The world got an idea recently from the 92-year-old Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who popularized mindfulness and meditation in the U.S. The monk returned to his home in Vietnam to pass his remaining years. Many admired his desire to live his remaining time in peace and dignity.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego recently did a literature search to understand what Americans might consider to be a “good death” or “successful dying.” As can be expected, their findings varied. People’s views were determined by their religious, social and cultural norms and influences. The researchers urged health care providers, caregivers and the lay community to have open dialogues about preferences for the dying process.
Genetics, biological factors and lifestyle behaviors, such as diet and smoking, help explain a portion of these differences. However, researchers are still learning how race-related social experiences and physical environments affect health, illness and mortality.
Access to health care
factor is that African Americans have historically underutilized preventive medicine and health care services. They also delay seeking routine, necessary health care – or may not follow medical advice.
One study found that during an average month, 35% fewer blacks visited a physician’s office, and 27% fewer visited an outpatient clinic compared with whites.
“The only time I go to the doctor is when something is really hurting. But otherwise, I don’t even know my doctor’s name,” said a young African American male during a research study in Chicago, Illinois.
In this clinical study, 399 African American men, who had already contracted syphilis, were told that they were receiving free health care from the government. In fact, doctors, knowing their critical condition, were awaiting their deaths to subsequently conduct autopsies and study the disease’s progression.
Even though penicillin had been proven to treat syphilis by 1947, these men were denied the treatment.
J.P. Trottier was with the Ottawa Paramedic Service for 36 years – 21 as a frontline paramedic and 15 as public information officer. He retired in January 2017.
“I don’t know how many deaths I’ve seen, but it’s in the hundreds. I remember one shift doing three vital-signs-absent calls in a row. That was a busy eight hours.
“You just never know where you’re going to be in five minutes. Are you going to be in the middle of a crime scene? Are you going to be in somebody’s living room, somebody with abdominal pain? Somebody having a heart attack?
“Sometimes, it’s just the daily grind. It can be very humdrum, and then all of a sudden your next shift will be just crazy. You’ll do a shooting, you’ll do an elderly gentleman who’s collapsed at home and his vital signs are absent, you’ll do a childbirth call … you’ll do a whole bunch of different things.”
“You have some really horrible moments in the job, and you have some absolutely spectacular moments. Paramedics have what they call the holy-shit call. They take a look at the person and they know they’re in trouble — that that person is in deep trouble and probably minutes from dying. We call that the holy-shit call. It’s like, get to work. And you can tell after a little bit of experience — you walk into a room and look at somebody. And then it becomes a bit mechanical; your training kicks in and you don’t really think about it. But when you see them like that and 10 minutes later you’ve given your medication and taken your vital signs, or your partner’s taking the vital signs and you’ve slapped the oxygen on them or maybe put in an IV and put the medication in when all the vital signs are OK and off you go. And 10 minutes later when they’re looking much better, it’s an amazing thing to see. It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s absolutely the best part of the job.”
“You don’t forget many of them. The difficult ones you don’t forget. I tell people that I’ve got a busload of people up here in my head, waiting to step out. It’s not being haunted; it’s just that you will never be able to forget that eight-year-old boy who played chicken with a train and lost. You’ll never be able to forget that. If anybody were to come to me and say, ‘Oh, I can handle it … ” Yeah, OK, maybe you can handle it differently than I can, but there’s no way you’re going to be able to forget that. The young boy who comes home from school for lunch and finds his mother dead upstairs because she put a shotgun in her mouth. You’ll never be able to forget that. Never. But they don’t haunt me.
“Very early in my career I had one of those horrible calls – it was a young girl, six or seven years old, crossing the street and was struck by a car. She died en route, and every time I drive by there, it’s like, ‘This is where it happened.’ And it’s no more than that. But they’re with you.”
“There’s that horrible side where you can’t help … they’re in a car crash, pinned, and the paramedics are trying to put the IV in and they’re doing a whole bunch of different things, and you’re waiting and waiting, and the blood pressure is coming down and down and down, and you can’t stem the bleeding because you can’t access where the injury is.
“So yeah, sometimes you can’t resuscitate them, and that’s the moment that you turn your attention to the family. They’re not the patients, you’re not there specifically for them or because of them, but all paramedics will do this; they will turn their attention to the family.
