Archaeologists in southern Siberia have unearthed a remarkable find – the mummified remains of a woman, carefully adorned in silk and buried with riches. Miraculously, her resting place was unscathed after being underwater for many years.
The team spotted the grave on the bank of the Yenisei River upstream of a giant dam – in a region that had been periodically underwater for decades.
She’s been nicknamed “sleeping beauty”, and was probably buried sometime in around the first century CE, archaeologists from St Petersburg’s Institute for the History of Material Culture believe.
Her burial place is near the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, which powers a hydroelectric power plant, and had been underwater for a great deal of time since the 1980s, when the reservoir began to be filled.
But her burial was unusual – she was laid to rest in a stone coffin – which is how her remains managed to survive being flooded.
“The mummy of a young woman was found inside a grave at the burial ground Terezin on the shore of a water reservoir. The lower part of the body is well-preserved,” explained archaeologist Marina Kilunovskaya of the Institute to Russian news agency TASS.
“It is not a classical mummy, though. The grave remained tightly sealed under the stone cover all along. The body underwent natural mummification.”
The waters recede every May and June, which allows archaeologists a short period of time to access the archaeological sites that were covered by the reservoir. They opened the tomb in May this year.
Inside, the burial was exceptionally well preserved. Soft tissues, skin, clothing and even grave goods were all found intact.
And the clothing and grave goods hint that the lady was a nomadic Hun, young and highly regarded by her people, possibly a noble.
“On the mummy are what we believe to be silk clothes, a beaded belt with a jet buckle, apparently with a pattern,” the Institute’s deputy director, Natalya Solovieva, told The Siberian Times.
“Near the head was found a round wooden box covered with birch-bark in which lay a Chinese mirror in a felt case.”
There were also two vessels buried with her, one of which was a typical Hun vase, both containing a funeral meal, and on her chest was a pouch of pine nuts. Ceramic utensils in the grave were typical of Hun burial practices, the archaeologists said.
Accidental mummification is not uncommon.
Ötzi the Iceman‘s body dehydrated, mummified by the ice of the glacier in which it resided for 5,000 years. The Gebelein mummies were naturally mummified by the heat, salinity and dryness of the Egyptian desert.
Further work will need to be undertaken to determine exactly how the Sleeping Beauty was so well preserved. It’s also expected that analysis of her body and grave goods will reveal a lot about her culture, and her own life in particular.
The artefacts and body have been removed from the grave, and restoration experts have already started work to preserve them for posterity.
[F]orget long-faced funeral celebrants and bodies in their Sunday best – the ‘death positive movement’ is shaking up the way we die.
My grandma was 93 years and nine days when she died in April. She’d had a long and good life but her final years were severely compromised. By the end, she could neither walk nor feed herself, she could barely hear and most of the time she did not know who we were. Her world had shrunk to the size of her room. Then it shrunk some more, to the size of her bed. Was she happy? I don’t know. But I can’t imagine that this was the ending that she had in mind.
Dying used to be a typically brief process. Up until our most recent history, if you survived childhood illness, childbirth, plagues and famine, you generally got sick and then you died – often just days or weeks later. In the absence of today’s scans, tests, and life-prolonging drugs, by the time a person was really feeling poorly, their disease was advanced and they succumbed quickly. People died at home, families cared for the body, death was common.
Thanks to advances in modern science and economic growth, we are living longer than ever. In New Zealand, a female born in 1906 could expect to live till 66. Fast forward 100 years and a baby girl born in 2016 gained another 27 years, with a life expectancy of nearly 93. Now, for the majority of us the end comes after a long medical struggle (cancer and cardiovascular disease are our two biggest causes of death) or the combined debilities of very old age.
With a long life can come a long death, and over time we have unwittingly turned aging and dying into a medical experience. Our final stages have become largely obscured – even to ourselves – as we delegate death to the ‘professionals’. Today, it’s not uncommon for a recently deceased person to be collected from hospital or a rest home, taken to a funeral parlour where they are embalmed, washed, dressed and covered in make-up and kept there until the service, which might be conducted by a funeral celebrant who has never met the person they are speaking about.
The entire process is outsourced, sanitised and distant. As a result, we have become increasingly unfamiliar with death and consequently more frightened of it – particularly in Pākehā culture.
But a quiet revolution is taking place, according to many in the death industry. They’re calling it the ‘death positive movement’, and adherents say it’s about encouraging people to speak openly and frankly about death and dying, pursuing a “good death”, and pushing for more diversity in end of life care options.
