When you’re looking at Elizabeth Fournier’s funeral home from the street, it looks like any ordinary farmhouse nestled into the hills of Boring, Oregon—and even after she welcomed me through the front door, it seemed hard to believe there were two wicker caskets tucked neatly in the back room of the cozy house.
Offering woven caskets is just one of the things that makes Fournier’s mortuary business particularly remarkable.
With the enormous costs of chemically-treated wood coffins, concrete burial vaults, liners, cremations, urns, cemetery space, and embalming, an average funeral in America costs about $10,000. In addition to adding a financial burden to the backs of grieving families, these burial methods are also notoriously toxic for the environment.
Fournier, on the other hand, has made a name for herself in the funeral industry by ditching toxic burial methods altogether in favor of “green funerals”.
When Good News Network first published an article on Fournier’s trailblazing mortuary career in 2016, she told me about how she created biodegradable urns out of dryer lint, flour, and water so she could give them away to poorer families who couldn’t afford traditional funeral costs.
Not only did she offer discounted services to low-income families, Fournier has also facilitated dozens of funerals for parents who lost their children – and she didn’t charge them a dime.
“As long as the mortuary board is happy with me, and I am being ethical I tend to march to my own drum,” Fournier told GNN in 2016. “If a family is truly having a hardship, I have no issue giving services away.”
Since opening Cornerstone Funeral Services 14 years ago, her passion for eco-friendly mortuary practices has earned her the nickname “The Green Reaper”, although she was quick to assure me that she wasn’t the one to coin the term—there nothing is scary about the humbling way she talks about death and grief.
Beyond her compassionate and eco-friendly business practices, the ease with which she offers her guidance, empathy, wisdom, and expertise is particularly singular. As we chatted in the Cornerstone funeral parlor, she recounted awe-inspiring tales of uplifting funerals and intimate ceremonies that she had been invited to attend after her consultations. Despite her passion for arranging more consoling memorials, she also spoke very frankly about the ones that had been so heartbreaking to facilitate. She simply said that they “just plain sucked”.
Regardless of the circumstances, she emphasized that everyone should be allowed to grieve in their own way. Fournier herself recently had to cope with the loss of her father, but she says she likes to remember him fondly by the numerous jigsaw puzzles that they did together (all of which have been lovingly glued together as a makeshift wallpaper for the Cornerstone funeral parlor bathroom.)
The DIY manual is as fascinating and informative as it is relevant. According to a 2017 survey from the National Funeral Director’s Association, just over half of participants expressed interest in an eco-friendly funeral. Furthermore, 62% of consumers felt it was very important to communicate their funeral plans and wishes to family members prior to their own death, yet only 21% had done so.
What makes the guidebook even more relevant is a law that was passed by the Washington state legislature at the end of May.
The bill, SB 5001, makes Washington the first US state to legalize human composting—also known as “liquid cremation”. Up until the law was passed with sweeping bipartisan support (80-16 in the House and 38-11 in the Senate), the only legal methods of post-mortem funerary processing were cremation and burial.
Now, however, bodies can be naturally processed into clean, odorless soil that can nourish the planet without taking up any space in crowded, pesticide-laden cemetery spaces.
“Natural organic reduction and the conversion of human remains into soil will be opening in the Seattle area in late 2020, and it’ll be the first facility in the world where this can be offered to the public,” Fournier told GNN. “It’s very exciting. Until then, there will be a large push to get the word out and to improve the sustainability, the conscientiousness and the meaning of it all.
“I believe other states are waiting to see how this program will develop before they set foot into the human composting realm,” she added, “but I think it is beautiful, regenerative and really aligned with the cycles of nature.”
What do you want to happen to your remains after you die?
For the past century, most Americans have accepted a limited set of options without question. And discussions of death and funeral plans have been taboo.
That is changing. As a scholar of funeral and cemetery law at Wake Forest University, I’ve discovered that Americans are becoming more willing to have a conversation about their own mortality and what comes next and embrace new funeral and burial practices.
Baby boomers are insisting upon more control over their funeral and disposition so that their choices after death match their values in life. And businesses are following suit, offering new ways to memorialize and dispose of the dead.