“I used to do presentations for career days at high schools, and they would ask what’s the most important thing about your character that would make you a good paramedic, and I would say two things. The first was that you really have to be a caring person, because that’s what you do. That’s your job, you’re caring for people — their emotional needs, their physical needs. And the second part is good communications skills. You must have good communications skills because of instances like this, where a family member has passed away and you need to inform them. And don’t use any jargon, don’t use any of that nonsense. ‘I’m sorry he passed away. We couldn’t do anything.’ And you don’t give them a lot of info, because they’ll forget most of it after you tell them.
“We have to be careful what we tell them, because they will remember that moment, forever. It really demands respect, and I don’t care if they’re gang members or whatever the case may be. We don’t care; it’s a patient and they have friends or family, and there’s a mother or father somewhere, maybe, or children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and all of them will be affected by this.”
“I would often turn my attention to people’s rooms to give me an idea of the life they led. The older generation especially will have a lot of photographs on their dressers or in the bedroom. Even if I don’t know these people, it kind of puts you there. Look at the clothes they’re wearing. Look at the cars they were driving. It gives you a bit of a glance at their lives. There are pictures of their children and grandchildren. It kind of gives you a quick bio of them.
“The ones that really stand out for me are ones where someone’s standing next to a Spitfire, because you know they served. Did he fly planes? Was he in the war? Was he a mechanic? You can sometimes ask the family a little bit about them — you have to tread carefully there, because they may not take it very well. But in some instances I was able to ask the family. ‘Oh, he served?’ — because there’s a picture of him. ‘Yes, and he went to this battle and that battle,’ and of course they’re proud of that. And sometimes I take a minute to thank them for their service to their country. Sometimes you’ll see their medals on the wall, and you can talk about that a little bit.
“It can be fascinating. You don’t know about this person or the life they led, if they discovered a cure for something. You just never know.”
“Has my view of death changed over the years? Yes. I think just because of the sheer number of calls that we do with death and near-death … a patient you were able to get back from the grip of death that they were in. The shootings, the stabbings, the crib deaths — Sudden Infant Death Syndrome — for sure, gave me a better understanding of death. You’re more aware of death and what it means and why it happens, a little bit — we can never know why, really. But it gives you a better appreciation of it, and thus a better understanding of it.”
“You see a lot of circumstances. The suicides are sad. And you also see the murder-suicides, and those are weird. There was one I did where this man had custody of his child during the weekend, and he decided on Sunday night that the child was not going back home to his mother, and threw him off the balcony and then jumped himself.
“So you get to the scene and you’ve got this to deal with. And you only know the circumstances after the fact, but you have a damn good clue that at three o’clock in the morning, when the OC Transpo driver found him when going out to his shift, that the kid, maybe two or three years old, didn’t wake up fully dressed at three o’clock in the morning to jump off of the balcony. So now you’ve got that anger issue. You want to kill yourself? That’s somewhat understandable. But to take an innocent child away from his mother and his life? It’s just … it’s weird. There’s this brain storm happening there in your head, in my head, that’s very difficult to deal with and make sense of. So those are very difficult to do.
For many people, the thought of being surrounded by death (and have that be a central part of how they earn their living) can seem quite morbid. But for Alua Arthur, the founder of the end-of-life planning service Going With Grace, it feels exactly the opposite.
Arthur is a death doula—also often referred to as a “death midwife.” Arthur’s journey to becoming a death doula is a profoundly personal one, but she represents a number of professionals who are active in the growing “death wellness” and “death-positive” movement. As Fast Company‘s Rina Raphael previously reported, this movement rests on the notion that having a good death is “part of a good life.”
Fast Company recently spoke to Arthur about her motivations for becoming a death doula and how she copes with work-life balance as she helps others through the grieving (and often stressful) administrative process that comes before and after a loved one’s death. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Helping people become clear on what death looks like
A death doula is a non-medical professional who provides holistic support for the dying person of the family and the family members. I help the people who are close to death on what it looks like. After that, I help family members deal with their affairs.
I also work with healthy people. The way I conceive it, as soon as someone comes into any recognition that one day they’re going to die, that’s the time to start preparing for that, so I help them with an end-of-life plan. It’s where we write down all the stuff that’s going to be a pain. We get clear for what their desires are for life support, and who’s going to make the decisions for them. We walk through important information and documents, like where’s their birth certificate? Where is their retirement account? Where do they bank?
I also help people who are terrified of death. I find that people are more afraid of the dying process than death itself, so with them, I do death meditations. This looks like us going through the eventual decline of the body, their systems shutting down, and their breathing becoming ragged. It’s an opportunity for the person to lay there with whatever it is they experienced. A lot of times, people experience a sense of peace after going through this process.
