California Literary Review

Mark Harris Discusses A “Natural Way of Burial”

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June 5th, 2007 at 5:51 pm

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Mark Harris

Mark Harris is a former environmental columnist with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. His new book is entitled Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.

So not only do we have to worry about the effects of our daily activities on the environment, but according to your book we should also be thinking about the damage we inflict after our death. Walk us through the traditional funeral and burial process, and the ecological harm it causes.
In the typical modern burial, the body is pumped full of toxic embalming chemicals, sealed inside a metal casket that’s entombed within a concrete bunker and then covered over with a ton of dirt and grass kept preternaturally green with pest and weed killer. Above ground, the local cemetery may look bucolic and natural; below the surface, it serves as a de facto landfill of hazardous wastes and non-biodegradable materials.
Some million-and-a-half Americans are given this standard, funeral home send-off every year. Outfitting each of them demands the extraction and consumption of vast amounts of resources and leaves a trail of environmental damage in its wake.
Over time, for example, a ten-acre swatch of cemetery ground will contain enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 homes, nearly a thousand tons of casket steel and another twenty thousand tons of concrete for vaults. Joe Sehee, director of the non-profit Green Burial Council, has crunched numbers to show that enough metal is diverted into coffin and vault production to make the Golden Gate Bridge every year, and enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit. All this to simply lay our dead to rest.
Formaldehyde, the primary ingredient in embalming fluids and a potential carcinogen, is another concern. We bury a million gallons of the stuff every year, some of which eventually leaches from embalmed remains and runs into surrounding soil and groundwaters. Not enough research has been done to make definitive judgments about formaldehyde’s effect on the environment; its effect on members of the mortuary trade is clearer. Numerous studies have shown that embalmers and funeral directors exhibit a higher incidence of leukemia and cancers of the brain and colon, among other ailments.
So what are the alternatives? What are people doing to make burials more environmentally friendly?
The families I interviewed for the book pursued natural alternatives that went light on funeral goods; embalming was always avoided, burial vaults used only when mandated by the cemetery. The goods that families did use were generally of simple make, readily biodegradable, and often handcrafted. The primary goal here — so at odds with modern burial, with its preservation of the corpse at literally all costs — was to allow and even invite the decay of one’s physical body and return what remained to the elements it sprang from, as directly as simply as possible. To return dust to dust.
In some cases, that meant returning to old tradition. One man I profiled buried his wife in a private graveyard inside a wooded clearing at the base of his mountain home, her body wrapped in a shroud. Another woman scattered her husband’s cremated remains at sea, off the coast of San Diego. I found families that hired local carpenters to craft plain, wooden coffins for their dead, others that “waked” and held funerals for their loved ones at home.
A couple of families chose more novel, natural returns. In Sarasota, Florida, I watched one widow mix the cremated remains of her husband into the concrete slurry that formed an igloo-shaped “reef ball.” A month later, she boarded a boat on the New Jersey coast and watched the crew drop her husband’s reef ball onto an artificial reef a couple of miles offshore, to serve as habitat for fish.
The “natural cemeteries” springing up in this country offer burial in rural, usually wooded settings. Embalming, vaults, and non-biodegradable caskets are banned; minimal headstones, which lay flush to the ground, are permitted, though trees, shrubs and indigenous vegetation may serve as well. There are half a dozen of these green graveyards in the U.S. – the U.K. is home to some 200 – with a score of others in the planning stages.
I count cremation as a natural alternative. Incinerating a body does consume natural gas and electricity and emits pollutants – including, at times, mercury, from dental amalgams – into the atmosphere. But it also demands significantly fewer resources than standard burial and allows for the return of the resulting ash to the natural environment.
I should mention that all these burials are legal.
Tibetan Buddhists will sometimes leave a dead body exposed to the elements as food for vultures. I imagine this might be a public health issue in the United States. Is there anything close to that tradition that’s possible here?