Tea, cake and death talk
American mortician Caitlin Doughty, self-described “funeral industry rabble-rouser” and the person responsible for the phrase “death positive”, has found herself the face of the movement. In 2011 she founded the LA-based The Order of the Good Death, which describes itself as a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.
A smell-of-death researcher, an end-of-life activist, a conservation burial pioneer and a grave garment designer are among some of The Order’s members. Doughty also runs Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral service whose emphasis is on placing the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process, including educating families on how to care for the dead at home.
She’s published a couple of books – a bestselling memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death – while continuing to host her wildly popular ‘Ask a Mortician‘ YouTube series. Much of her time is now taken up with travelling the world speaking about the history of death culture and rituals, and working to address the death anxiety of modern secular culture.
Closer to home, Graham Southwell runs a monthly Death Café in the Waitakere suburb of Titirangi. Billed as an evening to drink tea, eat cake and talk death, Southwell says the aim is to raise awareness and get people to talk about death and dying. “It is like the last taboo. There is a great lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge, but also a huge fear around it. So when people can hear about good deaths, and some of the experiences people have had, I think it can be really helpful.”
The first Death Café (which is a not-for-profit social franchise, meaning anyone who signs up to the Death Cafe guide and principles, can host one) was held in London in 2011. They’re now popping up all over the world; currently there are 65 Death Cafés listed for New Zealand. Southwell, who has trained as a psychotherapist, has been running the Titirangi Death Café, together with celebrant Kerry-Ann Stanton, for the last three years.
He says their job is to act as facilitators and guide the group’s conversation in whichever direction they wish to go. Topics might include the meaning of life, grief, near death experiences and advanced care directives (a document detailing actions you want to be taken for your health if you are no longer able to make decisions because of illness or incapacity). “The idea is that if we start talking about death and dying it helps people to live more consciously, because it just puts everything in perspective.”
When asked whether he thinks New Zealanders are any good at dealing with death, Southwell, who is from the UK, mentions the tangi, the traditional Māori ceremony to mourn the dead. Usually held over three days, the body lies on a marae while people come to pay their respects. It is an occasion full of ritual and emotion, of oratory, song and storytelling. “They seem to have a very good way of dealing with death, that is rich and about celebrating someone’s life and I like that.”
Every Wednesday morning on Rotorua’s north side of town, a crew of senior citizens gather together to catch up, connect, and construct their own coffins. They’ve been meeting like this since 2010, when former palliative care nurse Katie Williams launched the inaugural Kiwi Coffin Club in her garage, with no tools, no volunteers and no clue how to build a coffin. But after roping in some handy local men who helped with the carpentry, the club took off. Now there are around 200 members at clubs throughout the country.
If coffin construction isn’t your thing, for $350 you can purchase a ready-made one and go to town decorating it. But if you’re thinking of purple sparkles, or pictures of Elvis, or turning your coffin into a racing car with wheels fixed to the side, then I’m sorry to say someone’s beaten you to it. Of course, it’s not just the coffins people come for; it’s also for the safe and supportive space where death and loss can be discussed. The Rotorua club, who describe themselves as “Makers of Fine, Affordable Underground Furniture” also construct baby coffins for their local hospital and memory boxes, which they donate for free.
Death doula, deathwalker, death midwife, end-of-life midwife, soul midwife, companion to the dying. These are all names for the same role; someone who supports the dying and the grieving. And while it’s hardly a new concept – for thousands of years people have done this for one another – there is now an industry springing up to meet the demands of our increasingly secular and death-anxious population.
While death doulas can make a living from their work in the UK and the USA, here in New Zealand, those who are drawn to the role seem to be doing it on a volunteer basis. Strictly a non-medical role, a death doula might help to create a death plan, advocate on a person’s behalf, and provide spiritual, psychological and social support. They may also provide logistical support; helping with services, planning home funerals and guiding mourners in their rights and responsibilities in caring for someone who has died.
Carol Wales, who prefers to describe herself as a companion to the dying, has supported a number of people in their final weeks of life through her work as a volunteer at Auckland’s Amitabha Buddhist Hospice. Her role can be varied. She will visit the person in their home, take them out if they’re feeling up to it and offer massage and aromatherapy. “Some people want to talk about their life and what it means to them. That it does mean something. There might be issues with family members, siblings arguing about money, possessions. It can be very difficult for the person who’s dying to be in their process, because it is a process. Families can be protective, they can be in denial. One of the skills, I believe, is navigating all of that. Being on the periphery when you need to be, and being close to the person when you need to be. It’s like a dance.”
