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Life and Death in the Landscape

On an area of moorland near to where I live is a Bronze Age cairn field. This is an area of land that has been cleared of stone so it could be cultivated. The stone was cleared into piles called cairns which then created a boundary around the fields. Within some of these cairns were buried burnt bones left from cremations. In similar cairn fields elsewhere the ashes and burnt bones were interred in urns and had grave goods buried with them. Pollen samples have been taken from some cairn fields which show they were used to grow cereal crops.


What strikes me about this is the close proximity of life and death. On the one hand, the stones have been cleared to make space to grow and to enclose the crops for food to sustain life. On the other, the very same stones are being used to bury the burnt bones and ashes of those that have passed on. Life and death reside side by side in the landscape. One is encircled by the other.


This is also the case in the landscape of our lives. The ripples of death often touch us even when it is distanced from us and not necessarily in our immediate circle of family and friends.

This illustration of the cairn field makes me think about the permanence of death. I wonder if the people farming the fields found comfort from the fact that their departed friends and relatives had been put to rest within the midst of their daily lives. This raises the question in me of whether our western culture expects us to move on too quickly, sometimes, from our experiences of grief. For practical reasons we don’t bury the ashes or bodies of our loved ones so close by, usually, to our day to day living. Although crematoriums and graveyards may be nearby, they are still completely separate from us, and lie within their own boundaries.

I think there is something we can take from contemplating the connection between life and death in the cairn fields. This unself-conscious and accepted presence of the deceased, right next to and encircling the activities that feed and sustain life is quite profound. Perhaps we don’t need to move away from our grief or the memories of our precious loved ones. Maybe we can be embraced by them in a way that enables us to treasure the memories and bring them fully with us into the future, to enhance it, rather than to detract from it.

These are just thoughts and ideas. I realise that losing a loved one can be extremely complex. Just maybe though, it is worth considering that we don’t have to ‘move on’ too quickly and that life can be lived within the presence of our most precious memories of the ones we love.