The desire to build a career around death
Growing up, I wanted to be lots of things. I really wanted to be an astronaut. I loved to read and immerse myself in another world. I also wanted to be a conductor. I applied to a music conservatory, but I ended up in a liberal arts school that had an okay music program. I got involved in student government and decided to go to law school. I worked in property law, starting with government benefits, and then I moved to domestic violence and then not-for-profit development. I fumbled around for 10 years and started getting really depressed, so I took a medical leave of absence. That’s how I found death work.
I met a woman in Cuba. She had cancer and was traveling, and we bonded. We spent 14 hours on the bus together, and I asked all the difficult questions. What would be undone in her life if the disease killed her? What does she think happens after she dies? Did she live with the recognition of death constantly? They were questions I never really had myself. That was the first time it hit me that death was very real and that we don’t talk about it enough. It became clear that I wanted to spend my career talking about death.
That was solidified when my brother-in-law got sick and died. It showed me how all the ways that we do it now are broken. We had so many questions—how do we transfer the title for his vehicle, and what should we do with his leftover medication? There was nobody to answer them.
A day in the life of a death doula
A typical day always includes a lot of emails. So many emails. The part of my job that stresses me out is the business part. God, it’s the worst! I need to go back to my vision of helping people feel less alone to keep me in clear focus.
I start my day checking on various things—with the people who are dying, how things were over the course of the night. I’ll also check on plans for any funeral procession. I do a lot of phone calls and talk to therapists who work with people that are dying. If I do have clients that are dying, I see them in the afternoon, or I will see my end-of-life planning clients.
These days, I also do a lot of education around death and dying. I’m doing a lot of talks to reach people about how to do this work because we’re all going to have to do it for somebody in our lives.
When it comes to work-life balance, I do things like meditate daily, exercise regularly, and drink a gallon of water every day. I just got my nails done. I don’t deny myself pretty things.
On death and relationships
I talk about death all the time with my friends and family. I think sometimes I can be a little bit annoying because I want people to be authentic in their decision-making. I tend not to tell people what to say or do, and I listen actively. My best friend and I, we always have challenges because she always wants to tell me what to do. It is a struggle for my friends who have a hard time with the concept of their own mortality, because I’m talking about it all the time.
I don’t push the issue with my friends who are uncomfortable, but with my family members, I do. For my dad, he first had to come around to the idea that I wasn’t going to be practicing law anymore. Being an African parent, he wanted me to be either a lawyer, doctor, or engineer. I was like, how about death? He was like, how about what? That was a little tricky. But eventually, we got around to talking about it. After all, I’m the one who’ll have to deal with it when it happens.
I think people actually want to talk about death, but they feel like they don’t have permission to do so because it’s “heavy.” Well, it’s a regular part of living. Without death we wouldn’t have life. It’s funny: when I meet someone for the first time and I tell them I’m a death doula, so many of them say, “Oh, when x died, I wish that you had been there.”
It appears people have been smoking weed for more than two millennia.
Researchers reported on Wednesday that they’ve found some of the earliest evidence of ritual cannabis smoking in the archaeological record.
The evidence comes from stone-filled braziers — a device used to burn a plant and fill the air with its vapors — that were unearthed in eight tombs at the Jirzankal Cemetery in the Pamir Mountains of western China.
Preserved in the 2,500-year-old braziers were traces of cannabinol (CBN), the compound that forms after tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) comes in contact with the air. THC is the most potent psychoactive agent in marijuana.
The authors published their findings in the journal Scientific Advances. The chemical signature of THC residue in the tomb, they said, indicates that people in this region of China likely smoked marijuana during burial ceremonies, perhaps as a way to communicate with the dead.
“It’s the earliest strong evidence of people getting high” on marijuana, Mark Merlin, a botanist at the University of Hawaii, told USA Today.
This marijuana was potent
Marijuana is one of the most widely used psychoactive drugs in the world today, but the legacy of its use and cultivation spans millennia. The earliest known cultivation of cannabis plants occurred in Eurasia roughly 6,000 years ago, but it was used as a food crop and for hemp material — not smoked for psychoactive effects.
Previous evidence of ancient cannabis smoking came mostly from historical anecdotes, not archaeological evidence. Greek historian Herodotus wrote about ritual and recreational pot use around the same time that these braziers were buried in distant China.