‘Nobody’s got out alive yet’
It’s a beautiful, still Wednesday morning at Dove House hospice in the Auckland suburb of Glendowie. A low-slung modest building, it’s hard to imagine that for some, this is where they come to spend their final days. Designed to support patients with life-threatening illnesses, and their families and caregivers, Dove House is based on a holistic model with a focus on empowering people to understand their own process and look for alternative ways of feeling better. It offers patients and their families counselling, support groups and workshops, as well as body therapies including aromatherapy, massage and reflexology.
Dove House’s doctor and medical counsellor Dr Graeme Kidd says while they do see extremely sick people at the end of their life, they also have a large number of patients who, despite being diagnosed with a terminal illness, may go on to live for a number of years. And while we’ve made huge scientific improvements in understanding diseases like cancer, Kidd, a GP for 40 years, thinks one of the key things missing in the medical model is humanity.
“A patient will finish their treatment and say ‘What do I do now?’ And the doctor will say, ‘Just get on with your life, be grateful you’ve got to a good place.’ And the patient’s thinking, ‘I was getting on with my life when this all happened, but now I’ve got this neon sign saying ‘I have cancer’. A common experience is being frightened of the diagnosis and feeling a victim of the illness, you feel diminished by what you’re living with. So it’s trying to reframe that; ‘You’ve had your treatments and you’re doing really well and how do we now get the rest of the show on the road?’ That there’s still a life to be lived.”
Kidd thinks we are getting better at death. “We’re certainly having some incredible experiences with families where it feels like the death is a positive experience, and people come out of it feeling almost proud of what they experienced. And to me, to experience death sets you up for your own process. Nobody’s got out alive yet and it’s a certainty that we’re all going there.”
Family involvement and personalisation
My grandma was very explicit about how she wanted to be farewelled; a cremation, specific locations to scatter her ashes, a small family-only gathering. No-one was to make a fuss. Her memorial service was two weeks after she passed, so that family coming from overseas could be there. It was a perfect autumn day, she would have approved. The service was held in a restaurant we knew she liked and there, we ate and drank and talked and laughed and remembered. Songs were sung, anybody who wished to say something could, and did. It was not in any way a sombre affair and collectively, as a family, we felt in control of the entire process. The only people that spoke of her knew her, had known her, our whole lives.
Chris Foote, owner of the Natural Funeral Company, says she is seeing many more of these types of services, like my grandmother’s, where the family opts to run it themselves, instead of using a celebrant. “People don’t like the idea that someone speaks about their person and doesn’t know them.” There’s a shift away from formality and tradition with many of their clients explicitly stating they don’t want religion and prayer to play any part in the service. Instead, “it’s just a whole bunch of people getting together and talking about that person and playing music.”
Increased family involvement is extending beyond the service, too. More families are wanting to assist with the washing, dressing and placing of the body in the casket, which Foote says they encourage. “We used to be community based around our care of the dead, we’ve gone away from that experience, and now we’re simply coming back to it.” She’s also witnessed an increase in families choosing to have the body at home until burial or cremation. In around a third of the deaths they deal with, she and her colleagues will make daily visits to a private residence to care for the body and keep it cool.
The Natural Funeral Company, as the name might suggest, specialises in natural organic body care. They do not embalm, a process involving the use of chemicals to preserve the body and forestall decomposition, instead they use essential oils, homemade restorative creams, minimal make-up and then ice bottles to keep the body cool. Most bodies can last around a week, although there are instances where things need to move reasonably quickly, and the odd occasion where they will recommend embalming. Says Foote: “Part of the reason that I don’t like to embalm is because I think we should see that natural process of the decay of the body. I think it’s quite a beautiful process actually.”
Self-expression in death, as in life, has become one of the hallmarks of our time. Where once our funerals followed the same format, now there is almost nothing that can’t be customised to reflect our personalities. There are legal requirements for paperwork to be completed, deaths to be notified and bodies disposed of, as for the rest it’s your party and you can do what you like.
Fran Mitchell, co-founder of funeral home State of Grace, says the funerals they are involved with are all about best representing the person who has died; from coffins and venues to music and clothing. They are being held in all kinds of places; boat clubs, community halls, RSA’s, vineyards and people’s homes. “Wherever people had an association with, and not only in a church or a chapel where that person may never have gone.” The range of coffins on offer at State of Grace is staggering. From the Departure Lounge range, which includes floral designs and coastal sunsets, through to handwoven willow caskets, cardboard caskets, and simple calico shrouds. For the budget conscious, they can rent a coffin – and given the average New Zealand funeral costs around $10,000 that’s likely most of us.