The organization that operates the Ethician Family Cemetery, a natural cemetery in Texas, says it has gained permission from the state to conduct “sky burials” on its grounds. To facilitate them, it will construct a Tower of Silence, a walled, circular structure that’s open to the air. A corpse will be laid onto a platform in the center of the tower, to be degraded by the elements and consumed by birds of prey.
Followers of the ancient, largely Middle Eastern Zoroastrian religion practiced this form of sky burial for thousands of years. Contemporary Zoroastrians who live in Bombay still do. I believe certain Native American communities in this country continue to observe a similar, long-held tradition of laying out their dead on raised biers under an open sky. I don’t see sky burials going mainstream in the U.S., though an organization called the Society for Ecological Sky Burial is working to promote them.
Preservation of the body seems to have become of less importance to people in recent years, while practices like cremation are more common. Why do you think that is?
We’re focusing far less on the corpse than we used to, for one. The viewing of the body was an expected feature of the decent funeral in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Now, it’s quite common and acceptable to hold closed-casket funerals or memorial services without the body present.
The Catholic Church’s gradual if reluctant acceptance of cremation — a form of disposition that literally de-emphasizes the body — probably helped in that regard, giving Catholics at least permission to look beyond the mortal remains in memorializing a life. Jessica Mitford, for her part, encouraged Americans to question the funeral industry’s contention that we must view an embalmed, cosmetized and life-like corpse in order to acknowledge that a death has indeed occurred and then get on with our grief. One man I interviewed for the book who honors his mother’s wishes to be cremated with no viewing beforehand articulated Mitford’s argument as succinctly as any when he said, “My mother thought that having people see her dead body laid out in a funeral home wasn’t going to do her or anyone else any good.”
I also think we’re growing more reluctant to preserve the remains of our loved ones because we know a lot more about the preservative process itself. Thanks to funeral exposés and shows like CSI many of us have read about or seen a T.V. embalming — and seen it for the invasive and gruesome process it is — and are opting out. At the same time, funeral groups and the like are telling us that embalming is almost never required by law, doesn’t preserve a body forever, and offers little benefit to the public health. So, why do it?
For now, anyway, cremation is proving the most popular alternative to the modern funeral. It’s cheap, for starters ($1,800 on average, versus up to $10,000 for the standard send-off), sparing of land, and simple to arrange. I believe more of us will eventually turn to some of the other natural options I write about as people find out about them and when they become easier to access (i.e., when the number of natural cemeteries grows, as is happening).
Moving a loved one’s ashes or body a long distance to achieve a “natural burial,” whether at sea or in a “natural cemetery” strikes me as anything but environmentally friendly given the carbon emissions released just to transport the remains. Is this ever mentioned? If one does not have the land to pursue a backyard burial, what in your opinion would be the most environmentally sensitive method to dispose of one’s remains?
I acknowledge in the book that the inherent “green-ness” of any one option depends on the given burial. If you’re driving someone’s ashes a thousand miles from home to scatter them in pristine forestland or air-freighting a body to a distant natural cemetery for shrouded interment there – as has happened – you’re certainly negating much, if not, all, of the benefit to the environment you gained from choosing an earth-friendly funeral. That said, I don’t want, nor do I think it’s possible (or worthwhile), to create a litmus test for the “true green” burial. Families would do well, though, to consider the real environmental costs of their chosen natural alternative.
In large part, what’s most eco-friendly for any one death hinges on local factors: the proximity of the nearest natural cemetery, whether the crematory boasts a filter to capture any mercury that’s vaporized in the process of incinerating any body that harbors dental amalgams, the willingness of the local funeral home to hold an unembalmed body for a private family viewing.
All factors being equal, it’s hard to imagine a greener send-off than the kind of woodland burial that’s offered at Ramsey Creek Preserve, a natural cemetery in South Carolina. Not only are the dead laid to rest in a green manner (with no embalming, vault or huge headstone) and in a green setting, but a portion of the burial costs are directed into an account that goes toward preserving the land and restoring it to ecological health. Talk about using a death to create a lasting legacy for the living.

