The Death of the ‘Standard Funeral’

Funeral customs are changing dramatically, leaving families with more decisions to make at just the moment they may be least prepared to make them. Making decisions ahead of time honors “ancient wisdom.”

A funeral procession from the early 1900s.

By Steve Willis

Yogi Berra once quipped, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” If there is a time that I see church parishioners facing Yogi’s confused logic, it is when dealing with decision making for a funeral and burial of a loved one. American culture is going through a tumultuous season of cultural change. The last time that people want to deal with more change is during the loss and grief of a loved one’s death. But the reality is that the American funeral experience has changed and is continuing to change dramatically.

When I performed my first funeral in 1993, there was a certain set of expectations for what would happen when someone died. It almost always went like this. Three days after the person died there would be a funeral, or rarer then, a memorial service (a worship service without the body of the deceased). The evening before the funeral there would be a visitation at the funeral home to view the body and share condolences with the family. Usually at 11 a.m. or at 2 p.m. the funeral would take place at the church. Then the family, followed by friends, would drive in procession with headlights on to the cemetery for a brief committal service. After the committal the family returned to the church for a meal and time to visit. On occasion I have been invited to drop by the family home afterwards when all had been finished and there was nothing left to do but sip bourbon and visit.

Yes, this is a very Presbyterian, and a very Southern Presbyterian funeral experience. We value brevity when it comes to funeral worship services, and we value lingering when it comes to visiting afterwards. Of course, there are many variations on a theme played out in different religious traditions, and all of them have their strengths and weaknesses. I admire the African-American Baptist tradition, which has been able to resist many of the negative consumeristic trends involved with funerals, but I do not possess the proclamatory wind to preside for several hours over a funeral service.

Things have certainly changed from when a traditional schedule was the expected norm. There are many reasons for the changes that now often require families to design their own funeral rituals. One of the most significant is that in 1970 only 5% of the American population was cremated after death. Last year 55% chose cremation. The cost of burial with embalming of the body, metal casket and metal vault can run about $11,000, and of course this has been a motivating factor for choosing cremation.

Not too long ago I performed a funeral for the beloved family doctor of his remote rural village. He had made all the arrangements well in advance of his death. Ben was buried in a simple pine box that he had made himself and was interred on a hill at the back of his farm. He had a friend who had prepared his body after death and kept the body refrigerated until his family could see it. The doctor was a keen environmental steward of his farm as well as his community, and he did not wish to add the mixture of formaldehyde, methanol and humectants to the soil of his farm. This makes me wonder what really is traditional after all, because the doctor’s method would have been common place before industrialization and the Civil War. (Check out this website for different state requirements for a funeral at home.)

Ben was on to something. Think about what you would like your funeral to be. Talk to others about it. Don’t get scared off by our American cultural reluctance to have a conversation about death. Do you want to be cremated or embalmed? There are other options now to cremation than burning the body; it can also be done with water. Do you want a religious service to mark the occasion? What will be most helpful for your surviving family? I think that religious services can be deeply moving and genuinely helpful for people. But I should think that. I am a pastor. I know that this is not true for everyone. The point is to think about this beforehand and share with your family what is important to you and make plans for it.

Let me put in a word for funeral home directors. It has been my good fortune to be friends with a couple of them and a golf partner with one of them. I have often heard terribly negative caricatures of funeral home directors, most of the time from people whose only experience has been attending a few funerals. My experience has shown them to be people who pursue their work as a calling. I have watched them at times provide funeral services for poor families with disregard to the business end of their work. If you are interested in learning what a funeral director’s life is like, then read Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal TradeHe is an American Book Award winner writer and a funeral home director in his small town of Milford, Michigan.

Lynch gives us, who live in what is often a death-denying culture, this sober reminder.

This is the central fact of my business – that there is nothing, once you are dead, that can be done to you or for you or with you or about you that will do you any good or any harm; that any damage or decency we do accrues to the living, to whom your death happens, if it really happens to anyone. The living have to live with it. You don’t. Theirs is the grief or gladness your death brings. Theirs is the loss or gain of it. Theirs is the pain and pleasure of memory.

The practical wisdom of these words reminds us that when the time finally comes for you or for me as it will for us all, water cremation, fire cremation, embalming, metal vaults, pine boxes, columnbariums, floral wreaths, funeral homilies, favorite hymns, presented flags and headstones will not matter to us. But some of these things will matter and give meaning to those who survive us.

I realize I’m not making any of this process easier. That’s my point. It’s not easy. And the ever-growing options only make for more complicated decisions. But reflecting upon death and dying and thinking about what our end will be like for others make us better human beings. And that is nothing new at all. That is ancient wisdom. 

Complete Article HERE!

Stories of the Land:

Returning to the Earth

Caroline Yongue had taken on the task of creating a conservation burial ground in Mills River, but the land was an impenetrable mass of weeds: hundreds of young Bradford pear trees, poison ivy growing high and dense, kudzu and bittersweet choking trees. You couldn’t walk through it.