While some options such as Tibetan sky burial — leaving human remains to be picked clean by vultures — and “Viking” burial via flaming boat — familiar to “Game of Thrones” fans — remain off limits in the U.S., laws are changing to allow a growing variety of practices.
‘American Way of Death’
In 1963, English journalist and activist Jessica Mitford published “The American Way of Death,” in which she described the leading method of disposing of human remains in the United States, still in use today.
She wrote that human remains are temporarily preserved by replacing blood with a formaldehyde-based embalming fluid shortly after death, placed in a decorative wood or metal casket, displayed to family and friends at the funeral home and buried within a concrete or steel vault in a grave, perpetually dedicated and marked with a tombstone.
Mitford called this “absolutely weird” and argued that it had been invented by the American funeral industry, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century. As she wrote in The Atlantic:
“Foreigners are astonished to learn that almost all Americans are embalmed and publicly displayed after death. The practice is unheard of outside the United States and Canada.”
Nearly all Americans who died from the 1930s, when embalming became well-established, through the 1990s were disposed of in this manner.
And it’s neither cheap or good for the environment. The median cost of a funeral and burial, including a vault to enclose the casket, was $8,508 in 2014. Including the cost of the burial plot, the fee for opening and closing the grave and the tombstone easily brings the total cost to $11,000 or more.
This method also consumes a great deal of natural resources. Each year, we bury 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid, 115 million tons of steel, 2.3 billion tons of concrete and enough wood to build 4.6 million single-family homes.
Mitford’s book influenced generations of Americans, beginning with the baby boomers, to question this type of funeral and burial. As a result, demand for alternatives such as home funerals and green burials have increased significantly. The most common reasons cited are a desire to connect with and honor their loved ones in a more meaningful way, and interest in lower-cost, less environmentally damaging choices.
Rise of cremation
The most radical change to how Americans handle their remains has been the rising popularity of cremation by fire. Cremation is less expensive than burial and, although it consumes fossil fuels, is widely perceived to be better for the environment than burial in a casket and vault.
Although cremation became legal in a handful of states in the 1870s and 1880s, its usage in the U.S. remained in single digits for another century. After steadily rising since the 1980s, cremation was the disposition method of choice for nearly half of all deaths in the U.S. in 2015. Cremation is most popular in urban areas, where the cost of burial can be quite high, in states with a lot of people born in other ones and among those who do not identify with a particular religious faith.
Residents of western states like Nevada, Washington and Oregon opt for cremation the most, with rates as high as 76 percent. Mississippi, Alabama and Kentucky have the lowest rates, at less than a quarter of all burials. The National Funeral Directors Association projects that by 2030 the nationwide cremation rate will reach 71 percent.
Cremation’s dramatic rise is part of a huge shift in American funerary practices away from burial and the ritual of embalming the dead, which is not required by law in any state but which most funeral homes require in order to have a visitation. In 2017, a survey of the personal preferences of Americans aged 40 and over found that more than half preferred cremation. Only 14 percent of those respondents said they would like to have a full funeral service with viewing and visitation prior to cremation, down from 27 percent as recently as 2015.
Part of the reason for that shift is cost. In 2014, the median cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation was $6,078. In contrast, a “direct cremation,” which does not include embalming or a viewing, can typically be purchased for $700 to $1,200.
Cremated remains can be buried in a cemetery or stored in an urn on the mantle, but businesses also offer a bewildering range of options for incorporating ashes into objects like glass paperweights, jewelry and even vinyl records.
And while 40 percent of respondents to the 2017 survey associate a cremation with a memorial service, Americans are increasingly holding those services at religious institutions and nontraditional locations like parks, museums and even at home.
Another trend is finding greener alternatives to both the traditional burial and cremation.
The 2017 survey found that 54 percent of respondents were interested in green options. Compare this with a 2007 survey of those aged 50 or higher by AARP which found that only 21 percent were interested in a more environmentally friendly burial.
One example of this is a new method of disposing of human remains called alkaline hydrolysis, which involves using water and a salt-based solution to dissolve human remains. Often referred as “water cremation,” it’s preferred by many as a greener alternative to cremation by fire, which consumes fossil fuels. Most funeral homes that offer both methods of cremation charge the same price.
