Sharing Nature: feeling mortal

27 July 2017

As part of our Sharing Nature project, over the past fortnight we asked you to share your photos on the theme DEAD, and respond to other people’s submissions. You decided Jeane Trend-Hill’s contribution was most meaningful.

“A robin’s nest inside a human skull, at the ossuary in Hythe, Kent. The ultimate in recycling, death and birth.” Jeane Trend-Hill’s photograph and words submitted on the theme DEAD.

It’s a fantastic juxtaposition. The robin’s nest likely makes us think of eggs, and therefore birth and new beginnings. The human skull perhaps pushes us to think about what lies beneath our skin, or to ponder our mortality.

The human skull is a common symbol for piracy, hazards, toxicity and death. Beyond that, skulls aren’t something most of us see all that often, not real ones anyway, unless you go to a production of Hamlet and they happen to keep Yorick real. But at St Leonard’s Church at Hythe in Kent, where Jeane Trend-Hill took her picture, you can see over 1,000 of them.

In fact, St Leonard’s claims to have the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human bones and skulls in Britain, boasting, among other things, “a single stack of bones and skulls measuring 7.5m in length, 1.8m in width and just over 1.8m in height”. The crypt – or ‘ossuary’ –  is thought to be home to the remains of 2,000 people, and theories have abounded over who they might be, from those killed during the Battle of Hastings in 1066, to victims of the Black Death. General consensus now suggests the bones belonged to Hythe residents who were originally buried but had to be dug up when the church was extended in the 13th century.

An ossuary is a place where human skeletal remains are kept, and can range in shape and size from a box to a building. Some of the most famous are the vast catacombs in Paris, which are thought to house the remains of more than 6 million people. They were constructed in the late 1700s when the city’s cemeteries were too packed to take any more bodies. An ossuary is often used when space for burial is limited (individual coffins can take up a lot of space).

‘Natural’ or ‘green’ burials are an increasingly popular alternative to cemeteries, crematoria, catacombs and crypts. They’ve been around since the late 1980s (although of course ‘natural burial’ would have been ‘normal burial’ in the past), and the idea is to return the body to the earth in as low impact a way as possible, often in a woodland setting.

Jeane Trend-Hill mentions recycling in her contribution to the Sharing Nature project, and that’s exactly what natural burial is all about. In an article for Mosaic, Fathima Simjee explains that the deceased person is buried in a manner that doesn’t inhibit decomposition. She quotes Rosie Inman-Cook, manager of the Natural Death Centre, who says, “People like to think that the nutrients in their body will be recycled and will be of some use to the soil, and the fauna and flora that the soil supports”. In this way a death makes future life possible, and so the natural cycle can continue.

What’s neat about Jeane’s photograph is that the robin’s nest makes it very much an image on the theme of life as well as death. The RSPB reveals that robins “are famous for nesting in all kinds of unlikely locations, including sheds, kettles, boots, hanging baskets, coat pockets, under car bonnets, in farm machinery, even on boats in daily use”. What seems to be most important to the robin is finding a “fully concealed cavity”, where it can construct a cup-shaped nest made from dead leaves, moss and hair. It turns out your skull is not only a fantastic, bony construction that keeps your brain safe and all your head bits in place. In the future it could also have a second life as a happy home for Britain’s best-loved bird.

Sharing Nature continues until 1 October 2017, and upcoming themes include green, alone, plastic, health, and consume. A museum of modern nature is at Wellcome Collection until 8 October 2017.