Behind the Scenes at Sacred Stones 1

Deep in the Cambridgeshire countryside, an idyllic spot hosts the Willow Row round barrow. Built by Sacred Stones, the earth-covered stone chamber is a stunning tribute to the beauty of our prehistoric burial practices …

Scattered across Britain, the original barrows belong to the oldest surviving architectural tradition in England. These atmospheric stone and earth burial mounds were used over thousands of years by our ancestors, guarding the remains of men, women and children and playing host to important ceremonies.

More than 150 long barrows survive to this day – often visited, but no longer playing the same vital role in local communities. Yet with the help of a company called Sacred Stones, that is changing, as the team build the first new barrows in the UK for thousands of years.

Tucked away in secluded rural locations, Sacred Stones’ beautiful contemporary barrows offer modern families the opportunity to take part in an ancient tradition – and make it their own.

“A calm and natural environment to commune, memorialise, educate and celebrate life.”

Images of  Willow Row Barrow Founded in 2014, Sacred Stones began when build directors Martin Fildes and Geraint Davies created the first long barrow at the All Cannings site, as a private commission from farmer and Stonehenge steward Tim Daw.

Inspired by the amazing response to the All Cannings long barrow from the public, and by the sheer contrast to their collective “impersonal, brief” experiences of services held by crematoria, Martin launched the business with Toby Angel, Mark Davis and Geraint that year.

The second barrow, near St Neots in Cambridgeshire, was completed in 2016. A third location in Shropshire is under construction this year, and a fourth is expected to be announced very soon.

A Sacred Stones Long Barrow“We wanted simply to provide the community with an alternative, secular, space,” says Toby, who is managing director at Sacred Stones.

Rather than the usual experience at a crematorium, which is, Toby explains, often characterised by queues and awkward meetings in the car park, the barrow is “not just a space that acts as a physical repository for ashes, but also one that provides a calm and natural environment to commune, memorialise, educate and ultimately (and this is our goal) celebrate life.

“We’ve created a space with a historic angle, but really it’s an environment that helps express an innate desire in human beings, and that’s the need to be together and to share.”

“Entirely flexible. Without prescription.”

Ceremony at A Sacred Stones Long BarrowThe Sacred Stones barrows are similar in look and feel to their original counterparts. Like the Neolithic barrows, they combine inner chambers for the interment of remains (in this case, ashes) with an outdoor space for ceremonies. The look and feel are both very natural, with each barrow blending in seamlessly with the landscape. Inside the chambers, niches for urns are lit by small votive candles.

Despite the traditional form of the Sacred Stones barrows, the company’s outlook on how the space should be used is very open.

“Our approach is entirely flexible. Without prescription. We facilitate and assist,” Toby explains, adding that families are free to book the venue for a service without any time constraints or any rules or expectations for the structure of the funeral service.

“Family involvement – so, crafting and creating your own service, ceremony, experience, or ritual – that empowerment is relatively new, and is undoubtedly welcome. People love it.”

Custom urn nichesPlaques and covers for the urn niches are completely custom, with many choosing carvings personal to the departed. The Flying Scotsman appears on one engineer’s niche, which his grandchildren visit every month.

The Sacred Stones team in the past have served mulled wine and set up fire baskets to keep guests warm at a service. Families are free to hold very formal funerals, or relaxed gatherings. As Toby says, “all we do is ‘empower’ families to choose for themselves.

“[You can] host funerals at a barrow with or without a coffin. Host memorial events informally or be as formal as you wish, with or without a celebrant or faith leader. Bring a brass-band, or a mobile fish and chip van. It’s not our service, it’s the family’s. We simply facilitate.”

“It gives a sense of belonging, ownership, connection.”

In fact, Toby and the team have been surprised – and inspired – by the way families and local communities have made the sites their own.

Willow Row Barrow, CambridgeshireThe site at Shropshire has inspired paintings by a local artist, who has created a kind of barrow-nymph, a small figure who appears in every piece. A poet has begun composing poetry about the barrows. And, interestingly, families often arrive at the barrows in progress to assist with the build – just as the local community once would have banded together to create the original barrows.

“It gives a sense of belonging, ownership, connection and a sense of permanence,” Toby says. “To prepare for a funeral – physically, mentally and spiritually – is a very healthy thing to do, I think, and I guess that’s what being part of the build process has done for the folk who’ve chosen to do it. It has been extraordinary.”

So, what’s next for Sacred Stones? Toby says that 10 new sites are in the works in the UK, while two others are being considered in the US. The team are building relationships with celebrants, death doulas and others in the industry who share their belief in a more open, personal and flexible approach. But, Toby says, what happens to the barrows is really up to local communities:

“Building a barrow is very exciting, but once we’ve finished it’s rather melancholy, because we have to let go and give it to the community. While we are still guardians of the site, we’re essentially giving it to them. The community will determine how they will use it – and how their children and grandchildren will use it, as well.”