Aside from the environmental issues, do you see ways that the funeral process can better serve the psychological and social needs of family and friends?
The funeral industry serves families best when it gives them what they want, at a reasonable cost, and without the pressure, subtly or not, to do otherwise.
That will necessarily require the industry to increase the offerings on its General Price List of Goods and Services. Any list should provide, for example, the option to refrigerate remains in lieu of embalming, and when possible to then allow for some kind of viewing. Instead of limiting the choice of an affordable casket to, say, the puke green, cloth-covered box that’s relegated to the dark corner of the display room, funeral directors should offer a range of handsome, basic caskets at affordable prices.
We’re seeing some of this happen already. More funeral directors are showing a willingness to literally step outside their parlor doors to offer personalized funerals in non-funereal settings. The one-size-fits-all funeral that has been the norm for the last hundred years really doesn’t fit all, or even many of us, and that’s truer now more than ever before.
  • Don Midway

    I believe, in time, Grave Matters will have a major impact on how we ?bury? our loved ones. The ?modern? (not traditional) burial makes no sense today. That?s not to say there isn?t a purpose for funeral directors. Changes must be made with regard to burial if we are to show respect for the environment. After reading this book, particularly the first chapter, I see very little that is natural with the current manner of modern burials. Surely the funeral industry can, and should, become more conscientous, to the biblical passage, ?for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return? thereby demonstrating more respect for life as well as our earth.

  • George H. Russell

    I was very happy to learn about the new book by Mark Harris.

    I have been promoting “Green Burial” since 1968 and “Sky Burial” since 1999.

    George H. Russell
    Bishop and Founder
    The Universal Ethician Church
    http://www.salvationnetwork.org

  • Michael Salisbury

    A Statement of Values?

    The design of cemeteries and burial grounds has long reflected the cultural values of the peoples that built them. The ?green-cemetery? or natural burial ground reflects the changing cultural values of our society and expresses a commitment to a sustainable lifestyle in the most personal manner.

    The increasing number of natural burial grounds across North America indicates that this fledgling movement has both significant grass roots support as well as mainstream acceptance. The development of green burial standards will help ensure that that the full potential of this movement is realised. The Green Burial Council should be commended for their leadership and vision.

    Forest of Memories, is a non-profit website that provides information and resources supporting the natural burial movement in North America. According the Forest of Memories website, http://www.forestofmemories.org there are now half a dozen natural burial grounds in the USA with several others planned in both Canada and the States.

    The natural burial ground provides a number of benefits for the greater community including an enhancement of the urban greenspace network, development of multi-use recreational spaces and improvement of the ecological diversity of the area. Natural Burial allows people to make one final act, to communicate, in death, a statement of their values about life.

  • anonymous

    Benjamin Franklin once said, ?In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes. At least now, thanks to the internet, death doesn?t have to be as expensive.

    According to AARP, the average funeral in the United States can easily reach $10,000 once a burial plot, flowers and other costs are included.

    Educated consumers are no longer in the dark about how the funeral industry works. Big conglomerates are mercilessly buying up family-operated homes with their eyes solely on the bottom-line. Caskets alone average a 600% mark up. They may be the last example of a legal monopoly left in the United States. Mourners are literally gauged, as they haven?t the time or presence of mind to comparison shop.

    It has always been tradition to call upon the neighborhood funeral parlor, cemetery or monument dealer when a loved-one passes. But, due to the internet, that traditional is starting to change.

    MonumentsInStone is the sister company of Interstate Granite, a family-owned, monument manufacturer that has been in business in the Atlanta area since 1916. They have recently launched a website, offering granite headstones, bronze markers and crematory products at a fraction of their retail price. ?We have been there.? Say the owner, Robert Womac. ?And, we want to right an industry-wide wrong.?

    Internet companies now supply headstones and memorials directly to the consumer. Although cemeteries might not like this, they have to, by law, accept a stone from an outside source. The savings have been a blessing for many customers.

    The Funeral Consumers Alliance has many tips that should be followed when planning a funeral. They told us that savvy consumers need to shop around for a grave marker or monument. The Better Business Bureau also warns to resist high-priced sales pitches from funeral industry vendors. They should treat you with compassion; not pressure you.

    Perhaps, asking a friend or neighbor to work the phones or search the net would be a good idea. Even a check on Ebay has produced a number of beautiful choices. I found an elegant, Granite Companion Monument for a third of the price my funeral parlor was pitching. A Tombstone on Ebay? I emailed the highest bidder to find out why. ?I?m sorry,? He told me. ? I see no reason to pay top dollar because of some outdated tradition.?

