This post might creep some of you out. But with Halloween coming, the members of the Green Moms Carnival decided to do something a little macabre and write about green funerals. I’m okay with that. While it’s hard to talk about death and what happens to us after we die, I do find myself thinking about it a lot as I’m walking home from BART late at night, glancing around furtively to make sure no one’s following me. Will this be my last walk home? What haven’t I finished? Have I done enough so far? And what will happen to this body I carry around once I’m not in control of it anymore? I don’t want my final act to contradict my life’s work.
Traditional Cemetery = Landfill
By equating a cemetery with a landfill, I’m not trying to be disrespectful here. All my friends and family who have passed on are buried in traditional cemeteries. But as in a landfill where organic matter like food scraps, yard trimmings, and paper are sealed up in plastic trash bags and preserved under ground, in a traditional cemetery human bodies are preserved from decomposing as well. Not only are the bodies pumped full of formaldehyde, but the casket itself is protected from moisture and pressure inside a strong burial vault in the ground. Burial vaults can be made from cement (which requires tremendous amounts of energy to produce and pollutes the air), but increasingly they are made of strong plastic.
Take a look at this video demo of a super strong Eonian plastic burial vault, and then answer the question: Why?
And the burial vault is not the only plastic used in to preserve the remains. While infant and pet caskets have been made from plastic for a long time, a new Greenville, Michigan company has developed a line of adult-sized plastic caskets, which are less expensive than wood. “Since the caskets are made with injection-molded plastic, they won’t rust and will outlast wood or metal caskets.”
Because the winner is the one whose corpse lasts the longest, right?
I’m being a little snarky here, but I do understand the drive to preserve the body. It’s hard to imagine not being around. It’s hard to think about our loved ones decomposing. It’s crappy to think of giving up control to the earth and the elements. While we’re alive, we work so hard to keep it together, right? But our denial of death is not healthy for us or the planet when you think about the plastic and chemicals leaching into the earth in our attempt to stave off the inevitable. Ironic, isn’t it?
Cremation = Incineration
This one is obvious. Cremation involves some of the same concerns as waste incineration. Massive amounts of energy used, toxic emissions from mercury and other substances released in the burning process, and simply, the waste of organic material that could have been returned to the earth as nutrients. I’m talking about our bodies. In contrast to some of the alternatives I’ll talk about next, cremation is a pretty wasteful process.
Donation = Recycling
When I die, I want my body to be used for as much good as possible. Yes, I’m an organ donor. But please don’t come take my liver until I’m dead.
There are all kinds of other ways my body could be useful, according to Mary Roach in her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which I read years ago and loved. I could help medical students practice their techniques. I could be tossed out of airplanes or used as a crash test dummy. I do not want to be used for ballistics tests, thank you. And I’m not sure about the chemicals used to preserve bodies donated to science. One of the green moms has a post in the carnival on the topic. I’m looking forward to learning more.
Green Burial = Composting
Freeze-Drying: Back when I read Mary Roach’s book, I was intrigued by a process being developed by Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak’s Swedish company Promessa, whereby a body is freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen and then shattered, basically breaking into dust. At that point, it can be buried in a compostable box in a shallow grave. The freeze drying helps break down the body so that it can compost quickly. And burial in a shallow grave allows oxygen and other elements to play their part in the composting process. But as you can imagine, this process is not yet available in the U.S.
Burial Shroud: I’m also intrigued by the idea of the burial shroud. Yes, there are a growing number of green casket makers using materials like paper pulp, cardboard, banana leaf, willow, bamboo, and a whole host of other biodegradable materials, but I like the simplicity of a simple piece of cloth. The less material to break down, the better.
And whether I’m buried in a casket or a shroud, I want everything removed from my body (jewelry, outerwear, dentalware, etc) that is not also biodegradable. The earth doesn’t need those things and neither will I. I promise.
Green Cemetery: It’s also important to me to find a cemetery whose purpose is to protect and preserve the land rather than cramming it full of as many bulky, chemically coffins as possible. Browsing last night, I found one right across the bay from me in Mill Valley. According to the web site, natural burial at Forever Fernwood “uses no toxic embalming fluids, no vault, and only a biodegradable casket or burial shroud. Natural rocks, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees serve as markers, and each grave is locatable via Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates.”
I’m not sure how much it costs to be buried in a green cemetery vs. a traditional one, but I like what the Natural Burial Coop has to say:
What makes a natural burial different from a financial perspective is that the costs are better allocated, with money carrying on the legacy of the deceased by protecting green space instead of going towards the mark-up on expensive, unnecessary consumption.
So even if the plot costs more, the money is being shifted from preserving the body and the casket to preserving the land in which the body rests. I like that idea.
Find Green Burial Providers
There are several web sites you can use to research green burial providers of funeral services, cemeteries, and products. The Green Burial Council has a list.
My Big Party
Here are a few more notes — in case anyone involved in my personal affairs is reading this post — about what I want on the day of my funeral. It should be a party. There should be karaoke like crazy and lots of food. The food will be your favorite, whatever that happens to be. I won’t be there, so eat all the freakin’ cilantro and onions you want. Cry or don’t cry. Laugh or don’t laugh. Whatever it takes is fine. It’s so hard to think about not being there and sharing in the fun. I know someone who threw his own wake before he died for just that reason.
Oh, and make sure someone writes a blog post and lets my readers know what happened so I don’t just disappear from cyberspace with no explanation. That’s one of my biggest worries about dying unexpectedly.