Want to find out more about Sacred Stones’ work? You can visit their website at http://www.sacredstones.co.uk, or visit one of the sites on an open day. The next is on Sunday 19th August, at the Willow Row site in Cambridgeshire.

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Meet the Maker: Cremation Glass Jewellery 0

Glassmaker Kenny Scott of Ash Glass Design.

Pendant with flecks and swirls in the glass made from the ashes of someone who has died

What do you see when you look at this pendant? To the untrained eye, it might look like … a pendant. But to those in the know, it’s something unusual, and completely unique: those flecks and swirls in the glass are made from the ashes of someone who has died.

In fact, the necklace is just one item in a range of mourning jewellery and sculpture created by glassmaker Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass Design. Based in the picturesque village of Clovenfords in the Scottish Borders, Kenny and co. craft bespoke cremation glass jewellery for families who want a subtle way to carry their loved one’s ashes with them.

So, how does one become a cremation glassmaker, exactly, and how is cremation glass actually made? To find out more about this relatively new answer to the question of what to do with ashes, we had a chat with Kenny …

 

How did Ash Glass Design get started?

Kenny Scott and his team at Ash Glass DesignKenny began his career at the tender age of 16, leaving school to take on a five-year apprenticeship in making glass from scratch. 20 years later, he was creating glasswork for museums and clients when he received an unusual request:

“One of my friends who’s a funeral director approached me and asked if I would make a memorial pendant for someone using ashes”, Kenny told Beyond. While at first Kenny wasn’t sure (he describes it as “a wee bit of a Marmite moment”) the family was so pleased with the result that he immediately realised that he wanted to do it again.

“After I made the pendant and met the family, it was the best feeling I’ve ever had when making something for someone”, Kenny explained. “They were so happy, and it’s such a precious thing that you’re making for them, that I thought, ‘Oh, I really like doing this.’

“Basically, that was it: I put a wee range together, and from there it’s kind of grown. I love doing it.”

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

Why do people like cremation jewellery?

CreAsh Glass Design's cremation glass mourning ringmation jewellery isn’t for everyone ­– but while some find the concept morbid, others like the idea of keeping a loved one close in a subtle way. “I speak to all the customers, and I think for them the nicest thing is the fact that they can have their loved one with them all the time, and it’s not in your face. It doesn’t have a big sign saying what it is – it’s just a lovely piece of jewellery”, Kenny said.

“Nobody would know what it was other than them, and I think that’s the beauty of it. Everybody says that they get so much comfort out of having it.”

In Ash Glass Design’s range, rings are the most popular option: “Somebody said to me, it’s like they’re still holding my hand.

“We do lots for weddings as well, my goodness. For somebody who has maybe lost a parent, it’s like [their loved one] can be there on their wedding day. It’s a lovely way to have them with you.”

“There’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt.”

How is cremation glass jewellery made?

Making cremation jewelleryThe process of making cremation glass jewellery is long and somewhat delicate, with great care taken to make sure the right ashes (“labelled, bagged, boxed, bagged again”, Kenny reports) are used.

At Ash Glass Design, everything is made in-house. After a discussion with the family about the design, Kenny melts their required colour of glass to make a base. He then carefully adds the ashes before sealing it over with clear glass to make a perfect finished surface.

After some time spent in the kiln – it takes a day and a half to gradually cool the hot glass down – the glass is polished down with diamond tools and set into the gold or silver using a traditional technique. Any ashes left over are returned to the family along with the finished piece.

“You have to know the procedures for cooling glass down, how to heat it up, how compatible it is with other materials, so it’s quite a wee science on its own,” Kenny said, adding that “there’s always something you want to try and create differently and try and adapt. You’re always making new designs as well, to stretch the boundaries a bit.”

“I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them”

Do you take requests?

Because Ash Glass Design is a small company (Kenny, his wife Emma and “amazing” goldsmith Joanna) the team are able to take requests to make each piece of glass unique: “If somebody wants a bespoke colour in their jewellery, we never charge any extra … We do what we can to help folk get what they want. If [a customer] wants something to be adapted somehow, then we look into it for them”, Kenny explained.

“Sometimes it’s not as feasible as they might think initially, but we can talk them through it, and find the best option for them.”

Customers appreciate this personal service: “I still get phone calls three or four months down the road from some of my customers saying how happy they are, and what it means to them. Even a couple of years down the road, we still get them phoning back, asking how we are. It’s lovely.”