Among their most popular coffins is a plain casket upon which families can write notes, draw pictures and fix photographs to. “It’s a really nice way to get the children and grandchildren involved. It can be quite therapeutic really.” Their range of urns is equally impressive; ceramic, wooden and hand painted.
As for coffin dress code? There isn’t one. Gone is the Sunday best, now people are putting their loved ones in whatever they think they’d be most comfortable in; pyjamas, no shoes, there aren’t any rules. They have had some people opt to wear nothing at all. Depart in the manner they arrived, you might say.
Mitchell is optimistic about the future of death. “I think things are changing for the better. People are talking about death more and accepting it as a part of life. Celebrating a life well lived instead of mourning a death.”
Body disposal: Mushroom death suits and sky burials
There are four options for body disposal in New Zealand. Cremation (70 per cent opt for this), burial, burial at sea and donating your body to medical science. But many are looking to alternative options. Recently, there’s been a growing demand for natural burials, which sees the body placed in a biodegradable casket or shroud and then into a shallow plot to allow for speedy decomposition (the body cannot be embalmed). The plot is then overplanted with native trees, a living memorial to those buried there. Currently, only a handful of councils in New Zealand offer natural burial sites.
Overseas, the death positive moment is actively endorsing more eco-friendly methods – some of which are still in development.
There’s liquid cremation (which involves dissolving the body, currently only legal in Australia and in eight US states), promession (freeze-drying the body, not yet legalised) and sky burial (a Tibetan funeral practice involving exposure of a dismembered corpse to scavenging vultures – very environmentally friendly). Finally, there’s the Mushroom Death Suit, an outfit embroidered with thread that has been infused with mushroom spores, which grow and digest the body as it decomposes following burial.
Here’s a question we all have to answer sooner or later: What do you want to happen to your body when you die? Funeral director Caitlin Doughty explores new ways to prepare us for inevitable mortality. In this thoughtful talk, learn more about ideas for burial (like “recomposting” and “conservation burial”) that return our bodies back to the earth in an eco-friendly, humble and self-aware way.
[H]ow would you react if you saw people dumping 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic substance, into the earth every year?
Then witness them cutting down four million acres of forests annually? I suspect the environmentalists who fight underground oil pipes would be raising holy hell about formaldehyde and rampant destruction of trees. Yet this is what it takes to bury the U.S. dead every year. So why are environmentalists so silent?
Now, a film called “Echo Death Takeover: Changing the Funeral Industry” has been produced by The Order of Good Death, founded by funeral owner Catlin Doughty who advocates green funerals.
Some readers may wonder why I’m writing about death when I’m trained to keep people alive. But pollution of many types is currently causing serious respiratory and other health problems. Moreover, for years I’ve questioned why religious people, who say their souls go to heaven, would go to such extremes to protect their dead body by embalming, select expensive wooden caskets and then even protect the casket. And although I’m not a religious authority, don’t they always say at funerals, “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust?”
So, what to do about the current burial procedure? Formaldehyde was discovered by a chemist, August Wilhelm von Hofmann, in 1867 and it quickly replaced arsenic as the prime way to embalm bodies. Now we know that formaldehyde is a hazardous substance, highly toxic to humans. It is linked to cancer and irritates the eyes, nose and throat.
Some readers would reply, “But what about cremation? Is this more eco –friendly?” Unfortunately, where there’s fire there’s smoke. Cremation also produces harmful substances such as carbon dioxide, hydrochloric acid, sulphur dioxide, dioxin, mercury from amalgam dental fillings and carcinogens.
If the body is embalmed, smoke also contains vaporized formaldehyde which remains in the atmosphere. That is, until it bonds with water. Then we are rained on with formaldehyde. So be sure to take a good raincoat and hat if attending a rainy funeral. Besides, cremation requires heat that could be used for other purposes.
So, what is a green funeral? It’s a process called alkaline hydrolysis, also called flameless cremation or water cremation. The body is placed in a pressurized steel container filled with 95 per cent water and five per cent potassium. For the next three hours the body undergoes chemical decomposition, reducing it to soft bone fragments. This mixture of amino acids, peptides, sugar and salt can then be used for fertilizer.
Water cremation is not an illogical proposition for the next century. It’s now legal for human disposal in four U.S. states and in 14 for pets.
