My wife occasionally asks me how I want my final send-off to be arranged. Being a country boy with a penchant for history and “a blaze of glory,” I’ve suggested placing the part of me that used to look like me on a large pile of dry wood, cracking a couple kegs of Corona and whatever other libation pleases those in attendance, turning up the Jimmy Buffett and setting the pyre afire.
That’s illegal, she says.
Anyway, where I live the blaze likely would result in a fire department response, and a visit from a representative of the Department of Environmental Protection.
It turns out embalming chemicals, used to allow friends and loved ones from near and far opportunity to look at Grandpa one more time, are less than friendly toward the earth. Cremation would not be much better, as numerous chemicals would be released up the chimney when more than 200 pounds of me is converted to a pound or so of ashes and something in which to carry them.
The Green Burial Council estimates the reinforced concrete used to contain coffins when they are buried would be “enough to build a highway half-way across the country,” according to council founder and Executive Director Joseph Sehee.
He was in Washington, D.C. this week to announce “a new international platform to serve growing global demand for eco-friendly end-of-life rituals.” The announcement included establishment of two new council chapters, in Canada and Australia.
What I have found interesting, even before talking with Sehee, is the way in which we say the phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and then seem to take every means possible to keep that from happening. Or at least delay it happening.
But it was not ever thus.
Our rather large family embarked several years ago on a family outing to scatter Mom’s and Dad’s ashes in a place they loved. Some of us suspected it was their favorite place, when they were young, to do what they later cautioned their kids and grandkids to avoid.
It was a rural area, where some of the descendants had received at least some of their upbringing, and the occasion called for a bit of touring and remembering. Suddenly from the back seat came a cousin’s query:
“Why are there so many cemeteries around?” asked the young lady from Miami, as we drove by another small parcel of gravestones framed by a wrought iron fence.
The answer went back to before her grandmother’s day. Out in the farmland, where families were virtual towns unto themselves, when grandpa hoed his final furrow, he’d be laid out on the kitchen table and neighbors would drop by to pay their respects.
When my kids’ mom, my first partner, left the planet in 1999, I knew I did not want her embalmed. That was before Hurricane Katrina made formaldehyde a household synonym for environmental poison.
But her family wanted an open casket, and the funeral home said that could not be unless she was embalmed.
It turns out, embalming, which slows the decomposition process, is not necessary for only a couple days of viewing. Pope John Paul II was not embalmed when he died in April 2005, and thousands of people over several days filed past for a final goodbye – although there were reports his body had begun to show changes before the visiting period ended.
Back to Grandpa: In a day or so, he’d be taken, sometimes in a pine box built for the occasion and sometimes wrapped only in a shroud, to his final resting place in the family plot.
There was no need of an undertaker, and anyway, it was too far to travel to a funeral parlor, too expensive to pay for services largely deemed unnecessary, and too time-consuming when there was a farm to be tended. (I have it on good authority most county boundaries east of the Mississippi River were established to allow a farmer in a wagon to travel to the county seat, conduct his business, and return home in two days.)
A few years ago, while watching a weekly television show called “Six Feet Under,” I saw one of the characters take his shroud-wrapped wife to a woods clearing. He dug a hole and placed the body in it, covered it over and went home. An environmentalist would recognize that as, in Sehee’s words, completion of a cycle of “birth, death, decay and regeneration.”
“Why couldn’t that be done for real?” I wondered.
It turns out, it can be.
Sehee said embalming began during the American Civil War, when there arose a concern about sanitation. Over time, funerals became a huge industry.
“It’s honorable work when its done to help people honor the dead,” Sehee said, “but there’s a sales model.”
Chemical companies have a guaranteed market. The $14 billion industry uses enough steel in caskets and vaults to build a new Golden Gate Bridge each year. The reinforced concrete used in casket vaults could build a 4,800-mile two-lane road.
There are some restrictions to green burials. For instance, various jurisdictions require varying amounts of land be set aside, making a family plot accessible only to families with the required acreage.
And there are a growing number of “green certified” cemeteries across the nation. Such a cemetery, Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, near Pittsburgh, was approved earlier this month.
It is not for everyone, but I think I know the answer to my wife’s question. When I leave, please skip the chemicals; I’ll have consumed more than enough of those while I was here.
Just wrap the part of me I leave behind in bio-degradable cloth and place it where it can help new trees and flowers grow.
Photo by kqedquest
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