19 September 2009


in the excellent feature article of this week's Missoula Independent, writers skylar browning and r.c. hooker explore the notion of bypassing the obscenely expensive funeral industry when someone dies, and opting instead for green burial -- i.e. burial in winding sheets or a plain pine box. i have advocated for exactly this approach for forty years. we insolate the bodies of our loves ones in hardwood or metal caskets, preventing their components from rejoining the natural cycle of decay, soil enrichment, and nourishment of numberless plants and animals. this is criminal.

it became a fashionable (and still expensive) alternative in recent years to choose cremation. true, a cremated body takes up less room in overcrowded cemetaries. and true, there is a certain romantic cache to having one's ashes scattered to the winds, whether at sea, in the mountains, or from the air. but it still bypasses the natural cycle described above.

some states and municipalities actually have laws which specify the method of corpse preservation and burial, ostensibly for public health reasons -- though when it comes to environmental pollution, the overwhelming source is the coffins themselves -- but in the end serving to line the pockets of the funeral industry. if i lived in such a place, and knew that my demise was imminent, i would follow the example of the lost hiker in edward abbey's seminal memoir Desert Solitaire, a recollection of his summers spent as a seasonal ranger in utah's arches national monument. one year abbey was called upon to join a search party looking for a hiker who'd been missing for some time. eventually the searchers found the missing man, dead, seated leaning against a tree growing near a ledge with a spectacular view of the sandstone canyonlands (click on image above). abbey remarked that the man appeared to be completely at peace, surrounded by such beauty.

failing the availability of green burial, that is what i would choose -- to arrange all my financial and property affairs, find good homes for my cats, bid loving goodbye to my family and friends, and hike into the seclusion of a remote wilderness, there to allow myself to die in peace, and be consumed by microbes and bacteria, and recycled into shrubs and trees. what a beautiful ending, it seems to me, and one chosen, not forced into.

need further persuasion? check this out -- as noted in the article, according to the green burial council, the following materials accompany human remains into the earth every years:

~ 30 million board feet of casket wood, including tropical hardwoods.
~ 90,000 tons of steel, or enough to build the golden gate bridge.
~ 1.6 million tons of concrete, or enough to build a two-lane highway from new york to detroit.
~ 800,000-plus gallons of embalming fluid, or enough to fill an olympic-sized swimming pool.
and then there is the financial cost, which hits bereaved families when they are in a vulnerable emotional state (a feature of funerals that in particular reminds me of gathering scavengers). according to the industry's own national funeral directors association, a breakdown of average funeral costs looks like this:

~ $1,595 for non-declinable basic service fee
~ 233 for removal/transfer of remains to funeral home
~ 550 for embalming
~ 203 for other preparation of the body
~ 406 for use of facilities/staff for viewing
~ 463 for use of facilities/staff for funeral ceremony
~ 251 for use of a hearse
~ 120 for use of a service car/van
~ 119 for basic memorial printing package
~ 2,255 for metal casket
~ 1,128 for vault
~ $7,323 total cost

if the bereaved family weren't already shaken and grieved by the death itself, the cost of the funeral would surely be cause for depression. please take the time to read the green burial article. it provides information we all need to consider before that gruesome time of need.

1 comment:

  1. Bob Butz's book Going Out Green is an excellent and very nicely written piece of work on this subject. Recommended!