The Sheep of Death

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Photograph – not Grazeley – via

Just outside Berkshire’s county town of Reading lies a small unassuming village called Grazeley.

It’s not large: just a school, houses and farms, and  a pub. It used to have a church, and in a way it still does: but after more than 150 years of service, in 2006, the little church closed its doors and it stands, locked and deserted.

But the church still has a graveyard. And people are still buried there, under the auspices of the Grazeley Parochial church council.

With no Vicar and no vicarage and a tight budget, keeping Grazeley graveyard well-trimmed has been a bit of a struggle, and so the church authorities elected to bring in working sheep to keep the grass trimmed.

Now: we all know that sheep are a traditional way of trimming graveyards. It’s been happening for centuries.

But sheep will be sheep.

But the other day, one of the village worthies arrived to find a sheep standing, stolidly chewing, on top of her mother’s grave. She told the BBC: “There’s 10 sheep stood on graves chewing at will.”

The villagers are outraged. There are sheep droppings everywhere, and flowers do not stand much of a chance because they eat them. As a final insult,  one of the sheep has leant accidentally on a gravestone and pushed it skew-whiff.

Now: myself, being a traditionalist and a Hardyesqe rustic environment-lover, I cannot think of anything better than a sheep, standing above me, chewing the carnations someone has thoughtfully parked next to my headstone.

But others feel differently. You?


68 thoughts on “The Sheep of Death

  1. Seems just how it should be, to me. I can picture the complainees’ houses complete with a “lounge” with Capo de Monte in a showcase and everything kept for “best”. A bit of shit on them in the afterlife might act as manure upon their souls.

  2. I plan on cremation . . . with my ashes strewn on the breeze!

    But I have no problem with ship-shape sheep-shit shat on the grassy graves of graver ancestors. 😀

  3. Kate,
    I’ve decided that when my time is up I will be cremated and my ashes spread in the forest around Lake Tahoe. That way I leave no trace that I have been here. Sounds odd but that is the way it is with hikers in the wilderness areas. Through teaching youth about the Bible, my legacy will live on. No headstone needed. If you’re up to meandering through my post, there is one titled “Ashes In The Wind” which is about the time I had the honor of spreading the ashes of a close friend.

  4. I didn’t know this was an old tradition, but it makes sense. And it’s picturesque. It seems more friendly to have sheep keeping things ship shape than a mower. Are the complainers willing to up the money needed to put human gardeners to work? Hmm. Thought not.

    1. I’m not sure what the resolution will be, Gale; maybe your solution is just what the villagers will choose. One thing is for sure: sheep are a low-cost solution. And they and their ancestors have been doing this kind of thing for centuries.

  5. I suppose it partly depends on how much value one puts on a grave as being the place where your loved one ‘is’ – and the dignity that demands.
    Respect for a fellow human’s difficulty in grieving allows me to see that sheep keeping the grass down could be seen as disrespectful and undignified for a few people. However the ‘villagers are outraged’ statement gets my goat (!) a little… how many of how many? (A few can make a huge sound… we all know)

    Our local church yard has a wildlife area, cordoned off and this is allowed to grow and self seed etc. creating a lovely area which is scythed at various points during the year. Maybe this could be a way forward? Wild flower meadow, with occasional trimmings?

    It seems to me appropriate that a village called Grazely should have grazing sheep in the church yard. So maybe a sectioning off method would work?

    1. What a great compromise, Pseu. It occurs to me it might be worth your church contacting the Grazeley parish – I think the clergyman involved is the Rev Chris Leslie – to share this thought. However, I suppose the parish council is still stuck with the problem of how to keep the grass short and the graveyard trimmed in these lean times.

    2. We would definitely approve of an area sectioned off or the sheep to graze on the old part of the grave yard. Not the new part with families who have buried their loved ones a few months ago and can not get to the grave due to an electric fence.

      1. Hi Nicola, and thanks for coming along to read and comment. Reading through your comments it seems to me the people of Grazeley have made a great deal of effort to resolve this. I wonder why the church council continues to object to the villagers keeping the place tidy?

      2. We have Kate. They will not budge on their decision. The local MP is now getting involved to help us. A grave is the only thing left of a loved one. Some people find great comfort from visiting. There are graves dated 1901 and have no flowers or tributes. But they have put the sheep in a square electric fence on the recent graves. Some of us have lost grandparents, parents and children recently and can’t even get to the grave. We are animal lovers and have no problem with the sheep. But they are just in the wrong place.