Are there negatives to water cremation? I imagine some would be disgusted at the dissolving of a loved one in a warm alkaline bath. But, surely, it’s less psychologically shocking than having Grandpa inserted into a fiery inferno.
Another alternative is to wrap the body in a biodegradable shroud made of cotton or unbleached bamboo, place it in a biodegradable casket in a shallow grave and let bacteria break down all these ingredients.
So, what’s going to happen? I hope that good sense will one day finally prevail and the days of spending thousands of dollars on today’s burial rites will finally end.
Shakespeare, in his play “Hamlet,” describes the scenario of life and death so well. He wrote: “Worms are the emperor of all diets. We fatten up all creatures to feed ourselves and we fatten ourselves for the maggots when we are dead. A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”
This is not a pleasant thought or the best bedtime reading. But regardless of how expensive the casket is the worms finally win. So, isn’t there a better way to protect the planet and return all the minerals and other elements to the earth?
So, what is my wish on death? My family knows I want a simple bench along the waterfront in Toronto where people can relax and enjoy the view. My ashes beneath can help the trees grow.
[A]fter his funeral Mass, Schweigert, 67, wants to be placed directly in the ground, wrapped only in cloth, with little of the funeral trappings many people have come to expect.
And The Catholic Cemeteries plans to be ready to accommodate him.
The Mendota Heights-based organization, which oversees five Catholic cemeteries in the Twin Cities, is preparing to offer natural burial as an option as early as this fall. The trend, also called “green burial,” takes different variations, but aims to unite the body with the earth using little if any fossil fuel or non-biodegradable materials.
“It’s so much a part of our tradition,” said John Cherek, The Catholic Cemeteries director. “That’s the amazing part of it.”
The Catholic Cemeteries’ staff began exploring the option a few years ago, as they became aware of local Catholic interest in it. In many respects, the concept is as old as death itself, but the contemporary movement began in earnest about 20 years ago with the opening of the first green burial cemetery in the U.S. in South Carolina.
The California-based nonprofit Green Burial Council, established in 2005, certifies green burial practices for funeral homes and cemeteries. Its Minnesota listing includes only Mound Cemetery of Brooklyn Center as a “hybrid” green cemetery, meaning it offers both green and conventional burials, and Willwerscheid Funeral Home and Cremation Center in St. Paul as the only “green” certified funeral home. Other Minnesota cemeteries and funeral homes, however, do offer the natural burial options without formal certification.
Cherek said he isn’t certain that The Catholic Cemeteries will pursue certification, but preparations are underway in a section of Resurrection in Mendota Heights to make about 50 natural burial plots available this year, with the potential to add more in future years.
Burying the body
Natural burial begins with the preparation of the body, which is not embalmed. Because everything buried with the body needs to be biodegradable, the body is often not clothed, but rather wrapped in a shroud. In some instances, the grave is dug by hand, to avoid fuel-dependent machinery, and the body is transported to the gravesite by non-motorized means. The body may be encased in a biodegradable casket — options include those made from wood, bamboo and wicker — or simply shrouded before being lowered into the grave manually.
At Resurrection, the natural burial area is also being restored to native prairie. That means long grasses and wildflowers will eventually cover the graves. Instead of individual headstones, the plots will be identified collectively by monuments along paved paths.
As The Catholic Cemeteries’ leaders considered whether to offer natural burial, they surveyed focus groups and found more interest than anticipated. Several of those surveyed, such as Schweigert and his wife, Kathy, now feel passionate about the option.
“Since it’s our mission to bury the dead, and we offer full body and we offer cremation [burials] … this would be another option, and it may be attractive to folks who have thought they wanted cremation, but this might give them an alternative,” said Sister Fran Donnelly, director of LifeTransition Ministries at The Catholic Cemeteries.
In many respects, natural burial is a return to common burial practices before the rise of the funeral industry in the early 20th century. Although embalming dates to early Egypt, its contemporary use gained traction during the Civil War, when fallen soldiers’ bodies were transported home for burial.
Although there are common misconceptions that embalming or vaults are necessary for public health, that’s not the case, Cherek said.
Done properly, natural burial does not endanger the water supply or put bodies at risk of being dug up by animals, or spread disease, according to the GBC.
Funeral vaults — structures that surround the coffin in standard graves — are used as a way of stabilizing the ground around a grave for ease of grounds maintenance, preventing the otherwise inevitable sinking of topsoil, which displaces the coffin and bodily remains as they decay.
