A patch of woodland on a winter day. Silent as the grave. Not even the slightest breeze to rustle the layer of oak leaves strewn across the forest floor; not that they would rustle anyhow, a seemingly endless succession of damp, drizzly days has left the leaves limp and soggy. There are no crisp footsteps here, only muffled ones. It is strange. We speak in quiet, almost reverential tones. Why?
Because a sign on a stubborn gate which pretended it was locked informed us this was a cemetery. No, that’s not entirely accurate. Not a cemetery, a burial ground. The two words might mean the same, but they provoke different images in the mind. With one, I visualise mossy marble headstones; displays of flowers, some bright and perky, others sad and spent; and distraught angels grieving over grand tombs. With the other, I see … I see what exactly? A grassy mound in a field? Maybe. A tranquil forest glade? In this case yes, definitely. Burial ground conjures a scene where human interaction with nature isn’t obvious; a patch of land where there’s little or no evidence of the dead being returned to the land. An ancient place, a sacred place. Both elicit the same respectful silence, as if talking in anything other than hushed tones may disturb the long sleep of those interred there. For similar reasons, we pick our way delicately through the trees, placing our feet with as much care as if there were mines buried in the soil below the wilted golden leaves.
It’s not obvious, but there are graves here. How many, it’s impossible to say; there are no headstones. At best, simple discs in the earth betray the passing of a loved one. At this time of year, the trees’ shedding their foliage has draped a blanket over the forest floor, concealing some graves until spring. What markers we can see are so unobtrusive they can’t be spotted until we’re almost directly above them. Even then, it requires the gentle brushing away of leaves to reveal the sparse information etched into stone and wood.
It’s a place I initially think looks and feels neglected. But I’m viewing the scene from the wrong angle. Would I look at another woodland setting that wasn’t a burial ground and consider it neglected? No, it would be as nature intended. The burial ground has simply been left to become part of the natural cycle of the forest. Neither is it ancient. One marker reveals the date 2021, another 2019. One has a peace symbol engraved on it. It is clearly still used as a burial ground.
It could be a patch of woodland in any forest, and yet it is one of the most poignant and atmospheric burial grounds I’ve visited. A classless society of the dead where pomp and circumstance have no place and where all are equal. Here, there are no ostentatious constructions designed to continue the cycle of human-made divisions even beyond life itself. The natural simplicity of this Quakers’ burial ground evokes an emotion response; no ornate window dressing is required.
Even its location is humble and inconspicuous, a small copse reached via a quiet country lane. It would be easy to bypass without noticing it existed. We found it while following a walking route from our house to Wiveliscombe. Although we knew it was there, we almost overlooked the ‘Friends’ Burial Ground 1861’ written on a plaque on a small wooden gate.
I’ve an overactive imagination. As a child, graveyards unsettled me (aka scared the living daylights out of me). That’s something which hasn’t entirely gone away. The slightest creak or groan in a cemetery and I’m out of there. I didn’t feel this in the Friends’ Burial Ground. For once, I felt a sense of quiet wellbeing and possibly even comfort.
But maybe only because it was still daylight.