Honouring the Ancestors

by Fiona Ware

I work in a crematorium as an Admin Assistant, it’s a job I sort of fell into rather than a deliberate career choice. On paper my job is handling and processing the paperwork involved in burials, cremations and memorials. It is answering the phone, typing letters, and meeting the public, funeral directors, religious or other celebrants, and memorial masons. In reality it also involves counselling the bereaved, conducting family history searches, taking guided walks, and on occasion, actually helping families to arrange a funeral.

I am lucky to have all sorts of opportunities to help people Honour the Dead, both the recently deceased, and the Ancestors. Talking to people about their loved ones – something a lot of their friends and relatives are often uncomfortable doing - is perhaps the simplest thing I do. The advice given in the choice of a memorial and its wording is also a practical way I can help. Family history searches are a reconnection with the ancient ancestors, and it is very satisfying to find someone’s family and to send them personal details, and even photographs of the graves.

One part of my job which I find an enjoyable and useful way to help the community as a whole Honour the Ancestors, and one in which the role of Druid as teacher and facilitator is particularly suited, is the research and running of the Cemetery Heritage Walks.

As part of an Open Day several years ago our Park Ranger, volunteered to give short tours of the cemetery to keep people occupied whilst they were waiting to look around the crematorium itself. His half hour walk looking at natural history, unusual headstones and the graves of local personalities, was very popular. So much so, that it was expanded and added to the Ranger’s regular walks, as a joint venture between the Ranger and Bereavement Services.

About five years ago I was asked to take over as our representative. The aim of the walk is really, first and foremost, a means of entertaining people, whilst also being educational and informative. When I began taking them, I felt that there was a lot more that could be done. Through research I added more historical context about the development of the cemetery, and more details about the individuals whose grave’s we visited, and the period in which they lived

I felt that it wasn’t enough to merely remark on the deceased like they were museum exhibits; I wanted to bring them to life for a short while and let the people on the walk see a little of the living person. I tried hard to find photographs of the deceased, or, if that was not possible, their work – their paintings, the buildings or steam locomotives they designed for example – or other images related to them or their life.

By the end of the walk I hope that people feel that they know more about their place in the historical and physical landscape of the town and its immediate environment. That they have a sense of having roots in the past.  I would like them to feel that we have commemorated the lives of the ancestors, rather than just recorded them. I hope that they carry away with them an appreciation of those people who have gone before; and that can sense their own position in the long line of humanity. I like to think that the walk leads them to think of their own mortality, in a life asserting and positive way.

The Victorian municipal cemeteries, as well as being primarily a means of coping with growth of urban living –or dying- were designed to be places that were morally uplifting and educational. Great attention was paid to the landscaping and architecture, and to the positioning of memorials. The paths and vistas were places where people were encouraged to exercise both the body and the mind.

As a means of connecting with the ancestors and honouring the dead a visit to a cemetery or a graveyard can be very powerful. There is a practice in Buddhism which involves meditating on your mortality by spending a night in a burial ground, but I don’t think it is necessary to go so far, even a short visit can be illuminating.

Just strolling round the headstones, and reading the names of the countless strangers who were once as warm and vital as you can be a form of meditation. Researching the story of a stranger, or one of your family members buried there - even if it just means bringing out the old photos not looked at for years, is a way to honouring them. If you have a ‘Friends of the Cemetery’ group, volunteering with them to clean headstones or tidy the grounds can be a means of connecting to your roots, of re-establishing your links to the generations who have gone before.

Of course visiting a burial ground inevitably brings thoughts of your own mortality. If you have never thought of the practical side of the step into the Otherworld this may be your opportunity. Seriously contemplate what you would like to happen to your body after you’ve moved on. Maybe a big cemetery is not for you, would you prefer a woodland burial?  To be cremated, and scattered to the four winds? Whatever it is, make plans now, even if it is just a short note with your preferences jotted down and left where your family can find it. They will bless you for it!