The alkaline hydrolysis process results in a sterile liquid and bone fragments that are reduced to “ash” and returned to the family. Although most Americans are unfamiliar with the process, funeral directors that have adopted it generally report that families prefer it to cremation by fire. California recently became the 15th state to legalize it.
A rising number of families are also interested in so-called “home funerals,” in which the remains are cleaned and prepared for disposition at home by the family, religious community or friends. Home funerals are followed by cremation, or burial in a family cemetery, a traditional cemetery or a green cemetery.
Assisted by funeral directors or educated by home funeral guides, families that choose home funerals are returning to a set of practices that predate the modern funeral industry.
Proponents say that caring for remains at home is a better way of honoring the relationship between the living and the dead. Home funerals are also seen as more environmentally friendly since remains are temporarily preserved through the use of dry ice rather than formaldehyde-based embalming fluid.
The Green Burial Council says rejecting embalming is one way to go green. Another is to choose to have remains interred or cremated in a fabric shroud or biodegradable casket rather than a casket made from nonsustainable hardwoods or metal. The council promotes standards for green funeral products and certifies green funeral homes and burial grounds. More than 300 providers are currently certified in 41 states and six Canadian provinces.
For example, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the historic New York cemetery made famous by Washington Irving, is a certified “hybrid” cemetery because it has reserved a portion of its grounds for green burials: no embalming, no vaults and no caskets unless they are biodegradable — the body often goes straight into the ground with just a simple wrapping.
Clearly Americans are pushing the “traditional” boundaries of how to memorialize their loved ones and dispose of their remains. While I wouldn’t hold out hope that Americans will be able to choose Viking- or Tibetan-style burials anytime soon, you never know.
Few experiences are more painful than the death of someone we love, and the grief only continues as burial arrangements are made. On that terrible day when we have to inter a loved one, it’s difficult enough to cope with the act, let alone think beyond it.
But a group of environmentally conscious citizens in America known as ecological death activists are. UNLV doctoral candidate Nick Mac Murray studies them.
“Ultimately, eco death activists are trying to minimize the footprint of American burials,” he said.
Most people aren’t aware of the impact burial has on the planet. Take, for example, the process of embalming. We generally don’t question it because it’s common practice at this point. It’s just what’s done when someone passes.
But embalming, which Mac Murray noted emerged during the Civil War to preserve soldiers’ bodies for the long journey home from the front lines, is a toxic practice. Embalming fluid contains a mixture of poisonous chemicals including formaldehyde and methanol, which can harm the environment. And embalming is largely unnecessary, Mac Murray noted. No laws require it, and no legitimate public health reasons necessitate it.
Yet embalming remains standard practice in the U.S.
“People view death in a sacred and personal way,” said Robert Futrell, UNLV department of sociology chair and Mac Murray’s faculty advisor. “They carry around entrenched norms and values, making it difficult to push back against these established practices.”
Eco death activists hope to change established practices by encouraging “green burials,” which manage death in ways that limit environmental damage and perhaps even reap an environmental good. Instead of embalming, nontoxic chemicals or refrigeration can be used in the treatment of human remains. Casket alternatives include biodegradable shrouds and wicker basket coffins. Most interments currently involve concrete grave liners and burial vaults, which are used to keep caskets level and prevent machinery or the ground above from crushing them. Eco death activists note that each burial of this type deposits a ton or more of concrete into the ground and that cement manufacturing is one of the leading producers of greenhouse gas emissions, Mac Murray said.
Futrell said changing the cultural beliefs around death management is challenging but not insurmountable. After all, embalming became common just some 150 years ago. And in just the last 50 years, cremation gained acceptance, surpassing burial in popularity in America in 2015, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
The broader issue, as Mac Murray sees it, is death anxiety. Americans are so uncomfortable with death that they feel like the whole process needs to be handled by a professional. But, he pointed out, this too is a fairly new development. For most years of the American West’s history, for example, death care was very personal; families would tend to and bury the body in a grave they dug by hand, and embalming was a crazy fad.
“These practices seem weird in contemporary America, but if you look back in history, these ways were the norm,” Mac Murray said.
