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.”

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.”

The 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.”

Plaques 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.

The 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, 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 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.

Featured Funeral Director: Fosters Funeral Directors 0

Fosters Funeral Directors

We’re venturing north of the border for this month’s Featured Funeral Director! Stay with us as we talk bagpipes and scone bribery with Tony Foster, founder of Fosters Funeral Directors.

With branches in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Ayrshire, Falkirk, Dundee and Aberdeen, Fosters Funeral Directors is a swiftly-growing independent funeral directors based in Scotland. Founded by Tony Foster in the early 2000s, it’s a business with a decidedly warm and friendly vibe – so we had no problem stealing some of Tony’s lunch break to find out more about what makes Fosters special.

Tony Foster from Fosters Funeral DirectorsSo, Tony, you’re the founder of Fosters Funeral Directors. Can you tell us how you got started?

I got started due to a friend of mine who used to be a funeral director and wanted to get back into the industry. Believe it or not, I had a car accessory shop at the time, but (it being the early 2000s) a lot of people were coming into our shop, then turning around and buying online. But because it was the first-ever premises I’d had after I started working for myself when I left school, I didn’t want to let it go.

So, when [my friend] came to me … I said, “I tell you what, why don’t we change the showroom into a funeral parlour, and I’ll fund it for you?” So, that’s what I did.

How would you describe your way of doing things at Fosters? What makes you different?

I’d describe us as modern. Very modern, and forward thinking.

We’ve always been about trying to add value through great service at a low cost … and by marketing that, we are able to cut down on our resources, which rolls out into the client having better value for money. And we are very much about trying to celebrate life.

I’d like to think we provide more in terms of service than anything else. When I’ve organised funerals, people have asked about organising the craziest of wee things. And the answer’s always been yes: just tell me what you need, and we’ll sort it. Anything’s possible.

You also have a bag-piper …

Tom, he’s our resident piper. He’s not got particularly great legs. I’ve got better legs.

Is that necessary for the whole kilt thing?

Ah, yes. He’s got the kilt on, and all the rest of the stuff. And he is a true Scotsman, but we’ll not go into that … it’s very popular. I think it’s fair to say that he’s pretty much playing every other day. They’re that kind of shiver up your spine, aren’t they? When you’re at a funeral and the piper’s playing in front of the hearse, it’s a pretty special moment, you know?

Earlier, you mentioned crazy things: what’s the most memorable funeral you’ve arranged, and what was the craziest?The service chapel at Fosters Funeral Directors

I would say the most memorable was for a gentleman who was a pilot in World War II. We had his funeral take place at the Linn Crematorium in Glasgow, and they had two fighter jets plus a bomber fly over … it’s quite amazing when you see these jets at low altitude.

[As for] the craziest request we’ve ever had [from a family], let me think … We did have a party once with somebody that had died – that was a crazy one. She [was] sat in the chair, all dressed, make-up on, the whole lot: life of the party. She always liked a party, so we had a party.

Over the last 12 years, there have been some real sad funerals, but there have been some really happy ones as well, celebrating people’s lives. More and more, [what] we’re trying to promote is the actual celebration of life.

We noticed that your parents are on the staff at Fosters Funeral Directors – how did that come about?

It’s a slightly sad story in the sense that the person that we started the partnership with when we transferred the showroom into a funeral parlour left six months after we opened it. So, my mother and father decided to come in and help out, and [they] kept the place open for several years trying to get some visibility in the community. They would literally try and drag people in for a cup of coffee and a scone.

So, they’re really the reason that the company is still here: in the early days, it could easily have gone the opposite way. We owe quite a lot to them.

So, why did you sign up to Beyond?

[You’ve] invested money in promoting the funeral industry and promoting choice and transparency, and you know, that reads well with what we do here at Fosters.

It was at a time and place in the market where very few people – and even still to this day, there are very people who actually are – transparent about the prices, and because the history of Fosters has always been about service and transparency, I thought it worked really well.

As do we! Any final thoughts?

Just to say that we’re genuinely very privileged to have been able to help many, many families, and we’re going to continue to strive to make things better and be different. We are pushing very, very hard to make a difference, and our door’s always open.

Without our families supporting us and recommending us, we wouldn’t be here. But we have a great team, and that great team allows us to continue to do things right for people. That’s very important.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Want to find out more about Fosters Funeral Directors? Check out their Beyond profile here.