1 February 2010

Scots folkways and burial at sea...

Death be not proud… rather, be well regulated. That seems to be the credo of a recent Scottish Government publication, a Consultation Paper on Death Certification, Burial and Cremation. This pursued (albeit at a zombiefied rather than quicksilver lick) the Burial and Cremation Review Group’s report, produced in 2008, into the Scottish legislation on death, funerals, certification (and centrally, the absence thereof). The report suggested, in the invariable rationalising metaphors of law reform, consolidation, centralisation in a single statutory document. They also maintained that the law should require a minimum depth of 3ft of earth from the top of the coffin - and other such simple details.

Its statistics are also interesting. In 2004, for instance, of 56,187 Scottish deaths, only 23% occurred ‘at home or elsewhere in the community’ (a curious formulation). By far the majority – 58% in an ‘acute hospital’, while 18% in residential nursing or care homes. Although some of you may well find this morbid – I’d make another point. It tells is something important about the social life of death in Scotland in the 21st Century, suggests its rites, its settings, its significance. At a time in our public life when we are discussing these very concepts, it is worth taking a step back, and if we can, squint anthropologically in the mirror. One of my favourite sociologists, the eminently French, now departed Pierre Bourdieu once wrote that...

"The sociologist who chooses to study his own world in its nearest and most familiar aspects should not, as the ethnologist would, domesticate the exotic, but if I may venture the expression, exoticise the domestic, through a break with his initial relation of intimacy with the mode of life and thought which remain opaque to him because they are too familiar." (Homo Academicus 1988, xi)

For instance, you may be surprised to learn that of those who died, a full 57.4% were cremated. The statistical hospitalisation of the phenomenon of death speaks of its entrance into the clinical domain. That, to borrow a phrase from Margo MacDonald, death as the last act of life is not conducted in the sites of ordinary existence – but in a starched environment of white sheets, amid a bustle of nurses or simply alone in the night, punctuated only by the reporting heels of a night porter, pacing the empty, echoing hallways. Our understanding of death is not immune to its setting, one flows into the other. Indeed, one might see the fact that some people get unsettled by hospitals as reflective of their place in our culture as final presence chambers. Although candles may not gutter in gothic light and the vaulting sounds of choirs may not haunt with lachrymose notes – for many, the doors of hospitals are the portals to oblivion, with all the numinosity and transcendent shudders implied.

Change setting. Consider, as some anthropologists have before, how funerals are conducted and how festivals of death and the celebrations of departed life unfold. One of my favourite books on the subject is P Metcalf & R Huntington (eds) (1991) Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Unpacking the complexity of ideas of death – from the biological when to the social and final recognition – the authors end on a section on American deathways, the phenomenon of the open coffin, the immaculate coiffure styled by the ‘funeral industry’, dramatised in the series Six Feet Under. The theme was expanded on by G Laderman’s (2005) Rest in Peace: a cultural history of death and the funeral home in 20th Century America.

For myself, my favourite section of the document is its elucidations of the regulations imposed on burial at sea. Apparently, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are responsible for regulating this practice. This in turn seems to be fronted by the Fisheries Research Services, Marine Laboratory, as the licensing authority. This under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. Apparently the FRS Marine Laboratory “does not encourage burial at sea” - bodily tipped overboard – but has a preference for anterior cremation, a corona of dust and ash to join with the swell’s phosphorus and foam. Crucial, however, is a Certificate of Freedom from Fever and Infection, to be obtained from a doctor. If you have always hankered after an Egyptian funeral – embalmed and a sea burial – you are out of luck. If you want to hit the seabed, you’ve got to face up to your own putrefaction. Also, that Elvis outfit you’ve been saving is out – nude only, of if you are bashful, you can “be surrounded loosely with a cotton or paper sheet”, like a brace of pork sausages.

This dolorous duty must only be conducted in a coffin ungraced by persistent plastics, lead, copper or zinc. That veneered board you’ve been hankering after – out of luck again. A soft wood, well bracketed is indicated, to survive the splash and sink. To this end, at least 100 kgs of weight, all in, are required, if you are not to bob and eddy and bump into a Peterhead Trawlerman (considerably to the detriment, no doubt, of your coffin’s architectural elegance.) Just in case, the licensers also require extensive holing beneath the waterline – to be precise, at least 12 of 20mms on the top and sides, with three more in the end boards. The second annex, in a tantalising bit of history, identifies two sites on the map where burials at sea have previously been enacted (see map, top left). Whether traversing the whaleways, or slumbering forever in the salty, sandy embrace of the sea -


  1. By far the majority – 58% in an ‘acute hospital’, while 18% in residential nursing or care homes.

    Does the Polis know about this? Has Taggart been dug up and informed?

    It tells me never to go there.

    I must bear that in mind.

  2. Alas, I'm insufficiently heavy with Taggart lore to recall, off the top of my head, whether the smoky copper took a final "groundsweat" or not. Statistically, I suppose he is likely to have been immolated - reduced to his composite atoms.