Public sentiment is already shifting around funerary practices, driven in part by the desire to make death management more personal and get families more directly involved in the care of their deceased, while some are rejecting the increased commodification of the process; it is a $20 billion industry.
“For some the decision is purely a practical one: what’s cheaper, what’s easier, what makes more sense for me or my family,” Mac Murray said. “If cheaper options are available, there are people who will make those choices with no consideration for environmental issues.”
Still, the concept of green burials is gaining traction as well, with more and more cemeteries around the country offering green burial options.
“We’re starting to see the inroads that eco death activists are making,” Mac Murray said. “These outliers are pushing for alternatives, and those alternatives are starting to be picked up by the funerary industry because they’re seeing that some people do have an interest in them. Green burials seem very alternative and deviant from our current practices, but that could change very quickly.”
Legislation would let facilities offer ‘natural organic reduction’ which turns a body into about two wheelbarrows’ worth of soil
Ashes to ashes, guts to dirt.
Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation Tuesday making Washington the first state to approve composting as an alternative to burying or cremating human remains.
It allows licensed facilities to offer “natural organic reduction”, which turns a body, mixed with substances such as wood chips and straw, into about two wheelbarrows’ worth of soil in a span of several weeks.
Loved ones are allowed to keep the soil to spread, just as they might spread the ashes of someone who has been cremated – or even use it to plant vegetables or a tree.
“It gives meaning and use to what happens to our bodies after death,” said Nora Menkin, executive director of the Seattle-based People’s Memorial Association, which helps people plan for funerals.
Supporters say the method is an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation, which releases carbon dioxide and particulates into the air, and conventional burial, in which people are drained of their blood, pumped full of formaldehyde and other chemicals that can pollute groundwater, and placed in a nearly indestructible coffin, taking up land.
“That’s a serious weight on the earth and the environment as your final farewell,” said Senator Jamie Pedersen, the Seattle Democrat who sponsored the measure.
He said the legislation was inspired by his neighbor Katrina Spade, who was an architecture graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, when she began researching the funeral industry. She came up with the idea for human composting, modeling it on a practice farmers have long used to dispose of livestock.
She tweaked the process and found that wood chips, alfalfa and straw created a mixture of nitrogen and carbon that accelerates natural decomposition when a body is placed in a temperature- and moisture-controlled vessel and rotated.
A pilot project at Washington State University tested the idea last year on six bodies, all donors who Spade said wanted to be part of the study.
In 2017, Spade founded Recompose, a company working to bring the concept to the public.
State law previously dictated that remains be disposed of by burial or cremation. The new law, which takes effect in May 2020, added composting as well as alkaline hydrolysis, a process already legal in 19 other states. The latter uses heat, pressure, water and chemicals like lye to reduce remains.
Cemeteries across the country are allowed to offer natural or “green” burials, by which people are buried in biodegradable shrouds or caskets without being embalmed. Composting could be a good option in cities where cemetery land is scarce, Pedersen said.
The state senator said he had received angry emails from people who object to the idea, calling it undignified or disgusting.
“The image they have is that you’re going to toss Uncle Henry out in the backyard and cover him with food scraps,” he said.
To the contrary, he said, the process would be respectful. Recompose’s website envisions an atrium-like space where bodies are composted in compartments stacked in a honeycomb design. Families will be able to visit, providing an emotional connection typically missing at crematoriums, the company says.
“It’s an interesting concept,” said Edward Bixby, president of the Placerville, California-based Green Burial Council. “I’m curious to see how well it’s received.”
He was an avid sailor, a talented dancer, a devoted father and an entrepreneurial fireworks professional whose gunpowder-fuelled chemical concoctions lit up New Zealand skies in dazzling displays of sound and colour.
When Anthony Lealand died last June at age 71, following surgery-related complications, he went more gently than many into Dylan Thomas’ good night. His body was washed and dressed by his two children, placed unembalmed in a macrocarpa coffin made by son Nicholas in the shape of a boat, then lowered into a shallow grave on a gently sloping lawn overlooking Lyttelton Harbour.