      3. Sounds like a negotiation is needed for different areas of the churchyard to be designated for different activities.

  6. I’m with nrhatch; it’s cremation for me, too. As for working sheep being tasked to keep the graveyard trim, didn’t it occur to anyone before the sheep were brought in that sheep sh–? (I will not besmirch your pristine blog with a barnyard epithet, however appropriate it might be in this instance.) Furthermore, did it not occur to them that the sheep would not limit themselves to just grass and that other vegetation, including flowers, would be on the menu, too? I think the dumb animals in this situation are the people who created this mess. I’m completely pro-sheep.

    1. We have offered to do ‘the job’ but they won’t let us. So what are we supposed to do. Do not judge unless you have seen the damage caused

      1. Nicola, I wonder if I might ask: on what grounds have the Church Council refused your offer to keep the graveyard? It seems that if a fair offer has been made by the people of Grazeley, and a wildlife area were fenced off in the older part of the churchyard with wandering sheep there – the council has a solution.

  7. At the farm where we get our produce, sheep are used as the way to manage the weeds. I think it’s a nice arrangement although I might be able to agree if the plot is full of droppings. Maybe they just need to plant more!

  8. The shepherds are paid here by farmers to bring flocks to sit on their land for some time. The flocks wander around the country side looking for jobs. A couple of days ago, we saw large flocks on the express way, not very safe. 🙂 I like the idea of sheep chewing the flowers on my grave.

    1. We were never given a choice. They say they asked but they didn’t. Now they wont let us take over the responsibility of cutting the grass.

  9. They should be happy it’s just sheep and not a herd of cows. Or, worse yet, CHICKENS! Chickens will eat the grass and fertilize it and make an utter nuisance of themselves. (I speak from experience) Maybe, to give them some perspective, someone could release a few lions…

  10. I really like the thought of sheep moseying about, doing their thing.
    They could, presumably, be kept off fresh graves with flowers for a while, and corralled at other agreed times that folk like to lay a wreath (Remembrance day, Christmas or whatever) if need be.
    It is a bit much to be happy with sheep in general but annoyed at them because she didn’t think that flowers are food!

    1. Fiona, we have had a villager comment and tell us they have offered to keep the graves clear themselves, but the church council has refused permission! I think your compromise sounds most reasonable, and would prevent distress to relatives.

  11. Hehe. Great title – couldn’t resist the read. And as some of your other readers have suggested, some people are upset by silly things. I personally would much rather the sheep than the lawnmower. Seems more appropriate for the ashes to ashes, dust to dust aspect. Thanks for a cute post. 🙂

  12. During research for a book I was writing, I discovered we have a state law, requiring landowners to fence any gravesite on their land if there is risk that it will be trampled by humans or animals. Because we have so many pioneers who are buried along the Oregon trail and American Indian graves from battles over remote areas, this law affects many landowners. The gravesites cannot be moved without permission of next of kin, which is usually impossible because those records are long gone or were never kept. (i.e. Diary journal: We buried grandpa under a scrub oak near a creek crossing. )
    Some folks mind. Many folks are happy to have a piece of history on their place. Either way, the law considers the final resting place a sacred site.
    I think of this each time I visit the cemetary and step on a grave. Interesting conundrum.

    1. Barb, what a salutary reminder: I’d love to see some of those sites. It is such a contrast to our ecclesiastical traditions: I watch people walk over Jane Austen’s grave regularly: it is in the aisle of Winchester Cathedral. And we have so many people here that gravestones have been moved to the side to make room for more people. The London churches were burying people three-deep just before the Magnificent Seven ‘satellite’ churchyards were built. A dense population changes attitudes, it seems.

  13. I think sheep are a wonderful choice for lawnmowers. I would also like to see some goats there, but they tend to demolish shrubs rather than to trim them. Still, the thought of a goat standing atop my tombstone, or lining up to climb and then jump off, pleases me. I can’t help it, I grew up in the country. I intend to be cremated but will have a tombstone anyway, in case any goats come along. I’m so glad you posted this. It makes me feel rather pastoral. If a person can feel that.

  14. I would be much happier with the sheep than the huge power mowers that I see now. There is a lovely old cemetery near my home, happens to be where my great-grandparents are buried, and I frequently walk there. The maintenance men ride huge, noisy diesel spewing mowers that always feel incongruous to me. I suppose they avoid some of the inconveniences of sheep, but they feel irreverent to me. I vote the sheep stay!

  15. I wouldn’t mind them grazing on the flowers atop my grave – comforting thought in fact – if they could kindly ‘drop’ elsewhere! 🙂

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