My Body, My Self?
As our Buddhist teachers remind us pretty much every day, we are all going to die. Marvel in this glorious day, they tell us, and prepare for your death.
So, in thinking about your death, you have done your best to be as thoughtful and prepared as you can be. You of course have a will disposing of your possessions, and you have your advanced directive in place, describing the medical interventions you desire in specific circumstances. In some states, you have an order from your doctor directing the paramedics who will come to your home not to pound on your chest or otherwise try to revive you when you are clearly dead.
You have completed your life review, made peace with your family and the universe, and – having studied conscious dying - are prepared to die with the greatest love and dignity. You have recorded or written your last remarks, your last messages of peace and love to all, and have designed a memorial gathering that will express your greatest loves, and will allow your friends and loved ones to show their love and appreciation for a life well lived.
So, now, what about your body? What should be done with this so lovely and faithful body of yours? What is this now lifeless body, anyway? Does how you think about your body inform your decision about what should be done with it after your death?
In many traditions, body and spirit are considered separate, with the body the vessel that holds spirit during its time on earth. The spirit may be thought of as an emanation of a greater being, perhaps a greater all-encompassing soul, to which it returns at death (e.g. Suzuki’s waterfall.) For some, the body is mud animated by spirit (Bokonon!) and both expire together. For some, the body is a gift of nature that we have borrowed but which belongs to nature. For some, the body is all there is, a lucky accident of billions of years of evolution that somehow gained the profound singularity of consciousness but is in the end just an assortment of molecules that will disassociate after death.
I’m not sure it matters, in that this is the one and only body you will have and it has been your faithful friend, companion, and lover for all your days. It maintains your life when you sleep and rises with you, breathing and pumping and moving through your days. At the end of your days, doesn’t it make sense to treat this loyal friend with the greatest dignity and respect? What would that look like? What are the qualities that you would want for the handling of your body? How would you like it to end its journey? And what would your body ask of you?
And I would suggest this is not just about your body after death. Many writers tell us we live as we die, or as we imagine dying. And I’d say that we also live as we care for our bodies after death, that how we think about and plan for our bodies informs how we live. The care and love and respect we plan for our bodies after death can give us ease and grace about death and after, can bring us peace and hope as we live about death and whatever comes after.
Modern Burial and Cremation
For most of human history, in cultures where bodies were buried, the body was placed in a grave, perhaps wrapped in a shroud or in a simple box, often just in the earth. While mummification and embalming were known and practiced in Egypt, China and other societies thousands of years ago, until very recently, the vast majority of people were simply placed in a hole and covered with dirt, returned to the earth.
We have the Civil War, along with the development of formaldehyde in 1867, to thank for the surge in embalming in the United States. By replacing the body’s natural fluids with formaldehyde and other chemicals, a body can be restored, preserved for some time, and transported long distances. Embalming led to the rise of a professional funeral business, which in turn drove the demand for coffins made with exotic woods and metals, and burial in manicured private cemeteries where the coffin is placed inside a concrete vault. The concrete vault prevents collapse of the coffin and subsiding of the ground, making mowing a problem, and also reminding living visitors of the unpleasant fact of dead bodies beneath the ground.
There is much to criticize about modern burial practices. The embalming process is done in a quasi-medical facility by strangers and separates the body from family and loved ones. It is terribly invasive, it disrespects the integrity of the body, and it attempts to hide the fact of death and the consequences for the body. Modern cemeteries present an unnatural golf course landscape of sameness, maintained with chemicals and groomed with machinery. And it is an ongoing environmental disaster and a waste of natural resources.
Every year, America’s 22,500 cemeteries bury approximately (these are somewhat dated numbers, but still pretty close):
- 867,060 gallons of embalming fluid (mostly formaldehyde);
- 104,272 tons of steel for caskets and vaults, enough to build another Golden Gate Bridge;
- 2,700 tons of copper and bronze for more caskets;
- more than 30 million board feet of hardwoods; and
- 1,636,000 tons of concrete, enough for a 2-lane road between San Francisco and Phoenix.
Is this how you want your lovely and natural body to be handled when you are dead?
