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Notes from underground

Burial, bodies, and going back to the beginning.

The word undertaker means a contractor or project manager, but to the ear it also means someone who takes you under, not necessarily to hell fire or the pagan half-world, but back down to the basement, the beginning, the earth.

“The last funeral we did, that was absolutely it, they loved the idea of the slow dispersal," says the undertaker. "You see, you bury somebody in something like a cardboard coffin in a good soil that's got lots of bacteria and you bury them as shallow as you dare, then hopefully in three or four years they'll be pretty much gone. They'll be earth again."

Topsoil is a place of digestion. It sucks and chews things into smaller pieces. When it's hungry it turns grey and stony, when it's thirsty it opens thousands of cracked lips. Subsoil is more skeletal, it doesn't digest.

A body can lie distinct in subsoil, like a knight asleep in his armour, which is why it appeals to anyone fastidious: "For instance, in America, people get buried in a zinc or lead-lined coffin six-feet deep in concrete, because they don't want to decay.

“I think the six feet under thing really comes back to trying to keep as much of you intact as possible for the last trump. But in fact we're eating so many preservatives and burying so deep we're just mummifying ourselves into a kind of soap, you know, human fat - that's actually the basis of soap.

“Well six feet under is a hell of a hole and of course if it's a husband and wife you're actually going eight feet under, it's massive. In Devon and Cornwall there's about a foot of topsoil, then usually it's shillet, then bedrock. It's hard going in this county. What most gravediggers do is you give them the dimensions of the coffin and they have a wooden template which they put down and they add a couple of inches, but it's always a bit tense. It has planks around and it has to be wide enough so you can carry the coffin by the handles and put it on.

“If it's too wide you can hurt your back. You carry them there and you lower them in. What we love is these furniture straps that are basically just webbing, which we bought 12 years ago and we've lowered I don't know how many people - hundreds.

“We've got hundreds of people to hold them, so they've slipped through children's hands and old women's hands. We've never washed them, so they've just got tinged with the red soil from round here and they've got dark peaty bits from Bodmin Moor, all of Devon and Cornwall and Somerset as well . . ."

Soil association

It's the stickiness of earth that makes it problematic - the way it stains your straps and ingrains your hands so you can't quite tell where you start and stop. Bereavement begins right there, with the smudging of the body's separateness - which is why traditional funerals keep the soil away from the mourners.

“In traditional funerals there's a little bowl with odd earth in it, which quite often these days doesn't come from the grave. Sometimes it's sand, which is handed around to the chief mourners and is part of the ashes to ashes, dust to dust thing. It's soil designed not to get your fingers dirty: soil-lite.

“But we don't do that. We encourage people to grab a handful, grab a shovel and fill in the grave. An 11-year-old boy recently filled in his mother's grave with music playing - it's incredible. The last possible thing you can do for someone for their physical body on this earth is to grab a shovel and fill in their grave, there's nothing else really after that."

With thanks to Claire and Rupert Callender

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The God Wars