She says, “There was kind of a freak-out for me, like, ‘Holy crap, what am I going to do with this?’”

But Caroline has a way with fear. It was one reason why her Buddhist teacher asked her to start doing death care. “She saw in me that I had a willingness to step past my fear,” Caroline says. “That when it arose, I saw it as an opportunity to go beyond. I didn’t let it stop me.”

Over 20 years ago, her teacher asked her to figure out how to take care of a dead body, without embalming, to be cared for by friends and family. “I thought it was an unusual question,” Caroline says, “but I trusted her that she knew my practice, so I said okay.”

At the time, Caroline says, “I had never seen death!”

She went through the process for the first time with an ailing kitten. “I talked to him about what was happening and I held him as he was dying.” Afterward, she laid out his tiny body, allowing time for the spirit to pass from the body.

When Ruby, the mother of a friend, was dying, Caroline asked if she would be willing to help her train and Ruby agreed. “I interviewed her about her death and dying, what she wanted, what were her spiritual practices, what did she believe was going to happen with her body after death,” Caroline says. “We provided all those things for Ruby as she was dying and at her death.”

But to go there, she had to step through fear. She says, “There was a voice in the back of my head going, ‘What are you doing? You don’t know what you’re doing! You can’t do this. You’re a fraud, blah blah blah blah.’ But I just kept doing it. I learned. And I continue to learn.”

Restoring the land

Caroline began serving as a death doula and death midwife. She started the Center for End of Life Transitions, facilitating home funerals and teaching people how to prepare for death. And she was interested in starting a conservation burial ground.

The time felt right in 2007, when she was newly married. She found 30 acres in Black Mountain. But things didn’t go according to plan, as the economy tanked. Caroline went through a serious illness and a divorce. She let the idea go.

Then, in 2014, a friend reached out. Her church in Mills River — Unity Center of the Blue Ridge — owned some extra land and they were interested in starting a green burial ground. Caroline decided to sell her home in West Asheville and then gave the money to her Buddhist group, which purchased the land to start Carolina Memorial Sanctuary.

That’s how she found herself in charge of 11 acres of vigorous weeds.

“One of the good things and the bad things about me is I can envision,” Caroline says. “I can manifest things just by thinking about it and envisioning it. So I just trusted the process. There were certainly times when I was like, ‘What the bleep am I doing?’ Part of this is my Buddhist practice. I just go, ‘Well, you just do the next thing.’”


One of her goals was to ensure the lasting conservation of the land. But, when Kieran Roe and Tom Fanslow from Conserving Carolina — a local land trust — first came out for a visit, they told Caroline that the land didn’t have much going for it, ecologically. There is a creek on the property that flows into the French Broad River and a wetland that had been partially filled in. So, it had potential, but it would take a lot of work to bring it back as a healthy natural habitat.

Caroline went for it. First, the sanctuary hired a contractor to clear out undesirable trees. For a year, Caroline and her small staff just watched what came back. The next step was to start removing invasives.

The land is a work-in-progress, with Caroline pointing out where an archway will go, a white oak, a composting toilet, graveled paths, a garage. In August, as she walked with her dog, Jasper, the meadow was full of Joe Pye Weed, with globes of purple blossoms swaying well above her head. Goldenrod, ironweed and butterfly weed were blooming, with monarch and swallowtail butterflies flitting over the flowers.

Recently, Conserving Carolina helped the sanctuary secure grants for an ambitious restoration project—to reclaim the wetland, reshape eroding stream banks and remove invasives, including kudzu and bamboo. Soon, the land trust and the sanctuary will finalize a conservation easement to ensure that the land will be protected forever. Carolina Memorial Sanctuary also donates a portion of the sale of burial sites to support Conserving Carolina.

Taking death back

In these natural surroundings, people give their loved ones back to the earth — both people and pets. And the meadow, woodland, wetland and stream create a place where people want to come back and reflect.

The sanctuary offers sites to scatter ashes or bury a body, in harmony with nature. Bodies are buried without embalming fluid, in a shroud or coffin that will break down underground. Graves are dug only three feet deep so that plants can benefit from the nutrients. Ashes are amended in order to keep the soil chemistry balanced.

Each rite of passage is different, Caroline says. They’ve had Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Wiccan ceremonies. “I have to get out of the way, because I don’t know what their experience needs to be,” she says. “You’ve always got to be stepping back, stepping out of me so that what is greater can show itself.”

People may help carry in their loved one’s body or cover it with earth, in some cases having helped to prepare the body. Caroline says, “The other option, that the body’s gone and you might be able to see it at a funeral home embalmed and it doesn’t look like your mother and you don’t want to touch it and you don’t want to emote and you’re in a hurry — it’s so unnatural. Now being able to do this, by the time people finish covering the grave, they’re laughing, they’re not crying anymore. They’re just so joyous, they’re chatting, they’re telling stories about the person.”