Usually, wild cannabis ( Cannabis sativa) has lower levels of THC than its cultivated counterparts. But the residue in these Chinese braziers indicates that the type of cannabis smoked in them had higher THC levels than wild plants. It also had higher amounts of THC than the cannabis grown in ancient Eurasia, the authors of the new study noted in a press release
The authors aren’t sure whether the cannabis used in this region was intentionally cultivated to have higher amounts of THC (as it is today), or whether the people who conducted this burial had some other way of seeking out more potent plants.
Either way, they appeared to be aware that not all cannabis is created equal when it comes to its psychoactive qualities.
These tombs had evidence of human sacrifice
In the Jirzankal Cemetery, the archaeologists also found skulls and other bones with signs of fatal cuts and breaks, which they interpreted as signs of human sacrifice. They found a harp as well — an important musical instrument in ancient funerals and sacrificial ceremonies.
These clues from the past indicate that the burials had a ritual quality to them, and that smoking marijuana played a role in commemorating the dead.
“We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music, and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind,” the study authors wrote.
Merlin told The Atlantic that this discovery does not suggest ancient Chinese people were into recreational drug use. Instead, he said, it was likely a spiritual practice — part of ushering the dead into the afterlife and helping the living commune with deities or the deceased.
On Aug. 1, New Jersey will become the eighth state to allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who want to end their lives. On Sept. 15, Maine will become the ninth.
So by October, 22 percent of Americans will live in places where residents with six months or less to live can, in theory, exercise some control over the time and manner of their deaths. (The others: Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana, California, Colorado and Hawaii, as well as the District of Columbia.)
But while the campaign for aid in dying continues to make gains, supporters are increasingly concerned about what happens after these laws are passed. Many force the dying to navigate an overly complicated process of requests and waiting periods, critics say.
And opt-out provisions — which allow doctors to decline to participate and health care systems to forbid their participation — are restricting access even in some places where aid in dying is legal.
“There are what I call deserts, where it’s difficult to find a facility that allows doctors to participate,” said Samantha Trad, the California state director of Compassion & Choices, the largest national advocacy group for aid in dying.
“We’re nearing a tipping point,” said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center, which oversaw the Maine campaign. “The issue, while still controversial, is less scary.”
The New Jersey bill had neared passage several times since it was introduced seven years ago, but derailed in 2014 when Chris Christie, the governor at the time, threatened a veto. Finally, legislators passed the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act this winter, and Gov. Philip D. Murphy signed it in April.
In Maine, the state legislature voted yes this spring, but supporters were unsure what the new governor, Janet Mills, would do. As in New Jersey, a Democratic governor replaced an outgoing Republican who had promised a veto.
Gov. Mills signed the law last month. “I do believe it is a right that should be protected by law — the right to make ultimate decisions,” she said.
All these laws require states to track usage and publish statistics. Their reports show that whether a state has six months or 20 years of experience, the proportion of deaths involving aid in dying (also known, to supporters’ distaste, as physician-assisted suicide) remains tiny, a fraction of a percentage point.
California, for example, in 2017 received the mandated state documents for just 632 people who’d made the necessary two verbal requests to a physician, after which 241 doctors wrote prescriptions for 577 patients. More than 269,000 California in all died that year.
With such data showing no slippery slope toward widespread use or abuse, “a lot of the hypothetical claims our opponents made no longer carry so much weight with lawmakers,” said Kim Callinan, chief executive of Compassion & Choices.
Ms. Callinan also pointed to changing attitudes within the medical community, once a well funded source of opposition. In recent years, a number of national organizations and a dozen state medical societies have instead adopted neutral stances.
“It levels the playing field a little,” she said.
Opponents, including Catholic organizations and some disability activists, still denounce these laws. In March, an aid-in-dying bill passed the Maryland House of Delegates but failed after a tie vote in the Senate. Opponents are attempting a ballot initiative to repeal Maine’s new law and pursuing a slow-moving court case to invalidate California’s.
Public opinion polls consistently show broad support for aid in dying, however. Compassion & Choices says its upcoming legislative targets include Massachusetts, Maryland again, New Mexico, New York and Nevada.
But the persistently small number of users suggests that most Americans close to death would not personally choose to self-ingest barbiturates, even if they support legalizing that option. The low numbers may also reflect difficulty in actually using these laws.
A recent survey of 270 California hospitals, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that 18 months after implementation of the state’s End of Life Option Act, more than 60 percent — many of them religiously affiliated — forbade affiliated physicians to participate.
