otherworldly green of new leaves. As we stood around the grave, that familiar peace descended and despite the pain of the moment, I could feel my dad’s approval.

Dad loved the cycles of nature; he loved the woods and downland of his home. He strongly felt himself a part of the natural round and as he was lowered into the chalk – as the earth tenderly held him – it seemed to me that he was home. And as much as the physical absence of those we love can be so difficult to bear, they are never truly lost. In death, as in life, we continue to be a part of this extraordinary mystery. It is our form not our essence that changes when we die. We never stop being a part of everything. I will feel my dad in the warmth of the sun and the peace of the woodland because there is essentially a part of us all that eternally resides there. Like the woodlands, our individual parts join to make a magical whole; the boundaries and labels that we assume in life quickly dissolve.

20 Responses to “The Family Tree”

  1. A lovely, touching post. But, even better, I’d had no idea this option existed anywhere. Soon as I finished reading I did a search to see if similar sites are available in the US – and they are! And well organized, too, if anyone wants to Google the info, there’s an easy-to-find national cooperative.

  2. I loved reading this lovely blog about departure. There are so many ways we can meet death as a friend, or as Alan Watts called it, ‘the next great adventure.’ It does seem as if your father had made that commitment.
    My mother lived far away from me and I would see her perhaps once a year until she became quite old. At a point where I was helping her move into assisted living, I got up my courage to ask her about her feelings and thoughts about death. Because she had no traditional religious upbringing, she often seemed oblivious to ‘what comes after.’ And, indeed, she said she looked forward to returning to the earth in the form of her ashes. We talked for a long time about death. It was one of the best conversations I had ever had with her. I was quite fearful of broaching the subject, for it felt as if I was treading on what might be unpleasant territory with her, but it was quite a special experience, and I’m so glad we could have that discussion that went far into the night.
    I am also reminded of a most wonderful Japanese movie ‘Departures’ (2008). It concerns the sacred ceremonies of traditional Japanese burial, and a man and his estranged father. I think you would love to see it if you have not already.

  3. Sorry to hear about your recent loss. This article was beautiful and informative. I have considered these things greatly and your closing sentiments reflect a truth I’ve found that help me be at peace with my own mortality.

  4. Thank you for a beautiful post. As I was reading it and your comments on the circle of life, I could not help but think of the hospice movement and the home birth movement. I speak as a son, a father, and a health care provider. I am a nurse practitioner. In modern society we are so separated from birth and death that they can become fearful. It doesn’t have to be that way. Witnessing both and being part of both can give us more meaning and peace.

  5. What a beautiful, moving post. Thank you, Maria. I planted an apple tree for my Mother when she passed over. . . . . that was 7 years ago now and to this day the tree is a growing source of inspiration, it has become a sacred place where I go to reflect and commune – her presence and love ever flowering through the cycles this sweet little tree embodies, although gone in body – never gone in spirit and the relationship goes on. Gorgeous stuff and so important to share.

  6. My parents died within a couple of years of each other – both had requested cremation but not really directed what they wanted us to do with their ashes. Eventually my brother and I took them to the woodland coppice beside the church where they were married. We knew immediately and instinctively that it was the right place and I often travel there to sit in the sunshine and think – it helps me and just feels complete. Thank you for such a thoughtful post – there really is something restorative for the spirit about woodland.

  7. Thank you for this. It is so healing. I recently lost my uncle, last of three brothers. Blessings, Dawn

  8. So sorry to hear about your father’s passing, Philip. I believe you lost your mother a few years back, did you not?

    My mother and father passed within a day of each other last year, on December 24 and 25. It was much easier on me because my family was estranged since they had shunned me for leaving the Christian church to follow a Druid path. But I have reconnected with my mother and have more of a relationship with her now than before her passing, and have had several encounters with my father, who is still working through some of the pain he took with him into the afterlife.

    How true it is that our essence continues on. As my mother continued to transition, I could feel a change in her presence. I knew there was a difference at a ceremony I attended last week where we released butterflies for all the Alzheimer’s patients who had passed this year, but I wasn’t sure how to describe it. Your eloquent eulogy expressed what I could not. She is no longer so much an individual as part of the whole. What a beautiful realization. Thank you so much.

    • Oops, missed that…so sorry Maria! (And Philip!) Your story had me engaged from the beginning…I completely missed the fact that it was a guest post!

  9. Sorry to hear of your loss and for sharing. My Mum died last year. Much love Chrisx

  10. Thank you everyone for your lovely comments. Rich mentioned the hospice and home birth movements; I do think that the manner in which we enter and leave this life, and the ceremonies we choose to honour those major life passages are so important in how we manage to deal and cope with those transitions. I think when we say goodbye to a loved one, we want that moment to have deep meaning and speak to our core selves about that person and the extraordinary mystery that life is. For me, the woodland burial seems to achieve this on so many levels. It’s a deeply personal choice but I highly recommend it. When my time comes, it is how I wish to go. Can’t think of anything nicer than being laid to rest amongst the trees. My love and thoughts go out to all of you who have lost folks. It is good to share these experiences – we are never alone in our loss, although it can feel like it at times. x

  11. I have just arrived back home after tending to my elderly father, who at 86, is still going strong — in spite of the grief I know he feels at the passing of my mother last spring. I am, therefore, reading this posting quite late.

    I do understand the sorrow of losing a parent, but I felt none of that as I followed Maria’s blog through to its end. I felt a sense of peace. I only wish I could have done this for my mother, but her beliefs were not mine. As my dad’s time approaches, I am grappling with how to handle his departure. He won’t give me any hints, either! Reading about this beautiful ceremony does give me thoughts about my own “next great adventure.” Thank you so much, Maria.

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