If you love stories, cemeteries are almost irresistible--every headstone has a tale to tell. Whether it's a date, a name, a poem, or a piece of statuary that catches your eye, it is hard to avoid wondering, "Who was this?" "Where did they live?" "Why did the family choose these words to memorialize them?" or: "Why did she die so young?"
My most recent cemetery trip was to visit the former inhabitants of my hundred-and-twenty-year-old house. I never knew them but they lived here a very long time, and I knew that Henry Brevoort Towle (1864-1926) was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. One beautiful Sunday this past October, I journeyed to Woodlawn and found Henry's grave. Of course, with Henry I found several other people who had lived in my house. My "family" expanded with this discovery.
Then last week I received an e-mail about "green burials" from Elizabeth Fournier, a mortician and funeral director in Oregon, and her information gave me pause. While I love walking through a cemetery's park-like lanes, seeing the statuary, and reading the headstones, I never gave much thought to what lies beneath. Nor had I considered the idea that as more Americans die, community planners might have better uses for our land than more cemeteries.
Fournier's company, Cornerstone Funeral Services and Cremation http://www.cornerstonefuneral.com/ outside Portland, Oregon, makes a point of doing the type of burial requested by families, but Fournier notes that an increasing number of people are requesting "green" funerals, and she has become an active proponent of these natural burials. There is no embalming involved, and typically, the deceased is laid to rest in a biodegradable container--the ultimate in "ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
Until after the Civil War, funerals in this country were more like these natural burials, and the process of burying the dead was a family ritual held in the home. Women would lay out the body, and prepare food to serve to family and friends who gathered to say goodbye. The bodies were buried in churchyards or a family plot nearby.
Embalming (replacing blood and bodily fluids with embalming fluid, which consists primarily of formaldehyde) became more acceptable during the Civil War. Union families wanted one last chance to see a loved one, so families who could afford it hired "death specialists" to preserve the body for the trip home. As embalming became popular, the funeral industry grew, and death became the domain of businessmen. Soon, funeral customs changed, and the body is now usually taken away and delivered to a funeral home where it is "prepared" for death.
The Green Movement
How green to make a burial is left up to each family. Today the green movement includes a range of options but experts point out that no state or province in North America requires embalming; and those states with some form of requirement offer refrigeration of the body as an alternative. (If bodies are to be shipped on a commercial airline, they may need to be embalmed.)
The movement also recommends natural coffins made from biodegradable substances. These options range from caskets made of sea grass to urns made of papier-mache (for those who are cremated) to simply wrapping a body in a favorite quilt. The green movement also eschews the lush lawns of most cemeteries as the grass requires great quantities of herbicides to maintain a weed-free appearance.
Cremation offers the benefit of the body not taking up space, so which is greener? "A natural burial is greener," says Fournier. "The process of burning a body requires fuel and creates pollution, and since many people still have teeth that contain mercury fillings, the act of burning the body releases mercury into the air. With a green burial, the body is going back into the soil, feeding trees."
As for the ideal funeral, Fournier describes one particularly memorable backyard burial:
"They used the person's fishing rod to catch fish to be served to the family; they played the person's favorite music; and they passed a basket where each person added something that reminded them of the person and talked about why. It was beautiful."
While Fournier's business is based on people using her services, she notes that green burials are cheaper because they are simpler by design. In addition, she says that having the family more involved in the process of death is actually quite healing. "The more hands-on the family is in dealing with the death, the more quickly they heal."
But what about the pleasure of memorializing? Fournier says there are varying shades of green burials. "A lot of people want the gravesites marked in some way. Many talk of wanting a tree or a bush planted in the spot, but others opt for a name and dates carved into a boulder, or they use a cross to mark where the body is."
As I contemplated writing today's blog, I happened to thumb through the Bas Bleu bookseller catalog, where I came upon an ObitKit. While this method won't satisfy the writer-who-wants-to-know-where-the-former-owner-of-her-house-is-buried contingency, the workbook does provide a thoughtful way of documenting the aspects of your life that you thought were important.
For most purposes, that type of documentation is much more valuable to a family than a headstone anyway.
For information on sustainable burials: Green Burial Council http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/
For caring for the dead without the use of toxins or non-biodegradable materials: Funeral Consumer Alliance http://www.funerals.org/.
For more stories about changes in American life, visit: http://www.americacomesalive.com/blog/