Eight months later, few signs remain at the new eco-burial site in the Diamond Harbour Memorial Gardens Cemetery. No headstones, no permanent markers. Just some native grasses, a cluster of young coprosma, the smell of pine, the sound of birdsong, the glint of the sea on which Lealand loved to sail.
“I’d much rather think of my father at the beach,” says Nicholas. “He wasn’t very spiritual or sentimental about his body. We know he is in the ground just there, but he isn’t in his physical body – he is in his life’s work, his children. The soul is this elaborate metaphor to mean all the things that are outside your physical body, and that part of him continues on. His business is still running, his friends still tell his jokes – all that is still there, but his body is just compost.”
So, what’s needed for a good death? As palliative-care doctor Janine Winters writes in Death and Dying in New Zealand (edited by Emma Johnson) the person should be comfortable, in the location of their choice, with people they care about. They should have a caregiver, be warm, dry and clean, and have the necessary medication for physical symptoms. “There are no surprises,” she writes. “They have had the opportunity to put their affairs in order. They are able to say those things that need saying. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Goodbye. All these things together – comfort, agency and preparation – provide for what I understand as dignity.”
But it’s what comes next that’s breaking down our traditional ways of thinking about and dealing with death. Increasingly, a generation taught to tread lightly on this earth in life is looking to do the same on the other side of the grave as it questions the need for permanent memorials, costly and potentially ground-contaminating coffins and even embalming.
For Nicholas Lealand, these were neither important nor appropriate. “Embalming, putting make-up on – it is lying to yourself. It is saying he is not really dead or he’s just sleeping. And it always felt really disrespectful for the final act of your existence to be to poison the soil.”
In a natural, green or eco burial, the body is not embalmed – although it may be refrigerated or treated with oils. It is buried in a biodegradable shroud or a box made from cardboard, untreated wood or fibres, then buried in a relatively shallow grave – 60-100cm rather than the traditional 1.8m or six feet under – where there is more biological activity to aid decomposition. Instead of a headstone or plaque, a tree is often planted above the plot, with GPS and map co-ordinates to allow the site to be traced.
Demand for such low-impact burials is growing. The Italian art project Capsula Mundi has designed biodegradable egg-shaped burial pods, in which ashes or a fetal-crouched body can be placed and buried like a seed beneath a tree to offset the person’s carbon footprint and contribute to a cemetery that is more woodland than graveyard. US company Coeio sells burial suits and shrouds lined with fungi and other microorganisms that aid decomposition.
According to Bloomberg magazine, about 8% of the more than 150,000 burials that take place in the UK each year are now natural burials, up from about 3% just three years ago. A 2015 study found that 64% of US citizens aged 40 and over would consider a green burial, up from 43% just five years earlier.
The Kiwi connection
New Zealand’s eco-burial tradition goes back 20 years, when public relations consultant Mark Blackham and his wife, Sola Freeman, wanted to bury their baby daughter in native forest. They weren’t allowed, says Blackham, “but I couldn’t see any practical or sensible or ideological reason why you wouldn’t do it”.
Inspired by the fledgling green-funeral movement in Britain, he began his “infamous round of phone calls” to every council in the country. Nearly a decade later, in June 2008, the Wellington Natural Cemetery at Makara became the first natural cemetery in a city outside the UK.
Today, Blackham’s not-for-profit organisation, Natural Burials, lists six certified natural cemeteries in Wellington, Kāpiti, Carterton, Marlborough, New Plymouth and Westport. Other uncertified natural cemeteries have been formed in Auckland (the natural burial site at Waikumete Cemetery was awarded the Innovation Award at last year’s Cemeteries and Crematoria Collective Conference), Hamilton, Thames, Nelson, Motueka, Dunedin, Invercargill and Whangārei – now home to New Zealand’s first cemetery in an existing forest. Smaller initiatives, such as that at Diamond Harbour, offer eco-burial alternatives, often within existing cemeteries. Some funeral directors are also coming on board, helping clients choose green, low-cost or DIY burial options.
Driving this interest, says Blackham, is concern about the environmental toll of conventional burials. Standard coffins may contain glues, chemical binding agents and metals. Embalming products – and 90% of the dead are embalmed before being lowered into the ground – can include glutaraldehyde, methanol, phenol, paraformaldehyde and formaldehyde.