Compassion & Choices is intensifying efforts to persuade local health care systems, doctors and hospices to agree to consider patients’ requests.
Even aid-in-dying laws long on the books are beginning to draw renewed scrutiny.
For decades, the model has been the first-in-the-nation Oregon law, which took effect in 1997. It requires a terminally ill patient to see two doctors, make two oral requests for a lethal prescription plus one in writing, and face a 15-day waiting period.
Every state law but one incorporates those elements. (In Montana, a court legalized aid in dying, so there’s no statute.)
“There’s too many roadblocks in the existing legislation,” said Ms. Callinan, whose organization has long promoted that legislation. “They’ve actually made it too difficult for patients to get through the process.”
Indeed, a study from Kaiser Permanente Southern California, a health system that supports patients who request and meet requirements for aid in dying, shows that at least a third of those who inquire about it become too ill to complete the process, or die before they can qualify.
Yet states are enacting even more supposed safeguards. Hawaii, whose law took effect in January, requires a 20-day wait; both its law and a proposed Massachusetts law add a mandated mental health consultation.
By contrast, the Oregon legislature recently approved an amendment waiving the waiting period in cases where the physician believes the patient will likely die within 15 days. Gov. Kate Brown has until Aug. 9 to sign it.
“It takes people a long time to find a first doctor, to make an appointment, to find a second doctor, to find a pharmacist,” she said. “The process itself is a waiting period,” one often exceeding 15 days.
Since rural areas face physician shortages, Compassion & Choices has also urged that nurse-practitioners and physician assistants be allowed to provide aid in dying in states where they can legally write prescriptions.
In Oregon, a veteran state legislator has taken an even more audacious step toward expanding access.
“You could make the request when you were cognitively able to do it,” he said.
Every existing state law bars that. Those requesting aid in dying must have mental capacity; dementia patients will have lost it by the time they’re within six months of dying. National groups emphatically oppose Mr. Greenlick’s propositions.
Yet those at heightened risk for Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, are already well aware of aid-in-dying laws, and some would opt to use them, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently reported.
They interviewed 50 older adults enrolled in a drug study, most with family histories of Alzheimer’s, all found to have elevated levels of the biomarker amyloid. “We describe it as an increased but uncertain risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” said Emily Largent, a Penn bioethicist.
The team’s interviews revealed that about two-thirds of the group would reject aid in dying and about 15 percent had ambivalent responses. But one in five said they would pursue it if they became cognitively impaired, were suffering or burdening loved ones.
Overall, “very few understood that they wouldn’t be eligible” for lethal prescriptions under current laws if they developed dementia, Dr. Largent said.
But they were strikingly open to legal aid in dying.
“It was important to have it available,” she said. “Even if they felt they wouldn’t choose aid in dying themselves, they weren’t opposed to it for others.”
Death comes for all of us, but Silicon Valley has, until recently, not come for death.
Who can blame them for the hesitation? The death services industry is heavily regulated and fraught with religious and health considerations. The handling of dead bodies doesn’t seem ripe for venture-backed disruption. The gravestone doesn’t seem an obvious target for innovation.
But in a forest south of Silicon Valley, a new start-up is hoping to change that. The company is called Better Place Forests. It’s trying to make a better graveyard.
“Cemeteries are really expensive and really terrible, and basically I just knew there had to be something better,” said Sandy Gibson, the chief executive of Better Place. “We’re trying to redesign the entire end-of-life experience.”
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And so Mr. Gibson’s company is buying forests, arranging conservation easements intended to prevent the land from ever being developed, and then selling people the right to have their cremated remains mixed with fertilizer and fed to a particular tree.
The Better Place team is this month opening a forest in Point Arena, a bit south of Mendocino; preselling trees at a second California location, in Santa Cruz; and developing four more spots around the country. They have a few dozen remains in the soil already, and Mr. Gibson says they have sold thousands of trees to the future dead. Most of the customers are “pre-need” — middle-aged and healthy, possibly decades ahead of finding themselves in the roots.
Better Place Forests has raised $12 million in venture capital funding. And other than the topic of dead bodies coming up fairly often, the office is a normal San Francisco start-up, with around 45 people bustling around and frequenting the roof deck with a view of the water.
There is a certain risk to being buried in a start-up forest. When the tree dies, Better Place says it will plant a new one at that same spot. But a redwood can live 700 years, and almost all start-ups in Silicon Valley fail, so it requires a certain amount of faith that someone will be there to install a new sapling.
