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Woodland burials inspire young people to engage in culture

An anthropologist has used her recently completed doctoral research to engage young people on topics such as death and burial

It’s often assumed young people have no interest in death and shy away from even talking about it. University of Bath researcher Hannah Rumble, based within the Centre for Death & Society, set out to prove this wrong when she succeeded in a bid to the AHRC’s pilot Cultural Engagement Fund targeted at researchers who had just finished their PhD. Each participating university received £40k to cover the economic cost of a short three-month Cultural Engagement project.

As Hannah had recently finished her part-AHRC funded PhD in anthropology on ‘natural’ (also known as ‘woodland’) burials, she leapt at the chance to take this work into a new area. “I’d never looked at how young people engage with death and this increasingly popular form of burial. The award was to help academics take research to a different audience and that really appealed to me.”

It was however challenging to find suitable partners to work with as most youth organisations Hannah approached insisted young people wouldn’t engage with death. They were wrong. “I sat down and thought who do I know who’s not an academic who’s engaged in the arts?” One name that cropped up was community artist Charlotte Chapman, a former teacher who now co-runs the Kumiko Community Arts organisation. Hannah approached Charlotte and they set about co-writing the project bid and later, recruiting people.

From Jobcentreplus and Bristol-based Youth Moves, 12 young people aged between 17 and 26 with widely varying backgrounds, voluntarily came forward. The seven-week programme required participants to create an artistic response to death and natural burial, after a field trip to two natural burial grounds in Bristol. “Death is often explored in the arts so it felt right for a cultural engagement project as we all hold images in our heads about it,” said Hannah.

Called Dead and Buried the project culminated in a public art exhibition showcasing the young people’s artistic responses to natural burials. Participants were given ownership of the project, so as well as making their own pieces of work they had to organise the exhibition, which included media engagement. This allowed those taking part to acquire useful skills to help them find work.

One of those whom the project helped into work was Colin Griffiths, 19, (pictured) who took part in the project alongside his girlfriend Charlotte Thomas, 18. “I decided to make a bench as so many of the benches you see at these burials grounds are the same. I went into the project because I had an interest in art. That it was to do with death made it different, more interesting. It’s not a normal thing people would generally think about,” said Colin. Towards the end of the project he got a job as an apprentice landscape gardener. “Doing the project made me feel more comfortable talking to people so it helped me get through the job interview. With Dead and Buried you had no choice but to talk to people!”

“We called it Dead and Buried as we didn’t hide what it was about,” said Charlotte Chapman. “I’m used to working with young people who are not in work or education and we did expect a high dropout rate. It didn’t happen. That was quite a massive achievement.” But Charlotte thinks she knows why this one succeeded where others fail. “Lots of projects for young people are so dumbed down. This was totally different. They were given a chance to work with an academic researcher who really valued them and their contributions.”

Woodland burials are growing in popularity though still represent a tiny percentage of funerals. And the grounds vary enormously. Some are really set in woodlands while others resemble rows of graves in a conventional graveyard. “I liked that the participants were honest in their reactions to visiting two very different natural burial grounds,” said Hannah. “Some openly saying they found them boring! And I was really surprised by the breadth of mediums they used to work in. I did worry we’d have 12 A4 pieces of paper but we had wood, sculpture, batik, film, paper cuts, pen and ink, charcoal and poetry.”

Charlotte Thomas, 18, wrote a poem to her father who died when she was two. And she set it in a memorial pot. Charlotte had never done anything artistic before but said this gave her a chance to do something different. “I didn’t expect it to be quite so much about death. It was a bit shocking. I didn’t think would go so far into death, visiting graveyards. Some points were a bit upsetting but it helped me to build my confidence and I met some nice new people.” Charlotte is now studying childcare.

Some taking part did have experience in art. Catherine Chambers, 24, is a recent arts graduate who came to the project via the jobcentre. Ironically she found a temporary teaching job just as the project started. But she still decided to take part. “It seemed so interesting and I loved that you got to exhibit your work at the end of it. I think about death more now. It made me aware of people not speaking openly about it and I now know more about the different types of burial.

“During the project my granny passed away and I had to go to Ireland and deal with that. I did a portrait of her for the exhibition. I didn’t consider dropping out when she died as these things happen. It was a really good project. It helped me a lot and fast-tracked my art career.” Catherine has since sold some of her artwork, received some commissions as a result of the project and is now working freelance with Kumiko.

A reunion of Dead and Buried is taking place on August 27th on Hannah’s allotment because this is where Colin’s bench now lives; she bought it off him after Dead and Buried. As well as a bonfire and barbecue, award certificates from the Arts Council for each of the participants will be handed out. Hannah hopes to do more work with young people and her only regret is the project didn’t last longer: “I’m so grateful for the quick turnaround on this bid. The AHRC brought us all together very quickly.

“Being involved in the project meant that I was able to meet people I would never normally come across and I really liked that. I am an anthropologist so it gave me insight into another world. Some of the young people involved had never had any contact with an academic before, so they gained a different experience too. We shared our lives for a few brief weeks and all got so much from it.”

“The grant gave me a fabulous opportunity to work collaboratively. I love getting away from my desk and it’s given me the thirst to do more research in the community. Dead and Buried also taught me how to bid successfully for funding and seek out and find the right partners to work with.”

The project was also filmed and participants given a premier film screening at a well known cinema in Bristol city centre. This hadn’t been part of the original plan. “But I wanted our group to have their moment of fame and invite their friends and family to see their work,” added Hannah. This too of course provided an excellent opportunity for further cultural engagement with the wider community.

“It was fascinating to be involved in community arts and see what youth organisations do in a big city. This project has inspired me to do more of this kind of work and I hope my next award will be for something that lasts longer. What I value most from the AHRC’s Cultural Engagement project is that my doctoral research now has a far more stimulating legacy that is also far further reaching than a PhD thesis and academic publications. This bid also allowed me to give something back to society from my research. I really am very proud and fond of all who took part in Dead and Buriedand made it the success it was.”

Article by Laura Marcus

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