from Each Little Bird That Sings
written by Deborah Wiles
Clarion Books, 2006
To be sure, Great-great-aunt Florentine was dead. She was not buried in her beloved garden, but she could have been.
I’ve been considering a blog post on Green Burials for a long time, but I hesitated. Death is an uncomfortable topic for many of us. What happens afterward is a great mystery we who are alive cannot solve. We can imagine. We can believe. We can avoid the subject altogether, but it really is a mystery.
Lest anyone jumps to a wrong conclusion, I am not harboring a secret, unthinkable, frightening diagnosis. I also don’t know anyone who is. And I am not harboring a death-wish. To be clear, the topic is timely, practical, and more and more people are considering all their options while they are still above-ground to do so.
Some people are happy-go-lucky. They roll with life’s punches, perils, and predicaments taking good news, bad news, even no news in stride. Not necessarily averse to planning, some people just don’t do it. Others of us plan everything from breakfast to dinner and each moment between. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of all that.
Pre-planning your own funeral, though, is not for everyone. I get that. So if you’re one who prefers to stop reading now, I understand.
Before the Civil War (1861 - 1865) it was uncommon to embalm bodies for burial. Great advances during that War allowed the unrefrigerated bodies of tens of thousands of soldiers to be returned to their families for burial. The same process was used to preserve the body of Abraham Lincoln as he was viewed by thousands of grief-stricken Americans on the famous train ride that took him almost 1,700 miles from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois, his final resting place. After Lincoln’s funeral, embalming became more fashionable.
Even though only five percent of burials are natural, 74% of funeral homes reported an increased interest. One main reason is the prohibitive cost of a traditional burial; $8,000 is average in Ohio right now and the trend is upward.
Natural burial is also known as Green Burial. A body is allowed to decompose naturally in the ground. No embalming (with its toxic chemicals) is necessary. A biodegradable casket or a natural-fiber shroud assures nothing interferes with the process. Both will reduce the final cost.
Another obvious advantage to a Green Burial is being able to work hand-in-hand with Mother Nature. All the body’s minerals are absorbed into the earth, making a grave the perfect place for a shade-giving tree, a comfortable rock to serve as a backrest, or a patch of daffodils.
Along with providing positive ecological aspects, negative aspects of a traditional burial can be avoided.
Almost five and a half million gallons of embalming fluid is used by funeral homes in the United States each year. Embalming fluid contains formaldehyde, harmful to the people preparing the body and toxic to the ground once it begins to biodegrade into the soil.
Over one and a half million tons of reinforced concrete, one to two tons per vault, are used each year.
Made into coffins, US cemeteries bury over 30 million board feet of hardwoods and softwoods each year. Some are pine, some are oak, and some are made from exotic woods from rainforests in South America.
The Green Burial Council provides a list of negative consequences to the earth caused by traditional burial on its website. Their site also provides a comprehensive FAQ page. It’s a great place to start looking for more info.
The physical advantages of Green Burial speak for themselves. But humans are emotional beings. Like Elizabeth Berg’s lovable character, Arthur Truluv, who took his lunch to the cemetery every day to visit his wife, we all want to know we can visit our loved ones even when they can no longer walk next to us or share our lunch.
Most cemeteries and burial sites that provide natural burial allow some type of marker, whether it be an engraved field stone set flush to the earth, a patch of perennials, or a tree or shrub. The GPS coordinates of a gravesite are usually provided to the family, so even if the spot is not marked, it’s still accessible.
A particular place provides an important feeling of connection that ties us to our past, to the DNA that we share with family members, close and distant.
We like a remembrance, too, a token, something tangible to remind us of our loved ones. Call it a memento, but these solid objects are so much more. I have my grandmother’s rocking chair. It’s old, but I wouldn’t call it an antique. It has no value to anyone but me. I like to sit in the kitchen and imagine I’m sitting in her lap, even though she was mostly not that kind of grandma.
While Green Burial is legal in every state, some communities, and some cemeteries may have a policy prohibiting the practice so it’s important to check.
Lots of people are making the decision for Green Burial, mostly for ecological reasons, but financial, too. I’m sure no one is surprised to find out it’s a decision I’ve been considering for a long time. After I’m finished with the body I’ve used and misused, I like to think I could nourish a tree or a bush. Something flowering would be nice. Maybe a Rose of Sharon?
Deborah Wiles’ book Each Little Bird That Sings (Clarion Books, 2006) tells the story of Comfort Snowberger whose family owns the only funeral home in town. After the back to back deaths of both her uncle and her great-great aunt, tragedy strikes. Comfort’s naïveté combines with her optimism. She concludes that “it’s not how you die that makes the important impression, it’s how you live.” Try this one for a quick read that goes right to the mind and heart of a smart eleven-year-old.
-—be curious! (and celebrate life)