Shut Up and Dig

Are Funerals Going Green, Too?

A good life deserves a good death. My great-grandmother lived to be just north of ninety and died in mid-sentence, walking down the hallway.  She lived her life precisely the way she wanted to live, hardly slowed down a bit, and when her time came–BAM.  She was gone.

I thought of her when I read this account of an elderly couple in Wales who were found dead in the garden next to the lawn mower.  Margaret and Monty were both 87 years old and had been together for 67 years.  There’s no telltale evidence of any kind, but the family suspects that Monty had a heart attack while firing up the lawn mower, and when Margaret came out and found him–well, the shock was just too great. 

It’s not a sad story, really–if you’ve ever seen a widow linger on, lonely, bereft, in failing health–you know that there is really no better way to go than to live a long, happy life together and drop suddenly in the garden within minutes of each other.  As far as I’m concerned, Margaret and Monty won this round. 

I don’t really fantasize about some perfect death involving a warm day in the garden and a pitcher of mojitos and a crew of sweaty young laborers (but if you do, please share!), but I do earnestly hope that whoever ends up in charge of my remains does not pump them full of chemicals and stick them in the ground.  That would be an entirely unfit ending for an organic gardener, wouldn’t it?

Gravematters
The green burial movement rejects the ridiculous notion of embalming a body with formaldehyde and burying it in a chipboard veneer casket with plastic handles painted to look like brass.  (You didn’t think they sold you real brass, did you?)  No–instead, just drop ’em in the ground, plant a tree on top, and let the worms do the rest. There’s an ecological burial ground in New York state that lets you do just that; Canada has an association devoted to natural burial; and now there’s a book out called Grave Matters that explores the issue in more–well, depth. The author, Mark Harris, is blogging about the book here.

I guess it doesn’t matter what happens with my remains.  I won’t be around to rant about it anyway.  But I can think of no better ending that to be dumped at the bottom of the compost pile and have chicken manure and shredded leaves piled on top.  Put me to good use–let me fertilize the lilacs.

Backyard burials?  Ashes scattered at Kew?  Memorial trees?  What do you think?  Any–uh–final thoughts?

Posted by on May 21, 2007 at 5:28 am, in the category Shut Up and Dig.
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26 responses to “Are Funerals Going Green, Too?”

  1. Karin says:

    Freeze-drying of dead bodies, I think it’s called promession, is currently going through evaluation here in Sweden – it will, hopefully, become cleared and legal and all that pretty soon. It’s supposed to be a more ecological alternative to cremation. I think it sounds pretty good.

  2. layanee says:

    Dust to dust sounds good to me and I am in complete agreement with the fertilizing the lilacs comment. Maybe a pit (on my property) with a lot of lime so no energy other than that expended with a shovel would be okay but, I think that is against the rules.

  3. deb says:

    I have often thought about this subject. I think it is a natural evolution of thought for a gardener to want to be composted. Seeing death and rebirth in my own garden has helped me deal with the deaths of loved ones immeasureably.
    After having the experience of making final arrangements for a loved one, I realized the hypocrisy of the whole death industry. The fakey brass handles as you mentioned, the little silk pillow, the embalming…A few nights ago some friends & I were discussing how we would like to be disposed of IF we had a choice. I ventured that I would like to be buried under a tree and my ancestors could visit the tree instead of a lonely stone cemetery. Then with almost everyone in agreement with that idea we had a lively discussion deciding which plant we would like to help fertilize and why! (I opted for a redwood-sequoia sempervirens). Im happy to see this is a topic of interest to someone besides a bunch of morbid gardeners in Norfolk, VA! If you want to get even more riled up I recommend reading Jessica Mitford’s classic The American Way of Death. The way our culture handles death needs to change and I believe in this quote “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Perhaps gardens where the living could enjoy as a place to bury the remains of those who have left us is not just an idea, but an idea whose time has come- Good Post.

  4. Meryl says:

    Exactly so Karin. According to an article in “Popular Science” last year (paraphrased):

    “Promesion,” a body-disposal method developed by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak lets you return your body to the Earth in a way that gives plants more nutrients than cremation. Apparently, the body is put into a container and then dipped into a vat of extremely cold liquid nitrogen. When the body is pulled out, it is so dehydrated that a jolt of vibration will shatter it, turning it into a nitrogen and phosphorus rich powder. The powder is then put into a potato starch box, which will disintegrate in less than a year. The cost is estimated to be about $1000, much cheaper than a traditional burial.