Well, maybe cremation is a better way? Surely, there is a good reason why everyone is doing it? In counties around the world, cremation rates have either been traditionally high (Japan, 99.85%; India, 85%) or have been rising dramatically since the 1970s (Denmark, 76%; UK, 72%; Canada, 68%). The cremation rate in the US has risen from 3.5% in 1960 to something around 45% in 2014. Cremation uses energy (something like 2500 trips to the moon – every year - in a car getting 30 mpg), but avoids the use of exotic woods, metals, chemicals, and concrete, and saves land for other uses, so it must be a good choice, right? Perhaps.
Cremation rates have risen so sharply for several reasons: cremation is much less expensive than modern burial (in many places, a complete cremation runs around $500); it requires little advance planning and little for loved ones to do after death; and the remains are portable and may be placed in many places that were meaningful to a person throughout her life.
While cremation may be a better choice than modern burial, it shares some of the same characteristics. The body is handed over to a random professional and is processed in an industrial facility. The crematorium is a gas fired, steel furnace (“no cool down between ‘cycles’; capable of ten ‘cases’ in 12 hours”) that reduces a body to ash and bits of bone in about an hour. The body – the reminder of the person and the life lived, also the dramatic fact of death – is “disposed of”, is made to go away. There is nothing particularly wrong about cremation: it is certainly neat, clean, and efficient, and it removes the messy fact of death, replacing it with a jar of clean ash and bony bits. Human? Not so much, but maybe it’s the best we can do? Perhaps, but think back about your lovely body, your closest, most loyal companion. Do you want her to end her journey in a gas-fueled inferno inside a steel box?
Imagine after your death, your body, your best friend, is washed and dressed and cared for with the greatest love and tenderness by those who know and love you best, in your home or theirs, for several days after your death. After several days of leave takings of remembrance and laughter and tears, your caretakers wrap your body in a shroud you knitted with your favorite yarns, or one woven with care from finest linens, or perhaps you are placed a willow basket woven just for you, or a simple and elegant wooden casket made by a spouse, son, lover, or favorite craftsman.
You are driven by your caretakers to a special cemetery, a natural burial ground out of town in a forest or a prairie, one that is dedicated to conservation and will be preserved as a natural and green and growing place forever. You are placed on a simple wagon and pulled, perhaps by a horse, perhaps by friends, with music and song, somberly or with joy, along a grassy track to the special place you have chosen. Your body, your one and loving vessel in this life, is treated with grace and care and respect by people who know and love you. And they lay you gently in the grave that has been prepared for you, with the ceremonies and in the manner you have chosen. And your body will relax and sigh, feeling the loving embrace of her mother as she becomes one once again with the great soul of the world.
You are covered with a special woven cloth, perhaps of sage or leaves, vines, flowers, and you are covered with the fresh earth that has sustained you and nourished you for all your life. And to which you will return, with all your juicy, luscious goodness to nourish the earth, because you will be among the roots of the trees and grasses, and perhaps a tree will be planted over you, a cedar, a fir, a sequoia, an oak, or perhaps a rose, perhaps the most fragrant mock orange, perhaps a waving sea of prairie grasses. As their roots reach into your body, you will rise up and live again, again experience the miracle of life on this glorious planet. And those who come to visit you will marvel at the fecundity of your body and praise you for the richness you have added to the world.
That’s the vision of Green Burial, also known as Natural Burial (with a “home funeral” instead of a funeral home): loving and respectful burial of your natural, unembalmed body; wrapped in a simple, natural covering that will quickly decompose; in a place that has been set aside forever to preserve or restore the natural environment and where your body can return to help fulfill that promise. Imagine your burial in a cut-over forest in the foothills of the Cascades with new firs and cedars spring up around you and Mt. Rainier as your headstone, land that will one day be a stand of old growth Douglas fir, cedar, big leaf maples. Your body will be a part of that and your ancestors and the entire tribe of humans will remember and thank you for your contribution.
Frequently Asked Questions
No, green burial is not illegal. It appears that embalming is not required in any state. Coffins and vaults are often required by modern cemeteries, but only for their convenience. In some states, a person may be buried on her land, subject to acreage requirements. In others, burial may take place only in a place platted as a cemetery. Resources and contacts are listed below.
Yes, green burial costs more than cremation. Depending on location, a plot runs a few thousand dollars. Funeral home services, mostly transportation and refrigeration, maybe a couple of thousand more. Opening and closing a grave, another thousand. Reconnecting with the spirit of the earth: that’s up to you.
