13 April 2012
It seems the times are finally catching up with me. Forty years ago, while in my mid-twenties, I came to the conclusion that I wanted nothing to do with what had become "traditional" burial. I viewed the funeral industry as a shameful, monumental scam, preying upon grief-stricken families by selling ornate metal caskets, memorial and burial services, all costing thousands of dollars. Imagine dying, having your blood drained (and possibly internal organs removed if an autopsy were performed), then being filled with toxic chemicals like formaldehyde, being dressed semi-formally, having grotesque makeup applied in order to "look natural", and having that image be the last visual memory your family and friends form of you at the funeral. Then the ultimate insult ~ being buried in the ground in that sealed casket, full of vile chemicals, where your body will decompose to form a mini-toxic waste dump, isolated from the earth which gave you life.
My alternative vision was (and remains) simple and organic. No embalming fluids, no metal casket, no commercial funeral. Rather, wrap me in my Mexican wool blanket and place me in the earth, with or without a plain, biodegradable pine coffin. Thus I can decompose naturally, and the elements and compounds of my body can rejoin life's cycle, feeding microbes, insects, plants and animals in the food web.
If some law barred me from my wish, I would simply put my affairs in order, disperse my assets and possessions as gifts, say good-bye to my loved ones, and disappear into the wilderness, to die in peace and become food for others. I don't regard the growing popularity of cremation to be environmentally sound, because (a) it deprives the food web of your body's nourishment, and (b) it is a waste of heat energy, a small but symbolic contribution to global warming.
So imagine my surprise and pleasure when, on last night's PBS Newshour, there was a bonus segment describing how South Carolina physician Billy Campbell established a land preserve "founded on a unique model ~ enlisting death in the fight for ecological conservation. Calling it the Ramsey Creek Preserve, Campbell's idea was twofold. First, he would provide a place for those who wanted a green burial. Known also as natural burial, this practice eschews modern techniques for delaying decomposition. This means no embalming fluids or chemical preservatives such as formaldehyde ~ a probably human carcinogen ~ are used, and the body is placed in a simple shroud, a biodegradable casket or urn, instead of one made of treated hardwood and metal. Plus, no pesticides are used to maintain the grounds and grave markers are natural ~ composed of rocks or trees native to the environment.
"But the second part of Campbell's plan was key. By having people choose green burial on land set aside as a cemetery, Campbell could protect that land from development and contamination over generations.
" .... Campbell presents these ideas in a new short film now touring the documentary circuit called 'Dying Green', directed by Ellen Tripler. Hari Sreenivasan recently sat down with Tripler and Campbell to discuss the film. [You can view the interview here, and see a trailer for 'Dying Green' here.]
"Today the number of green cemeteries across the country has grown to 36, with some 300 providers of green burial options. That's according to Joe Seshee, executive director of the Green Burial Council, which provides standards and certification for funeral services. Seshee predicts the trend will only grow with the Baby Boom generation."
Well, what do you know. I'm feeling warmly vindicated, and highly pleased that Dr. Campbell took his/my ideas a step further to include cemeteries as sanctuaries in which nature can thrive. I can think of no lovelier memorial than a living tree or shrub, part of a burial forest which wild creatures call home, or in which children can play, enjoy fresh air, and perhaps take a moment to read the names and dates on grave markers, and wonder about the lives led by those who went before. I invite any who read this to consider green burial for yourselves and your loved ones, and to make certain that it happens by including those wishes in your wills and powers of attorney. The earth will thank you.