Embalming, meanwhile, puts chemicals into the ground, and vaults prolong or prevent natural decay, and many elements included in the burial — from suit coat buttons to casket hinges — aren’t biodegradable.
According to the Green Burial Council, American burials annually put into the ground 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 20 million feet of wood, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel. Add to that 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, which contain toxins that could negatively impact the health of embalmers.
While some people think of cremation as a simpler option, it also requires chemicals, and toxins linger in the cremated remains.
Cremation is permitted for Catholic burial, and its use is on the rise. However, the Church prefers burial of the body. The Catholic Cemeteries’ leaders think that natural burial might appeal to Catholics not only because of theologically-rooted ecological commitments, but also because it allows them to have a full body burial in a simpler form.
“Faith-wise, I think it says something about the resurrection of the body, that the body is intact, and it’s just going to return to the earth,” Sister Donnelly said.
Dust to dust
Schweigert, an administrator at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, remembers reading decades ago about traditional Muslim burial, in which the body is placed directly in the ground. It struck him as a very natural way to approach death and honor the deceased, and over the years, the idea germinated in his mind as something he would prefer to the standard use of embalming, a casket and a burial vault. A parishioner of St. Frances Cabrini in Minneapolis, he contacted The Catholic Cemeteries a couple years ago to see if it was possible. He found out that “green burial” was becoming a trend, and that The Catholic Cemeteries was exploring the option. The organization later asked him to participate in a focus group on the topic.
The idea of placing the body directly into the ground with nothing to impede its return to the earth reminded Schweigert of something he observed as an altar boy: that the body and blood of Christ, if not consumed, were buried or drained directly into the ground.
“The earth was the most sacred place for the body of Christ, and the parallel between that and putting a loved one in the earth just seemed to me convincing spiritually,” he said.
And although Schweigert has strong feelings about not being cremated, which he sees as too industrialized and destructive of the body, he said his decision to choose a natural burial is also not a reaction to the funeral industry, which he respects, as he noted funeral directors have treated him and others well during times of grief.
He does, however, question the long-term sustainability of common methods, and he sees natural burial as a way to honor the environment, the dead and the Catholic faith.
Green or natural burial practices complement Catholic teaching about death, Sister Donnelly said, as well as the Church’s social teaching on caring for creation, which Pope Francis articulated in his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home.” Already, several Catholic cemeteries in the U.S. offer green burial options, and a 2011 survey by U.S. Catholic Magazine found that 80 percent of respondents would prefer a green burial.
Some religious communities are adopting natural burial as part of their commitment to caring for creation. Among them is Sister Donnelly’s community, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which has a cemetery at its motherhouse in Dubuque, Iowa.
In “A Reflection on Changes in Burial Practice” in The Catholic Cemeteries’ summer newsletter, retired priest of the archdiocese Father James Notebaart looks to Scripture and Church tradition and what they say about the sacredness of a burial place, recalling the words spoken in the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
After noting that the natural burial process is the way most people — including Catholics and their Jewish ancestors — were buried for thousands of years, he wrote, “So the core of natural burial is to acknowledge our innate closeness to the earth as a creature of God’s own making. It acknowledges that the earth itself is holy because it is an icon of the One who created it.
“Today we have begun to step back to much earlier practices, those of the preindustrial world in which there was a more organic sense of how all things are related, both the natural resources and the human use of them. This awareness is shaping a new articulation of ecological ethics, of which Pope Francis is a leading proponent.”
Choosing natural burial, however, does mean eschewing other common aspects of funeral and burial beyond the casket and vault.
According to state law, a person needs to be embalmed, buried or cremated within 72 hours of death, but refrigeration of the body allows burial to take place up to six days after death, said Dan Delmore, who owns Robbinsdale-based Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapels and sits on The Catholic Cemeteries’ board. State law also requires embalming for a public open-casket wake, but an in-home or closed-casket wake is a possibility.
Delmore has been a funeral director for 42 years, and for the first 15 years of his work, no one questioned the practice of embalming; it was an assumed part of the funeral preparation, he said.
“There’s been a lot of change of heart in people, and it goes more along the lines of chemicals in general, not necessarily at the time of death, but wanting a life free of chemicals in general,” he said, comparing it to the organic food movement. A Catholic, he also sees natural burial as an appropriate accompaniment to the Church’s funeral rites, and he said he’s excited to see it embraced at Resurrection.