Through all of her death care work, she says, “I think the idea is helping people take death back into their own hands and not be afraid of it. It’s part of life. And there’s a great healing that happens.”

She tells a story of one man whose husband died suddenly. When he contacted Caroline, the body had already been taken away, but she let him know that they could bring it back to their home. Before the burial, she helped the man and his friends prepare the body.

“I just facilitated the home funeral where I just directed his gay friends to bathe and dress this man,” she says. “We just stood back and provided support and they did it. It was one of the most beautiful home funerals I’ve ever done because these men were taking care of this man. And the man whose husband died said that because he was able to still participate — even though he died suddenly — it was so transforming to him.”

Complete Article HERE!

Some believe funeral preplanning brings death to their doorsteps

It’s quite the opposite

To help relieve their families, an increasing number of people are planning their own funerals, designating their funeral preferences, and sometimes paying for them in advance. They see funeral planning as an extension of will and estate planning.

Funeral Planning Tips

Thinking ahead can help you make informed and thoughtful decisions about funeral arrangements. It allows you to choose the specific items you want and need, and compare the prices offered by several funeral providers. It also spares your survivors the stress of making these decisions under the pressure of time and strong emotions. You can make arrangements directly with a funeral establishment.

An important consideration when planning a funeral pre-need is where the remains will be buried, entombed, or scattered. In the short time between the death and burial of a loved one, many family members find themselves rushing to buy a cemetery plot or grave — often without careful thought or a personal visit to the site. That’s why it’s in the family’s best interest to buy cemetery plots before you need them.

You may wish to make decisions about your arrangements in advance, but not pay for them in advance. Keep in mind that over time, prices may go up and businesses may close or change ownership. However, in some areas with increased competition, prices may go down over time. It’s a good idea to review and revise your decisions every few years, and to make sure your family is aware of your wishes.

Put your preferences in writing, give copies to family members and your attorney, and keep a copy in a handy place. Don’t designate your preferences in your will, because a will often is not found or read until after the funeral. And avoid putting the only copy of your preferences in a safe deposit box. That’s because your family may have to make arrangements on a weekend or holiday, before the box can be opened.


Millions of Americans have entered into contracts to arrange their funerals and prepay some or all of the expenses involved. Laws of individual states govern the prepayment of funeral goods and services; various states have laws to help ensure that these advance payments are available to pay for the funeral products and services when they’re needed. But protections vary widely from state to state, and some state laws offer little or no effective protection. Some state laws require the funeral home or cemetery to place a percentage of the prepayment in a state-regulated trust or to purchase a life insurance policy with the death benefits assigned to the funeral home or cemetery.

If you’re thinking about prepaying for funeral goods and services, it’s important to consider these issues before putting down any money:

  • What are you are paying for? Are you buying only merchandise, like a casket and vault, or are you purchasing funeral services as well?
  • What happens to the money you’ve prepaid? States have different requirements for handling funds paid for prearranged funeral services.
  • What happens to the interest income on money that is prepaid and put into a trust account?
  • Are you protected if the firm you dealt with goes out of business?
  • Can you cancel the contract and get a full refund if you change your mind?
  • What happens if you move to a different area or die while away from home? Some prepaid funeral plans can be transferred, but often at an added cost.

Be sure to tell your family about the plans you’ve made; let them know where the documents are filed. If your family isn’t aware that you’ve made plans, your wishes may not be carried out. And if family members don’t know that you’ve prepaid the funeral costs, they could end up paying for the same arrangements. You may wish to consult an attorney on the best way to ensure that your wishes are followed.

Funeral Terms and Contact Information

This article provides a glossary of terms you will encounter when planning a funeral, and offers a list of resources for more information.

Glossary of Funeral Terms

Alternative Container: An unfinished wood box or other non-metal receptacle without ornamentation, often made of fiberboard, pressed wood, or composition materials, and generally lower in cost than caskets.

Casket/Coffin: A box or chest for burying remains.

Cemetery Property: A grave, crypt, or niche.

Cemetery Services: Opening and closing graves, crypts or niches; setting grave liners and vaults; setting markers; and long-term maintenance of cemetery grounds and facilities.

Columbarium: A structure with niches (small spaces) for placing cremated remains in urns or other approved containers. It may be outdoors or part of a mausoleum.

Cremation: Exposing remains and the container encasing them to extreme heat and flame and processing the resulting bone fragments to a uniform size and consistency.

Crypt: A space in a mausoleum or other building to hold cremated or whole remains.

Disposition: The placement of cremated or whole remains in their final resting place.

Endowment Care Fund: Money collected from cemetery property purchasers and placed in trust for the maintenance and upkeep of the cemetery.

Entombment: Burial in a mausoleum.

Funeral Ceremony: A service commemorating the deceased, with the body present.

Funeral Services: Services provided by a funeral director and staff, which may include consulting with the family on funeral planning; transportation, shelter, refrigeration and embalming of remains; preparing and filing notices; obtaining authorizations and permits; and coordinating with the cemetery, crematory or other third parties.

