Dying to Know - Budding Green Burial in the U.S.

For over a decade and a half, green burial advocates (GBAs) have been working toward simpler, less polluting, and more sustainable death care. This in contrast to the trio of funeral industry practices that have largely come to make up the American Way of Death - chemical embalming, sealed and treated hardwood and metal caskets, and burial vaults - a threesome that's turned human decay into an erroneous menace to be managed while leaving despoiled lands in its wake.

More or less, GBAs hold to other aims, too, including the conservation, preservation, and restoration of lands - a focus that's undoubtedly expanding the parameters of what Aldo Leopold long ago called "the land community." With nearly fifty percent of all deaths in the U.S. ending in cremation, another key movement aim includes greening up our crematories as they emit mercury, furans and dioxins, among other by-products of burning, while also consuming a good deal of fossil fuels.

But the work of GBAs can, perhaps, be more neatly summed up without having to detail every real goal and potential strategy. As many fellow GBAs have said to me, the green burial movement is categorically about one thing - a return to death care practices that "just make sense."

Indeed, dust-to-dust disposition was once the norm in the U.S. When colonizers first settled the land they buried their dead with simple methods - an unfinished wooden box, a hand-dug hole, a mound of soil. Bodies were prepared for burial mostly by the women of the family, wrapped in the care and strength of their community, and later interred in the family plot or church graveyard. This was before industrialization and manufacturing, before plastics and polymers and lab-born bound chemicals. Before concrete, steel and chrome.

It goes without saying that not having these things made it possible for us not to use them. That when they became real and available we did, tells us something about the fragility of our thinking in the face of new forces. Even though we once buried our dead green without having - or needing - the language to say it, human separation from nature was already making inroads into nascent American culture, already shaping a view of nature that could turn the dead body, and ultimately our meanings of death, sharply away from the earth.

While the death care practices of some religious communities - e.g. Jewish and Muslim - have never abandoned an understanding of human decay's tie to the earth, even those death rites have sometimes been impeded, specifically at cemeteries that have required some kind of grave liner - partial, inverted or otherwise. In response to such requirements, the "first green Jewish cemetery," Gan Yarok, opened in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010, and with others soon following, such as Prairie Green at the Greenwood Cemetery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Beyond these traditions, the American Way of Death prevails. In its shadow, such "sensible" practices have not only been pushed out of sight, but any accompanying knowledge has, accordingly, been pushed out of mind. That knowledge, however, is slowly rising to the surface.

Something old, but not yet lost, is awakening within us.

Perhaps that's because knowledge that is too primary will always find a way to be recognized. The twentieth century philosopher Michel Foucault called these subjugated knowledges or ways of knowing that have been forced to go underground to survive. Moves to unearth such knowledges are often indicators of shifting frameworks, omens of things to come. Such was the case when on the heels of the women's health movement of the 1960s and 1970s many women began to rescue birthing practices from the clutch of medicine. The resurgence of midwives at that time was not just about restoring old methods, but about laying claim to certain wisdoms that were demonized and forced to the margins - ways of knowing that had retreated, but not disappeared for good.

Of course, all social movements - at their core - are about a struggle for knowledge. Which is to say that the work of GBAs, in communities large and small, isn't merely about securing death care rights we've been stripped of with an eye toward environmental health, it's about recouping ways of caring for our dead that bespeak a different way of knowing death, and, ultimately, a different way of knowing nature.

Buried and ostensibly left to the past, the upward force of those knowings is mounting. Knowledge, it seems, really is power.