Still, Mr. Gibson said most customers, especially those based in the Bay Area, like the idea of being part of a start-up even after life. The first few people to buy trees were called founders.
“You’re part of this forest, but you’re also part of creating this forest,” said Mr. Gibson, a tall man who speaks slowly and carefully, as though he is giving bad news gently. “People love that.”
Bring Your Dog, Forever
Customers come to claim a tree for perpetuity. This now costs between $3,000 (for those who want to be mixed into the earth at the base of a small young tree or a less desirable species of tree) and upward of $30,000 (for those who wish to reside forever by an old redwood). For those who don’t mind spending eternity with strangers, there is also an entry-level price of $970 to enter the soil of a community tree. (Cremation is not included.)
A steward then installs a small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone.
When the ashes come, the team at Better Place digs a three-foot by two-foot trench at the roots of the tree. Then, at a long table, the team mixes the person’s cremated remains with soil and water, sometimes adding other elements to offset the naturally highly alkaline and sodium-rich qualities of bone ash. It’s important the soil stay moist; bacteria will be what breaks down the remains.
Because the forest is not a cemetery, rules are much looser. For example: pets are allowed. Often customers want their ashes to be mixed with their pets’ ashes, Mr. Gibson said.
“Pets are a huge thing,” Mr. Gibson said. “It’s where everyone in your family can be spread. This is your tree.”
“Spreading” is what they call the ash deposit. The trench is a “space,” the watering can is a “vessel,” the on-site sales staff are “forest stewards.” When it comes to both death and start-ups, euphemisms abound.
It’s all pretty low-tech: mix ashes in with dirt and put a little placard in the soil. But there is a tech element: For an extra fee, customers can have a digital memorial video made. Walking through the forest, visitors will be able to scan a placard and watch a 12-minute digital portrait of the deceased talking straight to camera about his or her life. Some will allow their videos to be viewed by anyone walking through the forest, others will opt only for family members. Privacy settings will be decided before death.
“The death services market is very big — $20 billion a year — and customer approval is low,” said Jon Callaghan, a partner at True Ventures, an investor in Better Places. “The product is broken.”
The firm’s other investments include Blue Bottle, Peloton and Fitbit, and Mr. Callaghan sees consumers of those products as ones who would be interested also in Better Place trees.
“Every industry seems to have its time when things get wild,” said Nancy Pfund, the founder and a managing partner at DBL Partners, which led early funding. “It’s been mobile apps, it’s been cars, it’s been fake meat, and now it is death care,” she said.
“But we have to come up with a better name than ‘death care.’ Maybe it’s legacy care,” she added. “Maybe it’s eternity management.”
Around 75 million Americans will reach the life expectancy age of 78 between 2024 and 2042, Better Place suggests. The company’s pitch is that tree burial is good for the environment, the location is more beautiful than a traditional graveyard — and it’s cheaper as well.
Ms. Pfund also sees these forests as a way to monetize conservation. Actively managing a forest is expensive, so much so that financially strained state park systems are having to turn down gifts of land. Conservation easements, an agreement between an organization and the government to preserve land, have become more popular as a solution.
“No one has really made a big business monetizing conservation, nothing that could scale,” Ms. Pfund said. “So a bell went off when we heard this pitch.”
Those tracking the death services industry are more skeptical about how disruptive it will be.
John O’Conner, who runs Menlo Park Funerals, said more than 90 percent of his clients opt for cremation.
“Most of my people scatter on their own,” Mr. O’Conner said. “They just go at night, scatter grandma, have a cup of champagne, and every day they drive by that park they know grandma is there. Why would they pay $20,000 to go to a memorial grove when they can scatter at any little park they want to for free?”
That act is, technically, illegal.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Mr. O’Conner said. He said he knew of a few golf courses in the region that had to put up signs imploring people not to scatter guest remains there.
Ben Deci, a spokesman for California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, said Better Place Forests’ activities do not fall under the bureau’s purview.
“It looks to me like they’ve just purchased large tracts for forest land and are allowing people to disperse their ashes, and they say here ‘This’ll be your tree or whatever,’” Mr. Deci said. “You don’t need our approval to do that.”
Mr. Gibson does have a permit from the state verifying him as a cremated remains disposer. “But that’s not quite the right way to think about it,” he said.
How to Choose the Right Forever Tree
One recent day, Mr. Gibson walked through his 80 acres of Santa Cruz forest where about 6,000 trees are available, many wrapped in different colored ribbons, waiting to be chosen.
