It was a bad start; my father abandoned the family when I was ten and poverty allied to physical abuse from a step-father saw me fail the eleven plus and leave school with no qualifications. I got a job as a horticultural trainee at Shrewsbury Cemetery at the age of 14 years 11 months, and started work on my 15th birthday. It was all uphill from then on, except for the barn owls; I destroyed those!
As a junior member of the chemical spraying team, I sprayed noxious American chemicals over the grass and wildflowers in the old part of the cemetery, which had been previously scythed by old men. It was all the rage, chemical control, in 1961. Then, we routinely mowed the grass and the wildflowers disappeared, as did the voles, and, with no prey, we saw off the barn owls. Nobody noticed, not least me, and this happened all over the UK. Barn owls left the towns and hunkered down in marginal farms.
Unlike the owls, I flourished at Shrewsbury, moving from the plant nursery to become the sexton, which meant meeting the burials every day and supervising services. I moved to the crematorium as a cremator operator, then into the office and, finally, I was promoted to Deputy Superintendent & Registrar. I married Ann rather quickly because the boss offered
me a vacant cemetery lodge, with the proviso that I had to move in within a month. Upset at how local government reorganisation impacted on me, I moved on as deputy manager at Sheffield in 1971, then Superintendent & Registrar at Wolverhampton in 1974 and Bereavement Services Manager at Carlisle in 1983. There, aware of my destructive past, I introduced conservation management (reduced mowing) and created 20 beautiful acres of wildflowers on neglected Victorian graves; the owls returned. Local people saw and appreciated this, and some asked if they could be buried in the conservation areas. I realised we needed an environmental burial option, so I invented natural burial, which the council supported.
In 1993 we opened the world’s first natural burial site and green funerals were born. Then cardboard coffins arrived, the ‘Brighton Casket’, a big shoebox, and then the much better ‘Compakta’, the first eco coffins. I introduced a re-usable coffin for cremation and even promoted the DIY or home funeral, without using a funeral director. Funeral services relaxed as the staid, Churchillian funeral disappeared and a new funeral culture emerged in which secular funeral celebrants also prospered.
I learnt a tremendous amount over this, often, stressful period. It lead to me proposing, and then writing, the Charter for the Bereaved on behalf of the Institute of Cemetery & Crematorium Management (ICCM). That set the first social and environmental standards for cemeteries and crematoria in the world and perhaps it was that which resulted in my MBE. After retirement, I wrote ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’ in 2010 and was awarded an Honorary MA by Durham University in 2013. My CV gives a detailed view of my work career, if you are interested.
Life was not all work. Ann and I moved to Sheffield aware that beautiful Derbyshire was on the doorstep. What a joy; hillwalking, climbing and even a little caving and potholing were our leisure. Wolverhampton saw me take up running to relax and Ann extended her nursing with two years training as a midwife. We moved to Carlisle because it gave access to our beloved Lake District, and my diaries often refer to it as paradise. Fell running was the elixir and I won many races there and around the UK. My peak was probably 1986 when I won the Stretton Skyline Race and my record still holds in 2013. We both continue to run 24 miles a week, two pensioners dodging the mobility scooters along the Dorset coast near Christchurch.
As R.I.P. Off! mentions, I have my grave waiting for me in the natural burial plot at Carlisle. It accords with how a reporter on the Manchester Guardian summed me up; a man who puts his body where his mouth is!