  • Anon

    After years of thinking I would be cremated, I finally, no pun intended, made the decision to go for a natural burial. The reasons were threefold: I live near one of the only “green cemeteries” in California; it happens to be located in a favorite place of my childhood; and I found out that cremation uses enough energy to heat a family of four for a month.

    It was more expensive than cremation, to be sure–8k vs 500-1,500 bucks: but in the long run, I am happy knowing I will be buried the way I want to be buried and where I want to be buried.

    The Funeral Director of this Green Cemetery was very low-key: never pushed me to go with anything I didn’t want–no sales pitch for a pricey casket (I picked out a very pain flax/linen shroud) and though he mentioned the expensive tree species marker, he didn’t push for it–I didn’t have a an extra 2,500-7,500 to have an Oak or Redwood planted above me. I do not think I will miss it–but if my family and friend want it–they are welcome to do so.

    I hope the practice of pumping up dead bodies full of embalming fluid will go away–finally. There are, as you know, many stories of exploding wall crypts and mausoleums.
    All because the body is pumped full of this junk.

    Thanks for writing about a very important subject and providing options to the standard 10-20k American burial rite.

  • http://naturalburial.coop earthartist

    Natural Burial Around the World

    The modern concept of natural burial began in the UK in 1993 and has since spread across the globe. According the Centre for Natural Burial, http://naturalburial.coop there are now several hundred natural burial grounds in the United Kingdom and half a dozen sites across the USA, with others planned in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and even China.

    A natural burial allows you to use your funeral as a conservation tool to create, restore and protect urban green spaces.

    The Centre for Natural Burial provides comprehensive resources supporting the development of natural burial and detailed information about natural burial sites around the world. With the Natural Burial Co-operative newsletter you can stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the rapidly growing trend of natural burial including, announcements of new and proposed natural burial sites, book reviews, interviews, stories and feature articles.

    The Centre for Natural Burial

  • http://www.limbodisseny.com Moises Diaz

    LIMBO (LIMBODISSENY S.L.) was created by a group of young designers and
    architects who wanted to take part in the construction and improvement of
    a new funeral world. Having sought advice and made strong contacts with
    other professional in this area, LIMBO is now able to share this
    knowledge. Today we have to take into account the important need to
    preserve the environment.
    Our company developped, among many other useful, smart and degradable
    products, a new concept of real 100% biodegradable funeral urns. All our
    urns are made using only vegetal and mineral products. Because we are
    convinced that we can leave this world in a respectful and caring way, we
    are committed to create a wide range of products to fit the need of an
    ecofriendly funeral.
    Limbo believes that, through its project, it can provide exemplary
    services and solutions to make the personal attention that is required
    during difficult and emotional moments, easier, in a caring and
    respectful manner. We want to make the attention provided in funeral
    houses more human and special which means we also provide a very
    personalised service to the companies and enterprises involved so that we
    can meet their needs too. This is why everyone at LIMBO, in addition to
    being well qualified professionals in other areas, have a common
    commitment to developping improvements in the funeral sector.

    We invite you to visit our web site: http://www.limbodisseny.com and wish you
    like what you find there.
    We look forward to hear from you.
    Yours sincerely,

    Moisés Diaz
    moises@limbodisseny.com

  • http://www.vincentbeach.com Anni Beach

    A great article! My husband is getting ready to take his final journey-he’s under Hospice of the Valley care and I take care of him here at home. We’re planning to do this the old-fashioned way-everything here at home and then we go to the VA Cemetery for burial-it’s free. Trying to get all the how-to has been a real search project. I’m getting there but I need information on how to keep the body cool at home-we don’t want embalming, but we want all the family here. We are musicians and we want all the music, food, the kids building the box and everyone decorating. It’s fitting for this wonderful and humble man.

    But tell me: How do we keep the body cool and comply with Arizona law?

  • http://www.novaterium.com Rory Rickwood

    The risks associated with traditional burials and cremation has an adverse affect our environment. More debate is needed on this taboo subject matter. Please study and presenting this issue to policy makers so that regulatory changes can be made to allow greener alternatives to what is being offered by cemetery/funeral industry.

    We have background information presented in our website: http://www.novaterium.com.

    Thank you,
    Rory Rickwood
    Novaterium.com

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