    I also think the options for being cremated and turned into a diamond are interesting.

  5. my mantra : “Organic No Panic”.
    When the ticker tocks its lack tick for the convenience sake for my family I wish to be shaked and baked and have my ashes sprinkled on the grounds of my favorite piece of ocean side property.

    Didn’t someone once write ‘ashes to ashes’ ?

  6. Natalia says:

    Most everybody in my family has decided to get cremated and have our ashes turned into diamonds. Of course, we are the kind of people who would actually wear them!

    “Oh, what a lovely diamond necklace!”
    “Thank you, it’s my mother”
    “How nice that you inherited you’re mother’s jewelry”
    “No you don’t understand, it *is* my mother, well, her remains.”
    “Oh.”

  7. My friend and fellow writer Mary is the president of Green Springs Natural Cemetery, the ecological burial ground you link to. If she weren’t out of town, I’m sure she could share some stories about what a struggle it is to get something so simple as this off the ground. (Bad metaphor.) She might be checking email. I’ll let her know about this thread.

    I think I was first introduced to this whole topic as a kid back in camp, when we used to sing ‘The Watermelon Song’:

    Plant a watermelon on top of my grave and let the juice (slurp-slurp) run through.

    Plant a watermelon on top of my grave, thats all I ask of you.

    Now candy is dandy and ice cream’s fine but all I want is a watermelon vine.

    Plant a watermelon on top of my grave and let the juice (slurp-slurp) run through.

  8. susan harris says:

    What’s all this about diamonds?

  9. weeder1 says:

    I LOVE the freeze-dried plan!! I’ve intended to be cremated but the freezing sounds oh-so-much nicer. Or, just being “planted” in the ground sans box or vase or urn would be nice too. Maybe a shroud of hemp or 100″ cotton would be nice. ;>) I’ve often said that it would be nice to wander off into the desert to die under a sagebrush, become food for buzzards, coyotes, or whatever, and then become “little piles across the prairie.”

  10. Kim says:

    Ugh… I hate the freeze-dried plan. Dip me in WHAT? No thanks! Just dig a hole, roll me in, throw some dirt and maybe a few plants on top.

    As an added bonus, you’d have to plop me in the ground fast because of the scent issue. So there would be none of that funeral home visitation crap where you have to go up to the open casket and pretend like Uncle Artie “looks so lifelike.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not scared of the funeral home and I even touched my grandfather when he was on display… but the fakeness of it all really made me hate the whole rigamarole even more.

  11. Nancy Sotham says:

    I remember reading an article in “Country Gardens” magazine about a gardener who had her body cremated and the ashes were given out in little packets at her funeral for her friends and family to sprinkle over their own gardens.

  12. David says:

    The whole funeral industry is a way to separate people from their money at a vulnerable time in their lives. I’m donating my body to the UNC Medical school so some med student can cut away and learn…and maybe use his or her knowledge to heal others.

  13. Susan says:

    A friend of a friend of mine, lucky enough to own a goodly chunk of Boulder Co., Colorado, land, was, after her death, wrapped in infused-oil-soaked linen and set ablaze on her own land on a pyre of deadwood from her own land. Friends were there to sing of her deeds, and hawks and owls and horses and elk watched from a distance (along with several off-duty BoCo firefighters — just in case; it was after all a drought year — and the city fathers and mothers who had known her well and made the permits happen.) She was a hellacious open-space no-growth advocate, so she’d earned the sendoff. But it still meant more to the mourners, surely, than it did to her.

  14. A long time ago in another life, I decided I wanted to be cremated, mixed with a bag of manure and planted with a Red Oak Tree. I am headed in that direction.

    I found my tombstone when I was 18. Yes found it, in a grove of Mulberry trees. It was used. And is still in Florida waiting for me to reclaim. I was into recycling way back then and just figured I would carve my info on the other side and bury it with me and the manure in the same hole for the Red Oak Tree.

    Ancient bones and mummies fascinate me. Since I would be dust, I wanted to leave something for the future people to ponder. An unrelated double headed tombstone seperated by a full century sounded like a Reasonable thing.

  15. Sally says:

    Yea – what’s this about diamonds? I haven’t decided yet. I know funerals are for the living – a sort of closure ceremony. And I already own my plot at Jordan cemetary (it’s under an old cedar tree).