No, green burial is not a dream. Green burial cemeteries are showing up in many states (see below.) While modern cemeteries are in decline, losing business to cremation, green burials are on the rise. Some modern cemeteries are adding “green” sections, where some of the standard requirements may be eased (so-called “hybrid” cemeteries. They are often still golf course lawns cared for with fertilizers and pesticides, but they are something. You can locate a natural burial ground in your area through the Green Burial Council (see below), and some states have their own small organizations, often run by one person. With a few phone calls, I located the green burial and home funeral network in Washington and those folks were more than willing to talk with me and give me information.
Yes, it is possible to start a green burial cemetery. I have explored starting a green burial cemetery in Washington state. It is a bit complicated, and I’d say this is true for probably every state, but entirely feasible. As with all real estate, it all about, yes, location. But if you are reasonably close to a sizable urban area with an educated boomer population with some money and spirit, and land is available, it can be done. Green cemeteries seem a natural for conservation organizations, especially land trusts, because their mission is usually to preserve and restore natural environments, because the organizations will likely be around forever (however long that may be), and because they have a ready supply of folks who would love to contribute some juice to the cause.
Yes, burial in a green orchard is so far a dream, but there is no reason - other than the ick factor, but then part of the goal here is ease those fears – why you couldn’t host the fruit tree of your choice and your children and grandchildren could pick apples from your tree, from you. Now there’s communion for you! And imagine the conversations at the roadside fruit stand! If you are interested in exploring this idea, let me know. I have given it a lot of thought, run the financials, and talked with realtors. It’s more challenging than a forest or a prairie, but offers some fine prospects for reincarnation.
Yes, home funerals are legal. Think back: until the last one hundred years, all over the world, people tended their dead loved ones themselves, in their own homes, with their own hands. And with their own love. Home funerals are a return to traditional ways, in the same manner as green burials are a return to traditional burial practices. Yes, you need to be emotionally ready, but again, part of this work is about gaining a comfort with death so that we see death and the dead with love and not fear. Check with your state, but as far as I can tell, most states allow home care of a body. Most are done with dry ice, and I am told, by a funeral professional, that it is easy to keep a body cool and, um, fresh (?) for three days or more that way. That is about the same length of time it takes to get a death certificate, the official document that allows burial. You need to deal with transportation issues from the place of death and to the cemetery, and those vary by state, but home burial can and is being done now.
The Green Burial Council(headquartered in Ojai, California) is a national organization dedicated to promoting green burial. They certify green burial grounds at different levels, and are working with the Land Trust Alliance on a Conservation burial Ground program. The website includes good information and a list of approved funeral providers and green burial locations. I’m not sure how current it is: I know of several green burial grounds not on their list. A sign of the times: their Facebook page seems much more active and current, and includes screening dates for “A Will for the Woods”, a just released film about one person’s quest for a natural burial.
The Home Funeral Alliance also maintains a list of natural burial cemeteries; many appear to be hybrid cemeteries, with existing modern cemeteries attempting to expand into the natural burial market.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern California website includes a section on green burial and a list of providers in California. It looks like there is a need for conservation burial grounds in California. Build it and they will come. They also provide extensive resources on home funerals, including videos of people’s home funeral experiences. (“Just as the Baby Boomers brought back home births in the 60′s and 70′s they are now bringing back caring of the dead at home”.)
The National Home Funeral Alliance offers information, training, and advocacy for those interested in providing home care of a loved one after death. Much great information, practical and legal, links to resources, workshops, conferences and much more.
And below are links to a few natural burial grounds. These will give you an idea of what the places are really like.
White Eagle Memorial Preserve is a natural burial ground in south-central Washington, north of The Columbia River in a protected ponderosa and oak forest. Beautiful, soulful, these folks are setting the standard for what natural burial can be, including opportunities to camp out and really get to know your last, best place.
Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve is located on one hundred acres of rolling hilltop meadow in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The website includes much good information and links.
Foxfield Preserve is located on native prairie in north central Ohio. It is run by the Wilderness Center, a local group dedicated to preserving and restoring natural ecosystems in the area. Good folks, good mission, lovely setting.
Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery is dedicated to preserving and restoring native forest in Florida.