A 2017 University of Pretoria study found that even though only about 3% of the formaldehyde used in embalming percolates down through the soil, two of the 27 soil samples studied had concentrations of the chemical considerably higher than what is deemed tolerable by the World Health Organisation. The study also found high levels of various metals and phthalates from the plastic and varnishes used in coffin materials.
Left to its own devices, however, a decomposing cadaver is a high-quality nutrient resource; it has a low carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (good for decomposition) and a high water content. According to the prosaically named Corpse Project in the UK, a cadaver can provide 17 of the 18 elements required for plant growth. Cremated remains, in contrast, are usually of little use in the soil and can be harmful.
A recent report from the University of Sheffield estimates that 0.25g to 1g of mercury from amalgam tooth fillings is released from each cremated body. Though this is a tiny fraction of overall mercury emissions, five European countries have banned or significantly reduced the use of amalgam largely on environmental grounds. Several US states now offer bio-cremation – a chemical process in which bodies are broken down into their chemical components, leaving bones and a recyclable liquid – as a less polluting alternative to cremation.
Young people in particular are influenced by environmental concerns such as these, says Blackham. “They understand the cycle of carbon and nitrogen and want to be part of that cycle, not to turn their body into pollution but to turn it into something that plants and the soil can use.”
For those closer to death, he says, interest in green burials is often driven by more modest ideas around nature and simplicity. “Simple in the sense that there is something simple about reconnecting with nature – it is not an eco-nazi type of thing. They are thinking about their own relationship to the Earth, about their life, about their attitude to life. It is a contribution to the environment, to the growing of a forest and a place of contemplation – a nice place where relatives can come afterwards.”
Increasingly distanced from death
Returning a shrouded body to the earth is nothing new. The practice is documented in the Bible, the Torah and the Koran. But over the past century, our distance from death increased. We tend to live apart from our families. About 70% of deaths of those 65 and over happen in rest homes and hospitals. Increasingly, the roles of body preparation, transporting, wakes, viewings and even organising a funeral are delegated to professionals.
“When we died at home and looked after each other as family groups, we knew how to do this,” says British palliative-care specialist Dr Kathryn Mannix, who is on a speaking tour of New Zealand. “Now we can take people to hospital to make them better, but we still take them to hospital when we can’t make them better. And they end up dying there, so no one sees normal dying at home any more.”
Instead, our understanding of death is diminished by unhelpful euphemisms, such as “passed away” and “lost the battle”, or hyped up by the dramatic blood-soaked killings dished up by TV crime series or computer games.
“But normal dying is not dramatic,” says Mannix. “The physical process is very gentle – it is really not that interesting unless you love that person. More-open discussions about death and dying will reduce that fear and superstition and allow us to be honest with each other at a time when well-intentioned lies can separate us and waste what precious time we have left.” As she writes in her new book, With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial, this involves being explicit about the likely course of the illness, the necessary support, the availability of required resources if a person is to die in their home and the nature of dying itself.
Some cultures keep a closer proximity to death than others. In Death and Dying in New Zealand, funeral director Kay Paku explains the Māori belief that keeping the body surrounded by loving family and friends “helps to calm and free the spirit”. Throughout Catholic Ireland, says Mannix, when someone is dying, people will call in, talk to the family, say their goodbyes: “They wouldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening.” Emma Johnson recalls witnessing the burning funeral pyres in Varanasi in India. “The realisation we are physical matter becomes very clear,” she says, “whereas for us, a lot of that is behind closed doors.”
Death and Dying in New Zealand swings open those doors. It includes essays on Māori tangi, funeral poverty, cemetery architecture, the workaday world of a coroner and the truly, madly, deeply successful funeral-home series The Casketeers.
Former midwife then hospice nurse Katie Williams recounts the history of her coffin-making club in Rotorua, the “happiest and most enjoyable club” in town. On the phone before giving a TedX talk, she describes the moment in 2010 when she first suggested the idea as a U3A course (an organisation that selects and creates courses for people of retirement years). “There was dead silence – but at the end of the meeting there was a line of people waiting. It is a way of taking control. You are going out in something that means you, not mahogany and gold.”