    I just did a post called “Farmers Compost” that kinda ties in with this.

  16. Mark Harris says:

    Great post. I’m the author of the book — Grave Matters — that Amy mentioned. I’m not surprised to see that gardeners “get” the idea of a green burial. Interestingly, in researching the book, I found that British Quakers preferred burial in their gardens than in the churchyards, with their landscapes of headstones.

    The first natural cemetery in the U.S. — the Ramsey Creek Preserve, in S.C. — is a wild, woodland where burials serve to renourish soil and preserve land. Working with local botanists, the founder (Billy Campbell) has drawn up a list of native plants that may be introduced onto each grave site. In fact, Campbell sees the natural cemetery as a modern re-creation of the “garden cemeteries” of mid- to late-1800. These rural cemeteries, as they were also known, took root in pastoral landscapes that embraced the natural.

    Anyone who is interested in a burial that is truly dust to dust, that returns the body to the natural cycle that sustains life, would find a natural burial compelling. Check out the Ramsey Creek web site: http://www.memorialecosystems.com. (I’ve posted an excerpt from a chapter on Ramsey Creek on my web site, with photo, at: http://www.gravematters.us, click on Chapters, and then to chapter 9).

    Good stuff, too, at the site of Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, which Natalia had mentioned: http://www.naturalburial.org

  17. Gloria says:

    Christopher, what a great idea! You will confuse some future anthropologist unless it catches on, becomes a trend…

    The diamond thing is well on it’s way.
    http://www.lifegem.com/secondary/whatisLG2006.aspx
    That’s right — making diamonds. Real ones, all but indistinguishable from the stones formed by a billion or so years’ worth of intense pressure, later to be sold at Tiffany’s.

    http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techinnovations/2005-10-06-man-made-diamonds_x.htm

  18. Mary Woodsen says:

    I’m a trustee of Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve. It’s been an amazing first year — we’re learning a lot about what’s involved in revegetating gravesites, when and how to plant commemorative native species, etc. We’re working on updates to our website that will tell all about it, so in a few weeks you’ll be able to find a planting guide and “year in review” that describe much of what we’ve learned.

    Mary Woodsen

  19. Debbie says:

    I recall a discussion I had with a friend about this very subject. I wanted to be composted and fed back into my garden. She, on the other hand, wanted to be cremated, baked into bread then fed to the birds to be, well, distributed. A similar idea to the buzzard one above.

    I like the idea of the diamond but LOVE the handing out of packets of ashes at the funeral. I put my dear old cat’s ashes under her favorite hydrangea. It reminds me of Girl Scouts when we would add to our fire a container of ashes left from previous campfires then scoop out ashes at the end of OUR fire to be returned and perpetuated. Symbolism rocks!

  20. kanganed says:

    Just a thought re a garden burial: considering how many toxic chemicals are in our bodies, could the garden still be considered organic?

  21. Sara says:

    Here is a list of green cemeteries and other information about how to really be pushing up daisies:

    http://www.cemeterygroup.org/

  22. Matilija says:

    I want to be turned into bio-char, a form of organic matter which persists in the soil forever. There is no more permanent contribution to the future.

  23. Laurie says:

    Mary Roach’s book “Stiff, the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” might give you more ideas on disposal methods.

    She covers Promessa, the Swedish cadaver composting group. If you Google Promessa, you also find a resturant. There’s probably no significance to this.

  24. maggie says:

    Yes, compost me! Please! (Not yet, though, I’m not dead yet.)

  25. Bridgette Firestone says:

    My father passed away last October, he wanted to be cremated and buried on the same plot as his mother, it did conserve a plot, which I was able to do, he had one more request, shake the box so he’d be buried so the whole world could kiss his ash, little humor there. Sorry, but I do agree funeral’s are way over priced and what ever happened to a pine box instead of some $1000’s fake looking vener with a huge burial vault, how can you become ashes if the bugs and worms can’t ever get to the body?

  26. Bridgette Firestone says:

    My father passed away last October, he wanted to be cremated and buried on the same plot as his mother, it did conserve a plot, which I was able to do, he had one more request, shake the box so he’d be buried so the whole world could kiss his ash, little humor there. Sorry, but I do agree funeral’s are way over priced and what ever happened to a pine box instead of some $1000’s fake looking vener with a huge burial vault, how can you become ashes if the bugs and worms can’t ever get to the body?

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