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Fri 26 April 2019
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Andy Warhol was fond of telling his friends that people don’t die, ‘they just go to Bloomingdales’. For most of us in the so-called developed world, death is rarely confronted head-on. At best, it’s ‘the rumble of distant thunder at a picnic’, as W.H. Auden described it; something we love to torment ourselves with, in our reading or our box-set addictions, but not in connection to ourselves and our loved ones.

Almost two-thirds of adults in the UK haven’t made a will. Apart from family or close friends, the people we know who die just disappear from our lives and only return to haunt us in occasional glimpses: a shared story or a stray photograph.

This collective avoidance of death is probably the unintended consequence of improved healthcare and longer life expectancy.

This collective avoidance of death is probably the unintended consequence of improved healthcare and longer life expectancy. Many of us don’t see a dead body until we are adults. The practice of preparing the dead for burial has passed out of the domestic sphere and into the hands of professionals. This now seems normal but there is a niggling sense of having lost something important in the process.

It turns out that the connection between death and domesticity stretches right back to the beginning of human settlement.

Six thousand years ago, the early Neolithic long barrows were built on the same alignment and on the same sized footprint as the communal wooden longhouses in which people lived. The precise function of these ‘houses of the dead’ is impossible to know but they were more than ‘tombs’ for individuals. Bones from different people from generations as much as 1,500 years apart were mingled together. Our best guess is that they were ritual spaces, a place where bones were deposited and withdrawn and where the living and the dead could commune.

Even in Britain, where more than 75% of us choose cremation, we’re busy improvising ash-scattering rituals to balance the municipal anonymity of the process


The Long Barrow at All Cannings [4]
The barrow looking north.
Built in 2014, in traditional style, the long barrow at All Cannings is a place for cremated remains in urns to be kept. © Copyright Michael Dibb and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

This engagement with the dead on a physical level is still practised in some cultures. In the central uplands of Madagascar, the ritual known as Famidahana or the ‘turning of the bones’ takes place every seven years and involves families digging up the bodies of their ancestors, re-wrapping them in silk shrouds and dancing with them before re-interring the corpses.

The Catholic church has learned to live with Famidahna, much as it has in the colourful and elaborate celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Both customs have a dual purpose: honouring the ancestors and celebrating the colour and vibrancy of life.

In 2014, the first long barrow built in the UK in more than 5 millennia opened for business in All Cannings, Wiltshire

Even in Britain, where more than 75% of us choose cremation, we’re busy improvising ash-scattering rituals to balance the municipal anonymity of the process.

In 2014, the first long barrow built in the UK in more than 5 millennia opened for business in All Cannings, Wiltshire. Aligned with sunrise on the winter solstice, it contains 1,000 niches for urns filled with the ashes of the dead: all are currently reserved.

It points to the inescapable conclusion: death matters. Because as Saul Bellow reminded us, ‘it is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything’.

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and the co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of QI

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