New York State Funeral Directors Association

In modern days, it seems, the longevity of a burial site varies, so it isn’t really clear if a grave has an expiration date.

Sometimes, construction work leads to a person being disinterred, studied for the sake of science and then buried somewhere else altogether.

Some folks have been disinterred and, to save space, cremated instead.

In contrast to situations like this, a funeral held for ancient remains discovered at an historic church in England might restore one’s trust in the permanence of burial.

Thanks to e-mail, I was able to make contact with a church leader and one of the funeral professionals who – following steps required by law in England – held a funeral and re-buried the remains in the grounds of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Ebberston.

This rural village of about 650 people is home to the land where a church has stood for more than a thousand years, according to The Rev. Dr. Jo White, leader of the faith community that encompasses this church and four others.

“A church of some description has been in this place since before the known small Saxon church was built in the eleventh century. Since then it has been extended, loved, cared for, damaged, destroyed, left fallow, rebuilt, added to, reroofed, restored and most recently, reordered,” White said in an e-mail.

In 2013, restoration work on the nave – the area where the congregation is seated in a church – was underway at St. Mary The Virgin Church when workers encountered a grave with no markers.Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Ebberston, England. Photo by James Daglish

When this happens, law in England requires work be stopped so the remains can be properly excavated.

They were examined and stored and the company, “OnSite Archaeology,” performed an assessment of the remains.

They reported the deceased was between 17 and 22 years old, and likely a female.

From what is known about the property and the church, this unidentified woman’s burial most likely took place some 800 years ago.

Dr. White, who took over leadership of the church after the floor restoration was complete, said she would have preferred the remains be buried back where they were originally.

“Had I been involved I certainly would have required a reinterment in the same place or as close as possible within the nave.”

But that wasn’t possible.

So White decided the next best step would be to bury the woman’s remains next to the church – outside near a Saxon Preaching Cross.

The cross dates back hundreds of years and it’s possible it was viewed by the woman found buried beneath the church floor.

FUNERAL PROFESSIONALS, CHURCH ELDERS AT FUNERAL

White said she sought to avoid turning the situation into a “spectator event.”

So it wasn’t widely publicized, and the funeral didn’t turn into a spectacle.

Instead of a crowd, the funeral took place with the help of the church’s elders, the Assistant Curate, The Rev. Sally Gough, and the local funeral establishment, F.A. Stockill and Son Funeral Directors.

“In this way we were able to give due respect to someone who having been laid where she was – the only body to be found – in the nave was clearly of importance in her community in her time,” White said.

We call funeral establishments “funeral homes” in the U.S., they are referred to as “Funeral Directors” in the United Kingdom.

The firm’s funeral directors served as pall bearers during the procession – which isn’t unusual there, the firm’s manager Claire Potter, said in an e-mail.

“We are a traditional firm and always hand bear where able,” Potter said.

She described the funeral home’s role as “a duty of care to all residents, past and present.”Representatives of F.A. Stockill and Son Funeral Directors and The Rev. Dr. Jo White at the burial. Photo by Claire Potter

“I cannot both thank and praise them highly enough for their care and generosity on this occasion,” White said of the funeral directors.

White, Gough and the funeral directors carefully laid the remains in a casket.

“These were covered with a cloth which was then held in place to ensure there would be as little movement as possible on her journey to the church and the casket was closed,” White said.

Members of the church met the hearse at the entrance of the Churchyard for a procession, White said.

“We then led the casket followed by the congregation inside the church for a short service and from there to just outside the church door to the prepared grave in front of the Preaching cross and the casket was laid quietly in the gravespace while Psalm 121 was said,” White said.

This passage from the Bible begins with “I lift up my eyes to the mountains.” White said it was fitting because the new burial site is situated between the church and hills.

“The prayers were completed and finally the quiet song ‘Be still and know that I am God’ was sung,” White said.

In keeping with the original burial, White said they decided to forego a burial marker. Instead, the burial is mentioned on a sign inside the church.

The funeral and new burial site demonstrates to me that, even after hundreds of years, respect for the dead and for burial sites is still alive.

May the mystery woman, again, rest in peace.