Grave: A space in the ground in a cemetery for the burial of remains.

Grave Liner or Outer Container: A concrete cover that fits over a casket in a grave. Some liners cover tops and sides of the casket. Others, referred to as vaults, completely enclose the casket. Grave liners minimize ground settling.

Graveside Service: A service to commemorate the deceased held at the cemetery before burial.

Interment: Burial in the ground, inurnment or entombment.

Inurnment: The placing of cremated remains in an urn.

Mausoleum: A building in which remains are buried or entombed.

Memorial Service: A ceremony commemorating the deceased, without the body present.

Niche: A space in a columbarium, mausoleum or niche wall to hold an urn.

Urn: A container to hold cremated remains. It can be placed in a columbarium or mausoleum, or buried in the ground.

Vault: A grave liner that completely encloses a casket.

For More Information about Funerals, Funeral Providers, and Where to File a Complaint

Most states have a licensing board that regulates the funeral industry. You may contact the board in your state for information or help. If you want additional information about making funeral arrangements and the options available, you may want to contact interested business, professional and consumer groups. Some of the biggest are:

  • AARP
    AARP is a membership organization for people 50 years of age and older. Funeral-related information also is available in the Grief & Loss section.
  • Cremation Association of North America
    CANA is an association of crematories, cemeteries, and funeral homes that offer cremation.
  • Funeral Consumers Alliance
    FCA is a nonprofit educational organization that supports increased funeral consumer protection. Their website has free pamphlets on funeral planning, plus a directory of local volunteer funeral planning groups.
  • Funeral Ethics Organization
    FEO, an independent nonprofit educational organization, promotes ethical dealings in death- related transactions and provides mediation assistance to resolve consumer complaints.
  • Green Burial Council
    GBC, an independent, nonprofit that encourages environmentally sustainable death care practices as a means of acquiring, restoring, and stewarding natural areas, assists consumers in identifying “green” cemetery, funeral, and cremation services.
  • International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association
    ICCFA is a nonprofit association of cemeteries, funeral homes, crematories, and monument retailers that offers informal mediation of consumer complaints through its Cemetery Consumer Service Council. Its website provides information and advice in its Consumer Resource Guide.
  • International Order of the Golden Rule
    OGR is an international association of about 1,300 independent funeral homes.
  • Jewish Funeral Directors of America
    JFDA is an international association of funeral homes serving the Jewish community.
  • National Funeral Directors Association
    NFDA is an educational and professional association of funeral directors, which provides consumer information and sponsors the NFDA Help Line, which is designed to help consumers resolve complaints about NFDA members.
  • National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association
    NFDMA is a national association primarily of African-American funeral providers.
  • Selected Independent Funeral Homes
    SIFH is an international association of funeral firms that have agreed to comply with its Code of Good Funeral Practices.

Resolving Problems

If you have a problem concerning funeral matters, it’s best to try to resolve it first with the funeral director. If you are dissatisfied with the funeral services you receive, the Funeral Consumers Alliance offers advice on how best to resolve a problem. In addition, the FEO, the NFDA Help Line, and the ICCFA Cemetery Consumer Service Council may be able to provide informal mediation of a complaint. You also can contact your state Attorney General’s office or local consumer protection agencies.

In addition, you can file a complaint with the FTC online or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357); TDD: 1-866-653-4261. Although the Commission cannot resolve individual problems for consumers, it can act against a company if it sees a pattern of possible law violations.

Complete Article HERE!

Natural Burials Are Rising, and That’s Good for the Planet

Natural burials offer a greener alternative to traditional cemeteries, but Big Funeral is fighting back.


Even in death, Americans just can’t stop themselves from destroying the planet, according to new research.

Right now there are around 22,500 active cemeteries in the United States. These sanitized spaces, with bunches of flowers lain among neat rows of gravestones on manicured lawns, are so closely associated with the American idea of mourning that it’s difficult to imagine an alternative.

Yet the practice is deeply unsustainable. Every year, in laying their dead to rest, Americans bury approximately 73,000 kilometers of hardwood boards, 58,500 tons of steel, 1.5 million tons of concrete, and 3.1 million liters of formaldehyde. A typical four-hectare cemetery contains enough wood to construct 40 homes and sufficient volumes of embalming fluid to fill a backyard swimming pool. As the Baby Boomers start to die, these environmental impacts are only going to grow.

“People hate to think about it. They think, ‘I’m going to be embalmed, put in a vault, and have a nice, dry, quiet existence for my body,’ but that’s a total farce,” says Chris Coutts, an associate professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University. “The bodies quickly start to rot, and those fluids, if they’re in the body, find a way out of the vault and into the soil, and they can create a plume. It’s a concern if it migrates into water tables. The whole point of embalming fluid is that it doesn’t degrade, so it’s going to be around a long time.”