Want to find out more about Ash Glass Design? Check out their website, www.ashglassdesign.co.uk, give the team a ring on 01896 850447, or contact Kenny at [email protected]


About mourning jewellery …

A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold.
A Victorian mourning ring with hair sealed into the gold. Image by Charles J Sharp, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning jewellery dates back as far as the 1600s, when stern memento mori-themed rings (‘remember that you must die’) were gradually overtaken by more personal tokens of grief. Examples from the British Museum demonstrate how gruff messages like “learn to dye” were replaced by kinder tributes, such as “not lost but gone before” and “not dead but sleepeth”.

At its peak in the Victorian era, mourning jewellery was worn as part of a strict dress code for the bereaved. Mourning rings were joined by broaches and lockets, and were often made with jet (a precious stone that, being black, was thought to be mourning period-appropriate). Many contained a lock of the hair from the person who had died, or a miniature portrait.

Popularity eventually declined as life expectancy increased – by World War One, mourning jewellery was out of vogue. But the desire shared by bereaved families for physical mementos of their loved ones never really went away.

Now, the rise in cremation – 70% of people in the UK choose it over burial – and increasing openness about death are leading to a rise in interest, with companies like Ash Glass Design offering a more contemporary take.

Meet Basil, the UK’s First Funeral Therapy Dog 0

Basil the Beagle, a funeral therapy dog

What makes someone a good fit for bereavement care? Kindness, attentiveness, a lovely glossy coat …

Basil, who puts in his hours in at Clive Pugh Funeral Directors in Abbey Foregate, Shrewsbury, might tell you it’s all three – if he could talk. Basil is, after all, a dog.

In fact, the gentle and unassuming beagle is quite possibly the UK’s first ever funeral therapy dog, working with Clive and Rosalinda Pugh to offer comfort and support to bereaved families.

“People love him because it feels as though they’re coming into a home, as opposed to funeral premises.” Rosalinda told Beyond when we caught up with her recently.

“We hope it’s something that gives a bit of relief to people, even for a very short space of time, when they come to us to arrange the funeral of their loved one.”

Basil the Beagle, a funeral therapy dogOffering paws for thought …

Basil joined the family business in 2016, at the tender age of six. Clive and Rosalinda’s daughter had taken care of Basil since he was a puppy, but she was finding it difficult to give Basil the long walks he loves after having their first grandchild. Clive and Rosalinda were happy to step in.

“With Clive and I both working full time in the business, I said now that Basil is going to live with us, we will have to give him a role.” Rosalinda explained.

“I knew that therapy dogs went into nursing homes and hospitals and I thought that Basil would be perfect in a similar role with us because he’s just such an adorable beagle – so calm and loving.”

Once Rosalinda and Clive started giving families the opportunity to spend time with Basil, they found that he was a perfect fit:

“He started coming to work with us every day, and we let people decide as to whether they wanted him there or not. And it’s just gone from there.”

“We have found that the majority of families are really pleased to have him around, to the extent that we had a funeral recently where the family wanted him to lead the coffin into church. They were thrilled that he was able to be there. I’ve been amazed at the response.”

“We often get letters and cards from families asking us to say hello to Basil or thank him for being there.”

Giving families a hound

Picture supplied by Richard Dawson/Bav Media

What’s the secret to Basil’s success? Recent studies have shown that support animals really do make a difference to the way we feel, lowering blood pressure and releasing mood-boosting hormones.

One study by Goldsmiths University indicated that dogs in particular are compelled to comfort people they think are in distress, and will even approach and nuzzle strangers who are crying in an effort to soothe them.

In a funeral home, this instinct to help can make a real difference to the bereaved. “Basil provides families with unconditional love and support, as well as a subtle distraction from grief,” Rosalinda told Beyond.

“If you’ve ever had an awkward family reunion, you might know that a dog, even then, can brighten up the mood and give people something a little bit light-hearted to talk about. That effect is immediately helpful when you’re arranging a funeral, because people are anxious when they come to see a funeral director. They’re not sure what to expect, and I think Basil just takes a little bit of that stress away.”

“Sometimes people are nervous of going into our Chapel of Rest, but if they have Basil with them, it seems to alleviate that feeling.”

Every dog has his day

It’s not just bereaved families who love Basil – he’s now something of a celebrity. So far, Basil has been featured in a number of national and international newspapers, including The Times, The Express, The Independent, Metro News and even Paris Match. He’s also made an appearance on ITV’s This Morning, where Clive, Rosalinda and Basil were interviewed by Davina McCall and Ore Oduba of Strictly fame.

So, has Basil let all the fame go to his head? Rosalinda says not: “We’re not letting any diva behaviour become evident, if we can help it. Definitely not. But beagles are such loving, affectionate dogs; I think that you can’t go wrong, really.”

“We’ve seen an incredible response. It’s been quite amazing. You have to wonder why somebody didn’t do it a long time ago.”

Want to find out more about Clive Pugh funeral directors, home to the lovely Basil? Check out their profile here on Beyond.