Back in my youth I often fired-off letters to my MPs, voicing my opinions about various things ranging from animal welfare to legislation that seemed, to me, out-of-step with modern times. Back in those pre-email days this always resulted in hand-signed responses on nice letter-heading, but rarely with satisfactory content due mainly to my living in Conservative constituencies where the MPs’ views were usually contrary to my own. Pictured is a reply from Douglas Hogg, then in the Home Office, that came via my MP, telling me what I already knew about marriage legislation. Happily, another Conservative MP, Gyles Brandreth, managed to get the legislation changed and since then people have had more choice than the previous purely binary one of religious or non-religious ceremonies in a church or registry office, a choice that was often abused by the non-religious wanting a marriage in an attractive setting, I felt (despite not being a religious person myself; it just felt a bit disrespectful).
Similarly, these days there are now a number of options for legally dealing with the dead, both in keeping with religious beliefs and those based on other considerations. These include traditional burial, cremation, green/woodland/natural burials, home burial, body donation, sea burial, mummification, and a number of procedures using new technology such as bio-cremation, cryomation, promession and cryonic preservation. Variety of options available is, I think, a good thing, as it reflects the diversity in society. It also puts me in mind of the Neolithic period during which, the archaeological record shows, bodies were disposed of in a number of places, such as barrows and tombs, causewayed enclosures, flint mines and caves, and different burial practices were taking place including individual and group burials, excarnation, diarticulation, cremation, perhaps cannibalism, and the inclusion or omission of grave goods.
The one-off long barrow columbarium at All Cannings in Wiltshire, built two years ago, and the recently built round barrow, Willow Row in Cambridgeshire, constructed by a company, Sacred Stones Ltd, which is planning to build more of these, are interesting developments. In our increasingly irreligious society it is understandable that people may seek a more fitting send-off in keeping with their personal beliefs, feelings and interests. With my archaeologist’s hat on, my first thought in both cases was, “Cool! A prehistoric barrow!” I mean, what better place for someone immersed in the study of prehistoric mortuary practice to sign-up for? Nice location, has an ancient ‘feel’ – and All Cannings is even aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. Perfect! Or is it? It probably depends on what the point of body disposal is. Is it for the deceased or for those left behind? Or connected to those previously deceased? Arguably, it is about providing an appropriate, respectful ceremonial send-off that is also comforting to the bereaved and provides an ongoing link between them and the deceased. In prehistory mortuary practice has been interpreted multifactorially: as providing the living with ongoing links and access to their ancestors, but also as a means of expressing ownership and continuity, and providing markers and ritual foci in the landscape.
Several thousand years on, we clearly live in different times and it’s probably fair to say that we have different concerns with increasingly less in the way of belief binding us together than might have been the case in prehistoric times, although, of course, we can’t know that. Toby Angel, co-director of Willow Row, describes it as “a secular space full of faith” and, although I haven’t visited the barrow, looking at the press coverage and photographs, I can understand how its design and location may be particularly conducive to peace and reflection. Physically, then, it seems to tick quite a few boxes as a special place of rest and remembrance and, (a little) like the wedding example, for some people this will be the overriding concern. However, for others I wonder if the significance of a locality would be more important? To keep your ancestors within the place or community in which they lived rather than in a nice location with no deeper meaning?The barrows of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, be they long, round or oval, are appreciated by many for their antiquity and their mystery. Their continued presence in our landscape today links us back through time with the people who built them and inhabited these isles thousands of years ago, and equally with those in the intervening years – including us, today – who have continued to use them for their own reasons, shared folklore about them, and encountered them in the landscape. Some would say that the barrows at All Cannings and Willow Row are a noble endeavour in that they provide a beautiful option within the suite of choices available and that they tap into a desire by some to feel more at one with the landscape in the way it is perceived that people seemed to in simpler, past times. However, others would argue that they are in the realm of the theme park, stylistically pleasing but inauthentic.
When it comes down to it, particularly for something as important and emotive as this, it can, of course, only be about personal choice. Now that my initial excitement at the creation of these modern-day monuments has passed, my personal view is that barrows are of their time, not ours, and I wonder whether it would be better to design something that meets the needs of those of us seeking “a secular space full of faith” that is different but of our time?