“The last major innovation in cemeteries was the lawn cemetery in the ’50s and ’60s, basically so they could get a lawn mower through easier,” Mr. Gibson said.
To claim a tree, customers walk through the forest and find one that speaks to them. The Better Place brochure also guides them: Coastal redwoods are “soaring and ancient,” tan oaks are “quirky and giving,” while a Douglas fir is “stately and reverent.”
“Some people want a tree that is totally isolated, and some people really want to be around people and be part of a fairy ring,” Mr. Gibson said. “Some people will come in and they’ll fall in love with a stump.”
“People love stumps,” he said, pointing out a few trees people bought just for the nearby stumps. “They’ve got a lot of personality.”
Younger people often choose younger trees because they like the idea of growth.
Debra Lee, a retired administrative assistant in San Jose, felt immediate kinship with the madrone tree she chose.
“She’s about 60 years old, and I’m 63,” Ms. Lee said of the mature evergreen with dark red bark. “Looking at her growth pattern you can see things have been hard at times because she’s kind of curved, but she made it to the top to get to the sunlight.”
When a customer chooses her tree, as Ms. Lee did, she cuts the ribbon off in what Better Place calls the ribbon ceremony.
As Mr. Gibson hiked across the Santa Cruz forest in a sweater and work boots, he noticed a rhododendron, his mother’s favorite flower, growing out of a stump.
Both his parents died when he was young, and, at 12, Mr. Gibson was adopted by his half brother. He is now 36, and, since then, he has spent many afternoons in Toronto at his parent’s grave site, set on a noisy corner, with a shiny black headstone that reflects traffic.
“You remember them dying, you remember the memorial service, and you remember the image of their final resting place,” Mr. Gibson said. He was haunted by that badly designed grave site. “It’s comically bad.”
Visiting their grave in 2015, he decided to quit his job running a marketing automation company. He would make a better graveyard.
“A lot of investors laughed at us when I first pitched this,” Mr. Gibson said. “People don’t really like thinking about this.”
The tragic passing of longtime television heartthrob Luke Perry a few months ago put a spotlight on the subject of green and eco-friendly burial options. It was recently revealed that the late actor was buried in a mushroom suit, a special burial suit designed to aid in the natural process of decomposition, but more detail on that later.
Though it may not be a topic many of us are comfortable talking about – perhaps one we only think about when faced with a loss – knowing what is out there, and understanding eco-friendly burial, is worth some thought.
Why Go Green?
Burial in a casket and cremation are the most common methods of burial, however, these options actually have a significant negative impact on the environment. Burial in a traditional casket made of metal or plastic prevents the natural process of decomposition. These caskets can use chemical-based finishes, toxic plastics, and chemicals, like formaldehyde, that are used for traditional embalming, which is a carcinogen and poses a risk to those who work with it regularly.
Cremation, or a traditional-style casket, is often considered an eco-friendlier option due to the lack of land use. The process of cremation itself requires the burning of natural gas and, in turn, releases harmful greenhouse gases. Additionally, other harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and hydrofluoric acid are released into the air. There is an eco-friendly process for cremation that has been developed, such as bio-cremation or water resolution, which is a process using water, heat, pressure, and potassium hydroxide to accomplish a cremation without toxic or harmful chemicals.
Green burials are burial practices that have a low environmental impact. Leaving a smaller, less harmful footprint on the planet as one’s last act conserves natural resources, preserves the environment, and also benefits the health of those who work in the industry by not using conventional embalming. The Green Burial Council is made up of two nonprofit organizations working together to further the green burial movement, support and develop more sustainable practices, and continue to honor those who have passed with respect for their lives, treating both the earth and the grief and burial process with respect.
A natural burial, in industry terms, specifically means a burial where the body is interred in the ground without the use of a vault, a traditional casket, or any chemicals. The deceased is wrapped in a biodegradable shroud or uses a pine or woven wicker casket. The options continue to grow as cemeteries around the country have begun to offer natural burial grounds.
Natural and eco-friendly burial options have been growing in popularity over the last 20 years or so. Pine, cardboard, bamboo, and willow are all earth-friendly material used to make caskets that leave less of an impact on the environment. Urns have been fashioned out of biodegradable materials, such as seashell shaped urns made from recycled paper and clay, designed to break down once placed in a body of water, and cornstarch, which eventually biodegrades completely. The options continue to grows as interest in environmentally friendly burial grows.