Coutts is the lead author of a new paper examining the benefits of a greener alternative to the traditional rituals of death: natural burial. While higher-density family vaults can reduce your environmental footprint compared to an individual burial, it’s still a high-impact way of shuffling off your mortal coil. Even cremation, which has doubled in popularity since 2000, leaves an environmental smudge on the Earth, thanks to its high energy consumption and the ensuing air pollution.

Increasingly, Coutts et al. have found, people are rejecting the lawn-park cemetery model, and instead choosing to commit their bodies to a wilder resting place. In most cases, this means eschewing traditional American funerary rites altogether and burying the body without chemicals in a biodegradable casket or a simple shroud. At its best, natural burial allows your death to leave almost no physical damage on the natural world, while helping to protect and conserve threatened landscapes for those still living.

One example is the 142-hectare Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in Florida, a family farm located in an area full of endangered native longleaf pine and wiregrass. The plan for the cemetery called for 80 percent of the land to be restored and conserved as natural habitat, with around 28 hectares set aside for natural burials. Add-on items include coffins constructed from old bookshelves, while the conserved habitat is also available for recreational activities including hiking and camping. Telling ghost stories remains optional.

John and Bill Wilkerson, the brothers who run the business, say that the income they’ve generated from the burials has allowed them to resist the financial pressure to sell the land to developers—a proposition that was adamantly opposed by their late parents.

The lawn-park cemetery in America might feel like an inescapable ritual, but the idea is relatively recent, arising in the 19th century, as urban elites grew increasingly affluent. Rural cemeteries like Mount Auburn in Boston or Laurel Hill in Philadelphia were not only useful for memorializing the supposed importance of the deceased bourgeoisie, but also for providing their surviving relatives a pleasant getaway from increasingly crowded cities.

The practice of embalming grew popular around the time of the American Civil War, Coutts adds. “They needed to preserve and ship the bodies back to wherever they were going to be buried, and embalming became prevalent. It’s the common expected practice, but it’s really just people going through the motions: It’s what we’ve always done, it’s what we continue to do, but that’s changing,” he says.

This resource-intensive method of burial is far from universal across the globe. Muslim communities practice natural burial as a “basic religious obligation,” according to Coutts and his fellow authors, while in countries such as Australia, grave sites can be reused for new inhabitants after a certain amount of time has elapsed. In the Peruvian Amazon, before the arrival of Christian missionaries, bodies were lain among the buttress roots of large trees. Some Tibetans practice sky burials, placing the corpse on a mountain and allowing it to decompose gradually.

The first natural burial site in the U.S. was established in 1998 in South Carolina. There are now 162 natural-burial providers in the U.S., of which 99 are hybrid cemeteries, offering both natural and traditional burial. A further 54 offer exclusively natural burial, while nine are active conservation burial sites.

Yet America’s lucrative death-care industry is fighting back, determined to protect a billion-dollar market by perpetuating the idea that a resource-intensive funeral is the only guarantor of lasting peace. Indeed, hybrid burial sites are mostly a way for the sector to cash in on the growing popularity of natural burial, a form of greenwashing that offers little in the way of concrete benefits, says Joe Sehee, who founded the Green Burial Council, which certifies natural burial sites, in 2005.

“There were people who just didn’t like the idea [of natural burial],” Sehee says, “people within the industry, particularly people who liked the merchandise-based model of death care: chemical, casket, and vault companies.”

Perhaps more sinister than this greenwashing are the attempts by the funeral industry to lobby for new regulations that will protect its economic position. There are very few federal laws around the handling of the dead, with states and local governments generally left in control. Around half of U.S. states regulate the amount of time that a body can remain un-embalmed, yet no states require a body to be buried in a coffin. Only a handful of states forbid bodies being buried outside of established cemeteries.

This loose legal framework bodes well for natural burial, and badly for Big Funeral. Correspondingly, the mainstream funeral industry has lobbied state governments to pass legislation protecting its share of the market, such as mandating embalming, only permitting burial in established cemeteries, and requiring the involvement of a licensed funeral director to perform tasks that could ordinarily have been performed by the next-of-kin. Restricting citizens’ freedom to access natural burial is bad for the environment, and could deter those who might have chosen this wilder option because it was cheaper than a traditional plot.

Coutts himself, after years of studying the benefits of a natural burial, sounds almost excited by the contribution he will be able to make to conservation from beyond the grave. “I’ve often just dreamed about walking out into the desert with a bottle of water and just sitting under a tree and waiting for it to come,” he says. “But that would be a luxury and it’s probably not feasible. I have it in my will that I want my body to be buried naturally in a conservation burial ground.”

Complete Article HERE!

Native American Burials: Trees and Scaffolds Illustrated


by Fritz Zimmerman

We may now pass to what may be called aerial sepulture proper, the most common examples of which are tree and scaffold burial, quite extensively practiced even at the present time. From what can be learned the choice of this mode depends greatly on the facilities present, where timber abounds, trees being used, if absent, scaffolds being employed.

