I had no idea about burials laws until coming across Wendii Miller, a Cambridge graduate, who carried out her own DIY burial for her 98-year-old mother Doris, even digging the grave after collecting her corpse from Grimsby Hospital mortuary and driving her mother's remains back to a burial site outside Harrogate.
Wendii, who drove her mother's body in the back of a camper van for her friends to say a final farewell, recorded this extraordinary video of the burial and what led up up to it.
I asked Wendii, a friend of a friend who teaches English to overseas professionals in Cambridge and advises on diets, to describe what happened. She has also been asked to speak about her experiences at the Six Feet Under Convention which is being held in Bournemouth in September and explores issues around burials, including the life of an embalmer, the commercialistion of burials and offers a guided tour around a cemetery.
Wendii quips: "DEAD EASY might be the title for my talk in Bournemouth. I thought it a bit grim but The Natural Death Centre lady thought it great so I might go with it."
The Natural Death Centre describes the legal situation regarding natural DIY burials on its website. It says:
Arranging and conducting a funeral without employing a funeral director is something that only a few families undertake, but those who have done so are invariably surprised by how easy and straightforward it was. If this is something that you are considering, we suggest that you contact the Natural Death Centre for free advice and guidance.
Wendii's story about burying her mother:
There is no legal requirement to use the services of a funeral director, but many families find the prospect of organising a funeral entirely without support from an undertaker very daunting, not least from a practical point of view.
Where do I begin? Well, I think in the middle... for that takes me into the Registrar of Deaths Office... which is where I inevitably had to go as soon as mother died. Time of death, place of death, occupation, her husband's occupation... I answered the questions numbly, trying to remember what dad had done and what his middle name had been. Easy enough at any other time, but in this state of grief it was so, so hard to focus on form-filling. But eventually it was done, and the green burial certificate was handed to me.
Perhaps I ought to mention that the registrar and I hadn't exactly hit it off. Possibly it was the smell of rebellion in her nostrils. She'd had an apoplectic fit as I entered her office because I'd photocopied my mother's medical death certificate. "Why do you want a photocopy?" she'd snapped.
Personally, I think it's fairly obvious why one wants a photocopy and it goes along the lines of... I want a photocopy because I want a photocopy. Simple!
But back to that bit of green paper."You give this to the undertaker," the lady registrar informed me firmly. And with my reply I was about to wave a red rag at a bull;
"I don't have an undertaker," I said.
She'd already reduced me to tears, and I had a feeling my misery was about to deepen. I need to describe the next few seconds in great detail or you will never understand what it was like in that office, dealing with officialdom. The registrar started to puff up, redden further, and little shivers, or convulsions, rippled through her plump body. I'd only ever seen anything like it in cartoons. Eventually, through gritted teeth, and out of a mouth contorted with utter indignation and, I think, genuine bewilderment, she hissed, "Who else are you going to give it to then?"
Flustered, I turned the green form over to scan the gobbledegook on the back. "I'm sure it says who to give it to, here, somewhere," I mumbled, scouring the words. She just stared at me. I got more flustered and started reading bits out to myself, trying to understand the section this, subsection that stuff that danced through the tears at me. The registrar said nothing, just kept staring. "I think it says to give it to the landowner," I told her. "It does, really, but I can't understand this, can't find it..."
I looked up at her, but she just kept glaring, offering no help, no information, nothing. Obviously, under the oppressive stare, and with the clock ticking towards her next appointment, I had to give up. I put my bit of green paper away in my pocket. She still said nothing, which if you think about it is truly amazing; a public official, dealing with a daughter grieving for her mother, has NO information to offer on this subject? Except of course... to give it to an undertaker.
Unfortunately for her it is NOT TRUE that you have to give it to an undertaker, but her knowledge seemed to stop at that point. For her it was "Beyond here be dragons," and she'd never gone that way before, so she had nothing to say to me. Well, that's not true, she did try to flog me some Certified Death Certificates which I didn't want. Instead, I asked for a plain photocopy of mother's death certificate which I had just signed in her office, but she flatly refused that request. Bloody hell, everybody from car hire to your mortgage company will give you a copy of something you sign... but not this registrar.
"No you CANNOT have a copy of what you sign," she told me.
"But you can BUY a certified copy," she smirked.
"I don't want a certified copy," I told her.
"But you can't do anything with an uncertified copy," she spat.
"I don't want to do anything with it," I sighed. "It's just for my records, so I know what I've signed."
"Well, you can't have a photocopy," she reiterated, exasperated. "But if you don't BUY certified copies NOW we'll charge you MORE later," she warned. Boy, was she doing the hard sell. But I didn't buy any. And I've never needed any. If anybody, like the pension office of bank, asked for certified death certificates I told them they could buy one, for themselves, from the Registry Office... but they'd better hurry as the sale price obviously didn't last long.
I think at this point I sort of gave up with the system. This was supposed to be about my mother, Doris, a lady of 98 years, who had died after a long illness. But NOTHING from the moment she died had been about her- it had been about raised eyebrows and being given misinformation and being pushed where mother and I didn't want to go.
Dying, disconnecting the drip and oxygen, well, that had been easy compared to this. I left that office still in tears, and shaken, and confused. It took a call to a chap I know who is an expert on burial law to reassure me I was in the right and the registrar was in the wrong. So, gripping my bit of hard won green paper I went to collect mother.
From then on it was real easy, and a delight. The delight grew as the mortuary man wheeled Ma out into the car park for me and slid her into the camper. "Wanted a natural burial meself," he told me, "but the folk there won't dig me in with me football kit on, it's synthetic, you see," he sighed. So up the chimney stack it'll go, polyester and all.
Three days I drove ma around. She went to the beach, and saw her friends, and sat on hilltops gazing at the view. She was a corpse of course, and hard as a brick (rigor mortis, I guess), but the view was really for ME. She was dead, and those last years of suffering were over, for her, but not for me. I was beginning a process of grieving, and accepting, and driving ma around was brilliant. I wish I'd taken her to a lot more places.
There's nothing wrong with having a corpse in the car or van, they don't smell or leak or rot, well, not for quite a while, particularly in our chilly climate. My only problem was I'd laid her under a swathe of flowers on the floor, and had to step over her to get to the bathroom. I couldn't help saying "excuse me, ma, but do shift your foot."
Digging her into the field, when I got her 'oop north,' was exceedingly hard work, and I sneakily got a bit of muscle to shift most of the rock we hit. Didn't do it ALL meself, you see! You'll see on the video I'd cocooned her in a natural cotton sheet and sort of slithered her down into the grave, where she lay at the bottom like a chrysalis. Made me feel good, like she might hatch into a butterfly on some other world, in some other time. Then all the soil went back in, and I learnt how to make lovely mud pies to get the turf to stick back on top like it had never been disturbed. Finally, wheelbarrow in hand, I left ma to it, and wheeled the tools of the trade out of that field, over the tufty grass.
Why did I do it myself? Why so alone? Well, with no close relatives who needs a tombstone that'll stand forgotten in some derelict graveyard. When I die, who'll visit? No, we wanted a natural end, a return to the land, a recycling, in some sort of harmony with nature. Not everyone's cup of tea. But we should all be aware we have the choice... and it is the misinformation that the authorities dole out that, all too often, removes that choice.
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