As it prepares to open its natural burial section, The Catholic Cemeteries is working on logistics, including cost, which is among the aspects that The Catholic Cemeteries’ focus groups said would affect their decision whether or not to have a natural burial. While 41 percent surveyed said they were likely to consider natural burial, complicating factors included already owning plots elsewhere; wanting to be buried next to a loved one who already has been buried in a conventional grave or wants to be; and wanting an individual headstone, which The Catholic Cemeteries’ current natural burial plan precludes.
Schweigert admits the idea of not having an individual headstone has taken some getting used to, but while that alone has dissuaded others, he’s not deterred. He recalled seeing a family burial plot in France that had a collective monument, and it’s reminded him that burials have been handled differently in different times by different cultures.
He puts it in perspective with the knowledge that after three generations have passed since a person’s death, his or her grave is not likely to be frequented by loved ones, and that there are other ways to leave a final mark on the world. For him, it’s more important to remove any barriers — physical and symbolic — between the body and the earth.
“This is a sacred moment for us,” he said of death and burial. “We want to have a way to do this with dignity, [and] we want a way to do this with our Catholic religion, so I’m very happy, too, that the Catholic Church has gotten involved in it.”
[S]cientists are expecting a spike in deaths in the coming years. As life expectancies increased, the number of people dying fell – but those deaths were merely delayed.
With people living longer, and often spending more time in ill-health, the Dying Matters Coalition wants to encourage people to talk about their wishes towards the end of their life, including where they want to die.
“Talking about dying makes it more likely that you, or your loved one, will die as you might have wished. And it will make it easier for your loved ones if they know you have had a ‘good death’,” the group of end-of-life-care charities said.
Where to die?
Surveys repeatedly find most people want to die at home. But in reality the most common place to die is in hospital.
Almost half of the deaths in England last year were in hospital, less than a quarter at home, with most of the remainder in a care home or hospice.
What happens to human remains?
Dying wishes don’t just extend to where you die but to what happens to your body after death too.
Cremation overtook burial in the UK in the late-1960s as the most popular way to dispose of human remains, and more than doubled in popularity between 1960 and 1990.
Since then it has remained fairly stable at about three-quarters of the deceased being cremated, although it has been creeping up gradually year on year – in 2017 it hit 77%.
Although cremation is thought to be more environmentally friendly, it is not without its own costs. The process requires energy. And burning bodies releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
There are hundreds of “green” burial grounds in Britain where coffins must be biodegradable and no embalming fluid or headstone markers are permitted. Instead, loved ones of the deceased often plant trees as a memorial.
The Association of Natural Burial Grounds says: “Many people nowadays are conscious of our impact on the environment and wish to be as careful in death as they have been during their lives to be as environmentally friendly as possible.”
At natural burial grounds, bodies are generally buried in shallow graves to help them degrade quickly and release less methane – a greenhouse gas.
Some people want to go further than this.
A form of “water cremation” is currently available in parts of the US and Canada, and could come to the UK.
In December 2017, water providers membership body Water UK intervened and said it feared “liquefied remains of the dead going into the water system”.
Cremation by fire or burial remain the two options for most people, but those that want to do something a bit different could opt to have their ashes turned into a diamond or vinyl record, displayed in paperweight, exploded in a firework or shot into space.
The cost of death
Traditional cremation is cheaper than burial, particularly as space is short, driving up the cost of grave plots. But the cost of funerals in general has been rising.
Insurance firm SunLife, which produces an annual report on the cost of funerals, says prices have risen 70% in a decade.
It put this down to lack of space and the rising cost of land as well as fuel prices and cuts to local authority budgets leading to reduced subsidies for burials and crematoria.
A survey of 45 counties, conducted by the Society of Local Council Clerks, found half of respondents’ local council run cemeteries would be full in 10 years and half of Church of England graveyards surveyed had already been formally closed to new burials.
The same problem faces Islamic burial sites.
Mohamed Omer, of the Gardens of Peace cemetery in north-east London, says the problem is compounded by a growing population and by the fact that Muslims do not cremate their dead.
The Jewish community also do not traditionally practise cremation. David Leibling, chairman of the Joint Jewish Burial Society, says all of the four largest Jewish burial organisations have acquired extra space in recent years.
However, he says it’s not such a problem for the community since synagogue members pay for their burial plots through their membership. This means the organisation can predict how many people it is going to have to bury.
“As we serve defined membership we can make accurate estimates of the space we need,” he says.
What about our digital legacy?
There are growing concerns over what will happen to people’s social media profiles after they die.