She describes a man who was close to death, a young father who had never had a go-kart as a kid. “So, we made him a go-kart – he went off in huge style, he had a wonderful exit.”
“Alone we are born/And die alone”, wrote James K Baxter in 1948, but in planning our own “wonderful exit”, the dying part is becoming a lot more social. The death-cafe movement, launched in England in 2011 to encourage open conversations about dying, is now a global tradition taking place in coffee shops, offices, community halls, libraries and living rooms in more than 50 countries, including New Zealand. Death walkers, death midwives and death doulas now offer their services to assist people through the dying process.
Once a month, about a dozen people turn up at Christchurch’s Quaker Centre to discuss all things related to death. Convener Rosemary Tredgold says it’s an opportunity to discuss issues many haven’t considered out loud. Do you need a funeral director? What sort of coffin do you want? What sort of service? Do you have a will? Do you have an advanced-care plan? Do you have power of attorney? How can you get a cheaper funeral? What’s going to happen when I die?
“If you look back at my parents’ generation, we couldn’t talk about death – one didn’t. It was very, very difficult. When my father died, it was exactly the same as when his father died – you didn’t talk about trauma, about war, about dying. But there is such value in sharing ideas.”
In sharing her ideas, US mortician and self-professed funeral industry rabble-rouser Caitlin Doughty developed a cult following. Her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, was a New York Times bestseller. Her latest, From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, is pitched as a search for “the good death”, in contrast to American death practices she describes as brief, distant and sterile. Her work has spawned a tell-all “death-positive movement” that encourages people to speak openly about death, dying and corpses (Tenet 1: I believe that by hiding death and dying behind closed doors, we do more harm than good to our society).
Grief specialist Tricia Hendry sums it up as a “happy belligerence”, the result of an ageing population – by 2051, one in four of us will be 65 or over – and a lifting of taboos, “whether it is tampon ads on TV to talking about death and euthanasia. It’s an information age – there’s a lot more information at the click of a button – and because we are living longer, I am conscious of a confidence in older people that wasn’t there a couple of generations before us. There is a fighting spirit now – a sense of life going on for longer and I want to exit it on my own terms.”
Although these terms may include a green or eco-burial, there are drawbacks. Such burials are not cheap alternatives. There are savings from having no embalming, prefabricated coffins and headstones, but imported willow or seagrass caskets can ratchet up the cost and councils still need to charge for land that will never be used again. According to Blackham, natural cemeteries can be a couple of hundred dollars more expensive than a standard interment.
And, because the shallower burials allow only one interment per plot, this does not help those cities fast running out of cemetery space. Today, only 30 of Auckland’s 53 council-owned or -managed cemeteries are operational. Manukau Memorial Gardens has sufficient space for lawn burials until 2035 and North Shore Memorial Park until 2050. Waikumete, New Zealand’s largest cemetery, is expected to run out of new body burial plots – as opposed to ash burials – within the next three to five years. Already, the council has announced it will be seeking feedback on potential new burial areas in the cemetery and different forms of burial, including private and public mausoleums, vaults and “niche walls” for ashes.
“There is not any immediate urgency,” says the newly appointed manager of cemetery services for Auckland Council, Nikki Marchant-Ludlow, “but it is something we need to consider as we grow. We are working on a plan to consider what our options are in terms of utilising the land we have and whether there is any other land we could consider in and around the area.”
To cope with competing demands for land, some countries offer burials for limited tenure, after which the remains are disinterred and reburied deeper or put into an ossuary box.
Families in Spain and Greece rent an above-ground crypt where bodies lie for several years. Once they have decomposed, the bodies are moved to a communal burial ground, so the crypt can be used again. In this country, until the late 19th century, Māori of high status were buried close to settlements, then their bones were disinterred and placed in secret locations.