From William J. Cleveland, of the Spotted Tail Agency, Nebraska, has been received a most interesting account of the mortuary customs of the Brulé or Teton Sioux, who belong to the Lakota alliance. They are called Sicaugu, in the Indian tongue Seechaugas, or the “burned thigh” people. The narrative is given in its entirety, not only on account of its careful attention to details, but from its known truthfulness of description. It relates to tree and scaffold burial.

Dakota Scaffold Burial.

Though some few of this tribe now lay their dead in rude boxes, either burying them when implements for digging can be had, or, when they have no means of making a grave, placing them on top of the ground on some hill or other slight elevation, yet this is done in imitation of the whites, and their general custom, as a people, probably does not differ in any essential way from that of their forefathers for many generations in the past. In disposing of the dead, they wrap the body tightly in blankets or robes (sometimes both) wind it all over with thongs made of the hide of some animal and place it reclining on the back at full length, either in the branches of some tree or on a scaffold made for the purpose. These scaffolds are about eight feet high and made by planting four forked sticks firmly in the ground, one at each corner and then placing others across on top, so as to form a floor on which the body is securely fastened. Sometimes more than one body is placed on the same scaffold, though generally a separate one is made for each occasion. These Indians being in all things most superstitious, attach a kind of sacredness to these scaffolds and all the materials used or about the dead. This superstition is in itself sufficient to prevent any of their own people from disturbing the dead, and for one of another nation to in any wise meddle with them is considered an offense not too severely punished by death.

The same feeling also prevents them from ever using old scaffolds or any of the wood which has been used about them, even for firewood, though the necessity may be very great, for fear some evil consequences will follow. It is also the custom, though not universally followed, when bodies have been for two years on the scaffolds to take them down and bury them under ground.

All the work about winding up the dead, building the scaffold, and placing the dead upon it is done by women only, who, after having finished their labor, return and bring the men, to show them where the body is placed, that they may be able to find it in future. Valuables of all kinds, such as weapons, ornaments, pipes, in short, whatever the deceased valued most highly while living, and locks of hair cut from the heads of the mourners at his death, are always bound up with the body. In case the dead was a man of importance, or if the family could afford it, even though he were not, one or several horses (generally, in the former case, those which the departed thought most of) are shot and placed under the scaffold. The idea in this is that the spirit of the horse will accompany and be of use to his spirit in the “happy hunting grounds,” or, as these people express it, “the spirit land.

When an Indian dies, and in some cases even before death occurs, the friends and relatives assemble at the lodge and begin crying over the departed or departing one. This consists in uttering the most heartrending, almost hideous wails and lamentations, in which all join until exhausted. Then the mourning ceases for a time until some one starts it again, when all join in as before and keep it up until unable to cry longer. This is kept up until the body is removed. This crying is done almost wholly by women, who gather in large numbers on such occasions, and among them a few who are professional mourners. These are generally old women and go whenever a person is expected to die, to take the leading part in the lamentations, knowing that they will be well paid at the distribution of goods which follows. As soon as death takes place, the body is dressed by the women in the best garments and blankets obtainable, new ones if they can be afforded. The crowd gathered near continue wailing piteously, and from time to time cut locks of hair from their own heads with knives, and throw them on the dead body. Those who wish to show their grief most strongly, cut themselves in various places, generally in the legs and arms, with their knives or pieces of flint, more commonly the latter, causing the blood to flow freely over their persons. This custom is followed to a less degree by the men.

A body is seldom kept longer than one day as, besides the desire to get the dead out of sight, the fear that the disease which caused the death will communicate itself to others of the family causes them to hasten the disposition of it as soon as they are certain that death has actually taken place

Until the body is laid away the mourners eat nothing. After that is done, connected with which there seems to be no particular ceremony, the few women who attend to it return to the lodge and a distribution is made among them and others, not only of the remaining property of the deceased, but of all the possessions, even to the lodge itself of the family to which he belonged. This custom in some cases has been carried so far as to leave the rest of the family not only absolutely destitute but actually naked. After continuing in this condition for a time, they gradually reach the common level again by receiving gifts from various sources.

The received custom requires of women, near relatives of the dead, a strict observance of the ten days following the death, as follows: They are to rise at a very early hour and work unusually hard all day, joining in no feast, dance, game, or other diversion, eat but little, and retire late, that they may be deprived of the usual amount of sleep as of food. During this they never paint themselves, but at various times go to the top of some hill and bewail the dead in loud cries and lamentations for hours together. After the ten days have expired they paint themselves again and engage in the usual amusements of the people as before. The men are expected to mourn and fast for one day and then go on the war-path against some other tribe, or on some long journey alone. If he prefers, he can mourn and fast for two or more days and remain at home.

The custom of placing food at the scaffold also prevails to some extent. If but little is placed there it is understood to be for the spirit of the dead, and no one is allowed to touch it. If much is provided, it is done with the intention that those of the same sex and age as the deceased shall meet there and consume it. If the dead be a little girl, the young girls meet and eat what is provided; if it be a man, then men assemble for the same purpose. The relatives never mention the name of the dead.

Offering Food to the Dead.