About That Suit
Luke Perry chose to be placed into eternal rest wearing Coeio’s “Infinity Burial Suit”, a burial garment made with totally natural and biodegradable components, including microorganisms and mushrooms with a job to do. The specially designed suit has three goals: to help in the decomposition process, to neutralize toxins from the body, and to transmit nutrients back into plant life, thus completing the process by restarting life. The company plants two trees for every suit and shroud sold, another step in its goal to continue the cycle of life. The suit costs $1,500 and is available for order online.
The average casket cost anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000, though the price tag can top $10,000. The cost of cremation is about $1,000, and none of those estimates include funeral services. So while a $1,500 price tag seems steep in comparison it is actually on the less pricey side of the choices.
The choice to be interred in a mushroom suit was not about fashion or headlines, it was a choice an individual made to give back in a unique way. Due to his celebrity status, that choice brings awareness to this delicate subject.
Keeping It Local
We have plenty of options for going green in the afterlife right here in Colorado, and most are locally owned businesses and products. Here is a breakdown of some of the green and natural burial options the Centennial state has to offer.
Roselawn Cemetery in Fort Collins and Evergreen Memorial Park in Evergreen are two of the cemeteries that offer a range of green and natural burial options in Colorado.
Nature’s Casket out of Longmont creates handcrafted caskets using pine trees killed from pine beetles. Repurposing these trees into blue-stained pine caskets, their products are 100 percent biodegradable and use all non-toxic materials. Though these caskets are only available in Colorado, the company also offers a selection of intricately handcrafted pine urns and provides free shipping on them nationwide.
The Natural Funeral is an independent local funeral home located in Lafayette that specializes in green and natural funeral methods. Using locally produced and naturally made products, they offer a variety of green funeral options, including pine caskets from Nature’s Casket, cardboard caskets, handmade and painted pine urns, and custom crafted painted gourd urns. Living urns, seed pods, and water urns are also offered as are bamboo burial shrouds.
Goes Funeral Care in Fort Collins is another local funeral business that works with the Green Burial Council and offers a range of green burial options at either Crestone or Roselawn Cemetery.
Seven Stones Chatfield is a botanical gardens cemetery located in Littleton. Seven Stones offers many different burial options and is very different than the somber rows of headstones one might find in a traditional cemetery. An artistic and peaceful place, Seven Stones offers artistic memorials and tributes made individually to honor everyone laid to rest there. Cremation gardens with sculptures and walking paths, waterfalls, and quiet spots to sit and remember. Green burial options are available and growing, with a Meadow of tall grass and natural granite boulder markings. There is even a spot to remember our furry family members with green burial and a pet memorial area. A unique and intriguing place Seven Stones also celebrates life by hosting events such as art, music, and nature festivals throughout the year.
Donate Your Body to Science
For some people, this can be a final act of giving back, perhaps too old or sick to donate organs; some will choose to let their body be used for medical and academic research. This is actually far more common than one might think, and there a plenty of options here in Colorado.
If you are one of those people who may want to give back by letting your body be a research tool, you can do it at no cost. Science Care Colorado has a donor registry where people can sign up and pre-register to become a donor.
Most of the major universities have donor programs, as well, and work with the State Anatomical Board to use these gifts to learn and better serve patients. The University of Colorado School of Medicine at Anschutz Medical Campus holds an annual Donor Memorial Ceremony each spring to remember, honor, and thank those who have given of their bodies in this way. It is a highly emotional event and brings together the community, the families of the deceased, and those who have learned from them.
Former Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and former Dean of the school of Medicine Richard D. Krugman, MD offers this statement on the donor memorial:
“I have always been impressed that the Anatomical Donor Memorial Service is one of our most emotional events. Just what this service means for students and donors’ families and friends really resonated in a letter I received last week from a woman who wrote, ‘I was the ancient, white-haired lady in the second or third row weeping through most of it. Not just sadness, but a lot of gratitude, empathy and happiness. It was so well done – the prayers, the Arrhythmias (our student a capella group), the student bagpiper, and the very touching speakers … It was emotional, full of respect and in every way, it meant a great deal of closure for me.'”
Preserving the planet goes far beyond recycling soda cans and not using plastic straws. And all of us, celebrity or not, can make a difference in this unexpected way. Though it is an uncomfortable subject, it is one we will all face at some point, for ourselves and for loved ones.
Have you thought about green and natural burial options? Is there an option or place that you know of here in Colorado that we missed? Please share your thoughts and sentiments with us in the comments below.