I took a trip to the beautiful Binning Wood in East Lothian the other day and spent some time at the Memorial Wood.
The natural burial site is a 10 acres of towering Beech trees that sits within the historic 300 acre Binning Wood, East Lothian.
The memorial wood is in a wonderful location and is such a peaceful place where one feels welcome to linger and contemplate, consider and spend time with those at rest. Dotted with small inscribed memorial stones amongst the leaves, which subtly mark the graves you can lose yourself in this labyrinth allowing time to slow down, letting your mind gently still and your heart to fill with remembrance. It was a shared experience for us today, a group of midwives remembering and paying respects to a midwifery colleague who chose to be buried at Binning.
Spending time at Binning Memorial Wood got me thinking about how we are all reviewing our carbon footprint in different ways as we go through life but what about in death. Considering the impact a funeral might have on the environment is something many people are beginning to do. This environmental impact isn’t just about reducing the processes and activities we use for funerals in a bid to make them greener but in choosing natural burial we are also contributing to preserving flora and fauna and ensuring the land has a positive future.
When the area at Binning is full it will revert to natural woodland but will always remain a memorial wood, protected and preserved. This is another way that those who choose a woodland burial can ensure their commitment to the environment continues long after they have died.
I was baptised. I find it hard to understand why or how this came about as my family were, and are, not religious in any way but I suppose it just came down to tradition. That was the 1960’s and by the time my own daughters were born it was something we didn’t even consider. We had family gatherings and parties instead. We celebrated. A blend of the traditional baptism and secular celebration is happening today in the form of naming ceremonies.
Naming ceremonies could be seen as the modern day version of christening or baptism. They can be carried out by a Registrar or Celebrant. Secular, family focussed and personalised, naming ceremonies are a celebration, a meaningful celebration which can have as much or as little tradition, culture and symbolism as the family want. The family are in control of the content and wording of the readings which are underpinned by the love, hope, wishes and promises for their child’s, or children’s, future. Friends may be asked to become a Sparent or Odd Parent and take on the role of supporting adult for the growing child. Celebrations such as this are a way of making an announcement or a statement of intent for the child but in a beautifully creative, relevant way that suits a wide range of families.
As a midwife I have been privileged to be present at the most amazing naming ceremonies. The birth. The ceremony of birth and the beautiful moments of a mother meeting her baby for the first time. Holding space for the parents to fall in love with their baby, begin their new relationships and give the baby a name.
When I facilitated ante natal classes we would discuss names and naming, I would ask everyone present to share their names, nicknames and a little of the story behind their name. It was a great ice breaker. We would discuss the fading traditions around naming. In regard to their own babies, most couples would have lists of names but some couldn’t agree. Some knew the sex of the baby and had already given he or she a name but didn’t want to share the name, some were happy to share and some even had the name tattooed. Saying that, sexing scans can be wrong. I, and many of my colleagues have been at births where the expected gender has been the opposite. No scans are 100% accurate. There are lots of things to consider when choosing a name but you’ll know if it’s right when you meet your baby. I had three names for a girl and one for a boy when my first daughter was born. My first words as I met her were ‘It’s Innes!!’
In Scotland you have 3 weeks from the date of birth to register the birth, so plenty time for choosing names. Just make sure the Registrar spells your chosen name correctly. My brother says his daughter Poppy almost ended up having Poopy on her birth certificate.
The Glasgow Film Festival hosted Rehana Rose’s documentary Dead Good Film last week and I went along with my daughter.
Motivated by a series of bereavements in her life Rose was moved to explore the world of funeral directors. She interviewed and spent time with many companies but only two agreed for filming to take place ‘behind the scenes’. The families, their experiences and the funerals were documented beautifully, and it was very thought provoking for me. I know I harp on about the parallels of the birth world and the death world but this film confirmed that connection even further.
The funeral directors she did document were very inspiring. Especially Arka. I loved their philosophy. They were so grounded, compassionate, empathic and they weren’t playing a role, it was their vocation, part of their identity. It was all so wonderfully simple, caring, beautiful and empowering. As Cara, from Arka says :
” I come from a world of empowering people and want to continue that in the funeral world’.
Yass!! That is midwifery talk. The staff at Arka work in partnership with, and facilitate choice for, families just as midwives do for childbearing women, their partners and their families. Arka are midwives. Death midwives.
Midwives and funeral directors have history
Search far enough back in history and you will find the local village handywoman or midwife performed laying out and childbearing services. As part of the evolution of midwifery, The Midwives Act 1902 prohibited the dual role but in 1907 it was amended allowing midwives to lay out after securing permission from the local supervising authority. This was thought to be due to demand from the bereaved townspeople and villagers. They were insistent that the washing of the dead be undertaken by someone known to them.
At that time it was the local joiner who became the ‘undertaker’. They had the tools, the space and the skills for coffin making. The handywoman would lay out the deceased and perform the last offices, attending to both the deceased and the bereaved. The undertaker would make the coffin and deliver it to the house where the deceased would rest in the front room or parlour until the funeral.
Here we are in 2019 and Rehana Rose’s film, and the discussion after, certainly highlighted to me all the varying needs the bereaved may have and more saliently, that this is important, must be recognised and at this time in families lives they may need the support of someone who is also an advocate.
To me, being an advocate is about honesty, information and respecting the right for people to be informed, have choices and make decisions. As midwives, funeral directors or celebrants we must appreciate that these rites of passage and rituals, whether it is birth or death, also need rites of protection. When you understand, believe and support the concept of informed choice, which is underpinned by human rights, you empower. With empowerment, even through grief, community, communication, companionship and human relationships can only be enhanced.