Still another custom, though at the present day by no means generally followed, is still observed to some extent among them. This is called wanagee yuhapee, or “keeping the ghost.” A little of the hair from the head of the deceased being preserved is bound up in calico and articles of value until the roll is about two feet long and ten inches or more in diameter, when it is placed in a case made of hide handsomely ornamented with various designs in different colored paints. When the family is poor, however, they may substitute for this case blue or scarlet blanket or cloth. The roll is then swung lengthwise between two supports made of sticks, placed thus × in front of a lodge which has been set apart for the purpose. In this lodge are gathered presents of all kinds, which are given out when a sufficient quantity is obtained. It is often a year and sometimes several years before this distribution is made. During all this time the roll containing the hair of the deceased is left undisturbed in front of the lodge. The gifts as they are brought in are piled in the back part of the lodge, and are not to be touched until given out. No one but men and boys are admitted to the lodge unless it be a wife of the deceased, who may go in if necessary very early in the morning. The men sit inside, as they choose, to smoke, eat, and converse. As they smoke they empty the ashes from their pipes in the center of the lodge, and they, too, are left undisturbed until after the distribution. When they eat, a portion is always placed first under the roll outside for the spirit of the deceased. No one is allowed to take this unless a large quantity is so placed, in which case it may be eaten by any persons actually in need of food, even though strangers to the dead. When the proper time comes the friends of the deceased and all to whom presents are to be given are called together to the lodge and the things are given out by the man in charge. Generally this is some near relative of the departed. The roll is now undone and small locks of the hair distributed with the other presents, which ends the ceremony.

Sometimes this “keeping the ghost” is done several times, and it is then looked upon as a repetition of the burial or putting away of the dead. During all the time before the distribution of the hair, the lodge, as well as the roll, is looked upon as in a manner sacred, but after that ceremony it becomes common again and may be used for any ordinary purpose. No relative or near friend of the dead wishes to retain anything in his possession that belonged to him while living, or to see, hear, or own anything which will remind him of the departed. Indeed, the leading idea in all their burial customs in the laying away with the dead their most valuable possessions, the giving to others what is left of his and the family property, the refusal to mention his name, &c., is to put out of mind as soon and as effectual as possible the memory of the departed.

From what has been said, however, it will be seen that they believe each person to have a spirit which continues to live after the death of the body. They have no idea of a future life in the body, but believe that after death their spirits will meet and recognize the spirits of their departed friends in the spirit land. They deem it essential to their happiness here, however, to destroy as far as practicable their recollection of the dead. They frequently speak of death as a sleep, and of the dead as asleep or having gone to sleep at such a time. These customs are gradually losing their hold upon them, and are much less generally and strictly observed than formerly.

Depositing the Corpse.

A. Delano,66 mentions as follows an example of tree-burial which he noticed in Nebraska.

During the afternoon we passed a Sioux burying-ground, if I may be allowed to use an Irishism. In a hackberry tree, elevated about twenty feet from the ground, a kind of rack was made of broken tent poles, and the body (for there was but one) was placed upon it, wrapped in his blanket, and a tanned buffalo skin, with his tin cup, moccasins, and various things which he had used in life, were placed upon his body, for his use in the land of spirits.


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Sky Burial; Ancient Tradition of Iran’s Zoroastrians

Ancient Zoroastrians believed the dead body should be put in particular structures to be feasted upon by birds of prey, because the burial or burning of the corpses would cause water and soil to become dirty, which is forbidden in the ancient religion.

The burial traditions in historical periods are known through archaeological evidence and sacred texts like the Zoroastrians’ Avesta as well as Pahlavi texts.

With the recognition of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran, body burial was strictly prohibited and the only way to eliminate the corpses was to place the deceased in rows so their bodies would be feasted upon by birds of prey.

In a Zoroastrian religious text, which is a collection of religious rules and instructions, there are references to the ways to treat with the bodies of the dead. According to these texts, the dead should be put in structures known as dakhma to be feasted upon by birds of prey, because the burial or burning of the corpses would cause the sacred elements of water, soil, and fire to become dirty and it is forbidden to do so.

However, according to the researchers, even in Zoroastrian texts, there are indications that a significant number of people opposed the change in funeral practices, which resulted in penalties. Given that the time passed between the burial and the exhumation, only physical punishments were imposed on the perpetrators, which were practically subject to fines.

According to the findings, for a long time, it was generally thought that burial was more based on putting the corpse outdoor. But extensive scientific studies revealed that the Sassanids, in addition to the tradition of placing the body in the open air, used other burial practices. This can be interpreted in relation to religious communities within the Sassanid Empire and perhaps related to the class division of society in this era.

According to Samer Nazari, a graduate of archaeology at the Isfahan University of Art and his colleague, “the coexistence of religious communities including Christians, Jews, Manicheans, Buddhists and other religious sects in the Sassanid community is one of the main reasons for the diversity of burial practices in this era. At the end of the Shapur I era, the Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the country, but Manichean religion, along with other emerging sects should not be ignored. This comes as Buddhism was also spreading in the East, and Christianity and Judaism were expanding in the western regions.”