Rules not okay
Today, burial locations are mandated by legislation. New Zealand law allows a body to be buried in a public cemetery, a Māori burial ground, a religious/denominational burial ground, a private burial place used for burial before April 1965 (with permission from a District Court judge or mayor), on private land if there is no cemetery or burial ground within 32km of the place where the person died or is to be buried (again with permission from the Ministry of Health and the local council), or in any other place if the ministry agrees in advance that the place is safe and appropriate for burial. Burial at sea is allowed at five offshore burial sites around the country with a permit from the Environmental Protection Authority and evidence to show the burial took place at the agreed location, that the casket remained in one piece when it entered the sea and that it sank straight to the sea floor. Since taking over the regulatory role in 2015, the Environmental Protection Authority has received and approved only two applications for burial at sea.
In its 2015 overview of the 1964 Burial and Cremation Act, the Law Commission concluded the legislation is “old, out of date and fractured”. Citing increasing immigration, the changing nature of family relationships, increasing use of cremation and growing demand for eco-burials, biodegradable coffins and DIY funerals, it recommends the law be replaced by new statutes for deaths, burials and cremations.
It recommended extending the power to determine the cause of death to some nurses (this was integrated into an Act amendment last year); loosening restrictions on new cemeteries (although still keeping them under local authority management); and allowing people to appoint someone as a “deceased’s representative” to make decisions about the funeral according to their wishes or tikanga.
It also recommended exploring “alternative methods of cremation” or other means of disposing of bodies. Although applications for cremation on an outdoor pyre, the traditional method of cremation for some religions, are few – the Ministry of Health is aware of only two cremations outside approved crematoria in the past 25 years, both for highly respected Buddhist monks – the Law Commission report suggested this option should not be limited to religious denominations as is currently the case; “rather, it should be the sincerity of the application that is relevant”.
As society changes, such funerary and burial options will need to be addressed at a policy level. On a personal level, to allow for a grieving process that is meaningful and uncomplicated, Johnson is hopeful more people will start discussing their own end-of-life wishes, writing them down, recording them in an advanced care plan.
“Talking about death and about what you want at the end of your own life allows for that resilience in society. Having that open conversation goes on to living life better and being able to grieve in a healthier way.”
An international research team led by Uppsala University has discovered that individuals buried in megalithic tombs in Ireland and Sweden during the Stone Age were relatives. The families can be traced for more than ten generations, which indicates that megaliths were graves for kindred groups in northwestern Europe.
Beginning around 4,500 BCE, megalithic monuments emerged along the Atlantic European shoreline that were often used for funeral practices. However, the social structure and origin of the groups that began constructing the stone monuments remains a mystery.
For the current study, the researchers sequenced and analyzed the genomes of 24 individuals recovered at five megalithic burial sites, representing megalithic construction in northern and western Europe.
By using radiocarbon-dating, the team traced the remains back to between 3,800 and 2,600 BCE. Genome sequencing revealed that the individuals in the megaliths were closely related to Neolithic farmers in northern and western Europe, but not closely related to farmers in central Europe. On the British Isles, the males in the tomb outnumbered the females.
“We found paternal continuity through time, including the same Y-chromosome haplotypes reoccurring over and over again,” said study co-author Helena Malmström. “However, female kindred members were not excluded from the megalith burials as three of the six kinship relationships in these megaliths involved females.”
The genetic analysis showed close family ties among the individuals buried within the megaliths. In two particular tombs that were located about two kilometers away from each other, it appeared that parents were buried together with their offspring. “This came as a surprise. It appears as these Neolithic societies were tightly knit with very close kin relations across burial sites,” said co-author Federico Sanchez-Quinto.
The Ansarve site on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea is located in an area that was home to mostly hunter-gathers.
“The people buried in the Ansarve tomb are remarkably different on a genetic level compared to the contemporaneous individuals excavated from hunter-gather-contexts, showing that the burial tradition in this megalithic tomb, which lasted for over 700 years, was performed by distinct groups with roots in the European Neolithic expansion,” explained study co-author Magdalena Fraser.
“That we find distinct paternal lineages among the people in the megaliths, an overrepresentation of males in some tombs, and the clear kindred relationships point to towards the individuals being part of a patrilineal segment of the society rather than representing a random sample from a larger Neolithic farmer community,” said study senior author Mattias Jakobsson.
“Our study demonstrates the potential in archaeogenetics to not only reveal large-scale migrations, but also inform about Stone Age societies and the role of particular phenomena in those times such as the megalith phenomena,” concluded Sanchez-Quinto.