The Digital Legacy Association is working with lawyers to produce guidelines on creating a digital will, setting out people’s wishes for what happens to social media profiles – and “digital assets” such as music libraries – after death.
Three-quarters of respondents to the DLA’s annual survey say it’s important to them to be able to view a loved one’s social media profile after their death.
But almost no-one responding to the survey had used a function to nominate a digital next of kin, such as Facebook’s legacy contact or Google’s inactive account manager functions.
Both Facebook and Instagram allow family and friends to request the deceased’s account is turned into a memorial page, while Twitter says loved ones can request the deactivation of a “deceased or incapacitated person’s account”.
[I]N 1831, ARCHITECT Jacob Bigelow built a radically new kind of cemetery at Mount Auburn in Cambridge. It was much larger than its forebears, located on what was then the suburban fringes, and designed to create a romantic space of death that also served as a horticultural, sculptural, and even recreational place. Mount Auburn and the many cemeteries that followed were a rousing success, making the American cemetery a major tourist site for much of the 19th century.
However, in the 20th century, Americans medicalized and privatized dying and death, creating a death taboo that isolated cemeteries. The dying were put in hospitals or nursing homes, visiting hours were moved to funeral homes, and cemeteries were professionalized and standardized. While Mount Auburn remained a popular spot with locals because of its natural and artistic beauty, even it could not retain the cultural prominence that it and the other great urban cemeteries, like Green-Wood in New York and Spring Grove in Cincinnati, had had in the previous century.
Today, American funerary practices are undergoing dramatic and sudden change. This year, cremations surpassed burials for the first time on record. By 2030, cremation may reach 70 percent. That’s shifted the locus of the rituals associated with death from cemeteries to corners of the world that hold particular meaning to the departed or their survivors, from backyards to bodies of water. At the same time, social media are changing the way we deal with grief — once a deeply private affair, it has increasingly become a public process online.
As customs change, cemeteries are trying to keep up.
Events such as the Run Like Hell 5K in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery and the beer baron tour in St. Louis’s Bellefontaine show how these places are becoming more accessible to the public. Hollywood Forever’s Life Stories where a family can submit photographs for a remembrance video suggest their new digital savvy. And, at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, a family can scatter their loved one’s ashes, something cemetery operators have opposed including for decades.
In 2014, Mount Auburn Cemetery began offering “natural burials” that do not include embalming and other popular procedures. It was an iconic moment, for an esteemed, yet very traditional institution to adopt a practice popularized by the contemporary death reform movement. But it was actually not so contradictory. Cemeteries, even ones as august as Mount Auburn, have been trying to adjust and renew their connection to the broader public even as reformers either question the very need for a cemetery or convince them to adopt such reform measures.
Cemeteries face a sort of life-or-death crisis. The increasing popularity of cremation has meant that cemeteries are no longer critical to storing remains, while mourning on social media has removed the necessity of cemeteries as a primary place to mourn. Public mourning also has re-emerged with the widespread acceptance of roadside shrines, ghost bikes (white bikes placed on the roadside where a cyclist died), memorial vinyl decals for the back windows of cars, and memorial tattoos. While zombies roam the big and small screen, real death has returned to our streets, building walls, vehicles, and even bodies.
While these new practices relocate mourning and remembrance out of the cemetery, other trends, such as natural burial, provide new opportunities for cemeteries. Natural death advocates promote the practice as a more environmentally sensitive mode of burial that eschews embalming, hardwood caskets, and steel or concrete vaults as pollutants. Reformers have succeeded in getting widespread notice, though relatively few Americans have chosen green burial thus far.
Green advocates have often met cemeteries halfway. Some cemeteries offer natural burial adjacent to conventional sections, but have to maintain their whole cemetery without pesticides and herbicides. As a result, cemeteries such as Mount Auburn see an opportunity to offer consumers choices.
Confronting death is painful and upsetting. We lose a person we love in an act of finality which has no comparison. Yet how we did things before may not be how we will do them in the future. Consumers just need good, unbiased information, and a willingness to overcome any family hesitancy about unconventional choices.
Cemeteries can embrace change — even radical change, as the founders of Mount Auburn demonstrated. The signs of successful adaptation are mixed so far. But there are glimmers of hope.This fall, Mount Auburn will host Death Salon, a festival of alternative approaches to death and mourning, including lectures and a demonstration of green burial. That Death Salon is coming to Mount Auburn suggests cemeteries can remain beautiful, natural, historic, and artistic places, even as they embrace new practices that allow them to attract new lot-owners and reconnect them to a broader public.