Prohibiting Burial of Corpses to Keep Water, Soil Clean

Based on the available information, it is not possible to attribute the burial practices specifically to a particular group, but according to the teachings of the Zoroastrian School, we are aware of the prohibition of burying bodies for the purpose of keeping water and soil clean. Thus, the most dominant burial method during the Sassanid era was to put the deceased body in a dakhma, or towers of silence.

The dakhmas or towers of silence were common until Pahlavi era (20th century). At the time of Pahlavi, the dakhmas were shut down and turned into a burial chamber. But some of the dakhmas are registered as national heritage with domestic and foreign tourists visiting them. The most famous Zoroastrian dakhma is in Yazd province.

Zoroastrian dakhma is known as tower of silence. This dakhma is located 15 km south-east of Yazd near the Safaeiyeh area and on a low-altitude mountain called the mountain of the dakhma.

Although there are Zoroastrian dakhmas in Tehran, Kerman, Sirjan, Isfahan, Taft, Ashkezar, Ardakan, Fars province, etc., the dakhmas of Yazd have more visitors as they are located in the religious capital of Zoroastrianism close to the city and other monuments.

Zoroastrian Dakhma or Tower of Silence

In the past, the site had two dakhmas, which, according to historical documents and Zoroastrian words, both were used for a period of six months. One of these structures is the Maneckji Limji Hataria dakhma, or the Great Maneckji, which is located on the left.

Maneckji, known as Maneckji Sahib, travelled to Iran during the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, as the representative of “the Association for the Improvement of the Zoroastrian Conditions in Iran,” in order to reduce the pressure on Zoroastrians. Zoroastrians still owe their existence to his efforts.

The second building is Golestan dakhma. During the Qajar period, the difficulty of passing through the mountainous road of the Maneckji caused problems for the burial of the corpses. That is why the Golestan dakhma was built in smaller dimensions. This dakhma could be seen 150 metres west of the Maneckji. The diameter of this dakhma is 25 metres and the height of the wall is 6 metres from the surface of the hill.

The inner surface of the Zoroastrian dakhmas is flat and rounded, all covered with large boulders and consists of three parts: feminine, masculine and childish. Perhaps it’s not bad to know that the end of the circle space, which is attached to the wall around the dakhma, is for the corpses of men, the middle part is for women and the inner circle is for children.

The bodies were placed on these slates according to their gender, and the birds of prey, especially vultures started to eat their flesh. After eating the flesh and becoming completely dry under the sun, the bones were poured into a well in the centre of the circle, called the bone well, to turn into dirt.

All burial practices from leaving the body inside the dakhma until its disappearance lasted about six months to one year. When the dead were placed inside the dakhma, it was customary to mourn, wearing white clothes for three days in ruined buildings next to the dakhmas known as “Khileh”.

Interestingly, in a documentary entitled “The Lovers Wind” made by the famous French director Albert Lamorisse in 1970, part of it was dedicated to the Zoroastrian dakhmas of Yazd. At that time, the dakhma was still open.

Complete Article HERE!

How to have a green burial

‘Current Western funeral practices do prevent a return to the earth’

Duffin-Meadows Cemetery in Pickering, Ont., has a green burial section. There are no individual grave markers. Names are listed on one of four communal monuments by a central pavilion.

By Kevin Yarr

A student of philosophy and biology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, wants to get people talking about more environmentally-friendly burial options.

Environmentally-friendly burials were the norm for people for tens of thousands of years says Hanna Longard, but in recent decades embalmed bodies, heavy caskets and non-compostable liners in graves have become the norm.

“We come from the land, and so it really to me makes sense that our practices should not inhibit the natural process of decomposition,” said Longard.

“Current Western funeral practices do prevent a return to the earth.”

Opening up a conversation 

Green burials differ in a number of ways from what has become the traditional Western practice.

  • Embalming with compostable fluids.
  • Compostable casket with no lacquers or varnishes.
  • Shallower grave, three to four feet deep, to put the body in range of active root systems.
  • Minimal grave marker.

Longard said cremation is not a particularly green option, because of the emissions involved.

“You take up less space if you’re cremated, is a common idea, because you’re not taking up space on land in a grave,” she said.

“However, you end up taking up space in the atmosphere as excess greenhouse gases.”

Longard has been talking to politicians, people in the funeral industry, and others interested in green burials about options where she goes to school in New Brunswick and around her home town in Mahone Bay, N.S.

Student Hanna Longard is hoping to start a conversation in the Maritimes about green burials.

She has found green burial can be a difficult option to pursue. In Nova Scotia, it is possible to arrange for a burial on private land, but P.E.I. burials have to be in cemeteries. Ontario and British Columbia both have cemeteries that are specifically designed for green burials.

Longard is hoping to start a conversation in the Maritimes about green burials.

Complete Article HERE!