Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, soil to soil

“FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground;”

I’m a big fan of the Book of Common Prayer. Written in 1549 by Henry VIII’s Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, it served the Anglican Communion for the rest of the millennium and although it has been largely replaced by versions in modern English, its sonorous language remains part of our collective consciousness and never more so than when we say our final farewells.

“…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”

It was that arch-atheist Richard Dawkins who said, “A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian,” and he is not alone. In a Radio 4 programme about it, the writer James Runcie claimed, “You can’t understand English literature without the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible and Shakespeare”, and to this day, humanists are divided on whether or not to utter these phrases when saying the Words of Committal, although I’m pleased to see that Humanists UK offer that reading in their words for ashes ceremonies.

It was only when I heard Professor Brian Cox explain the origins of the universe that I realised that those ancient words are still relevant.

Our story is the story of the universe. Every piece of everyone you love, everyone you know, of the things you hold most precious; was assembled from the forces of nature in the first few minutes of the life of the universe, transformed in the hearts of stars or created in their fiery deaths. And, when you and I die, those pieces will be returned to the universe in the endless cycle of death and new birth. What a wonderful thing it is to be a part of that universe. What a story. What a majestic story.

I think that six centuries on from the Book of Common Prayer, it’s time to add another couplet; ‘Soil to Soil’.

In January of this year, New York became the sixth American state to make natural organic reduction legal. Pioneered in Washington by Katrina Spade, natural organic reduction – or ‘human composting’ as it’s also known – offers a way to regenerate the earth rather than damage it, and I hope that her inspirational idea comes to the UK soon.

I I was inspired by that passage from the Book of Common Prayer to write a series of essays. ‘Earth to Earth’ is about natural burial; ‘Ashes to Ashes’ tells the almost unbelievable story of how cremation became legal in the UK, ‘Dust to Dust’ is about what actually happens when a body is cremated, and ‘Soil to Soil’ is about vultures, Freddie Mercury and the unlikely marriage of science and magic.

I hope you enjoy them.

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