More people want a green burial, but cemetery law hasn’t caught up

by Alex Brown

Visitors to the White Eagle Memorial Preserve in southern Washington won’t find rows of headstones, manicured lawns or pathways to a loved one’s final resting place. Instead, they stroll through an oak and ponderosa forest set within more than a thousand acres of wilderness.

Twenty acres of the wilderness is set aside as a cemetery. Bodies are placed in shallow graves among the trees, often wrapped in biodegradable shrouds, surrounded with leaves and pine needle mulch, and allowed to decompose naturally, returning nutrients to the soil. Grave markers are natural stones, said Jodie Buller, the cemetery’s manager—”rocks that look like rocks.”

“People drive their loved one out themselves, in the back of a Subaru,” Buller said, summing up White Eagle’s granola ethos.

Conservation cemeteries like White Eagle, which was founded in 2008, are still few and far between—only seven have been officially recognized by the Green Burial Council, the industry’s certification body—but they’re part of a growing movement to handle the dead in eco-friendly ways.

Green burial, the catchall term for these efforts, takes many forms, from no-frills burials in conventional cemeteries to sprawling wilderness conservation operations. Cemetery operators say they’re seeing increasing interest in these less conventional end-of-life options.

“It’s been a slow, , but we are seeing the groundswell happening now,” said Brian Flowers, burial coordinator with Moles Farewell Tributes, which conducts green burials along with more conventional options on sites in Washington state.

While no explicitly prevent green burial—generally defined as burials that happen in eco-friendly containers and without embalming—cemetery operators all over the country say outdated state and local laws have made it difficult for green burial to gain a foothold.

Many followers of Islam and Judaism use similar practices, burying the dead in a shroud or coffin of untreated wood without cremating or embalming. Such techniques are allowed in every jurisdiction, but new cemeteries with an explicit focus on green burial have run into obstacles.

Cemeteries were little-regulated until the late 1800s, experts say, when officials began adding rules primarily for consumer protection. The goal was to prevent scam artists or ill-prepared operators from opening cemeteries that might later be abandoned. But the regulations establishing best practices for conventional cemeteries often inhibit green-burial practices.

“The bottom-line issue in pretty much every state is the statutes don’t contemplate this kind of burial ground,” said Tanya Marsh, a professor at the Wake Forest University School of Law who has written books about laws pertaining to the dead. “It’s probably not that the legislators wanted to make things difficult; it just didn’t occur to them that everybody wasn’t going to set up a cemetery in what they conceived of as a regular cemetery.”

While no organization keeps a comprehensive database of all state and local cemetery laws, operators have no shortage of stories about the obstacles they’ve faced. Some laws, for instance, require paved roads to burial plots. Others mandate fencing around cemeteries—both antithetical to the natural settings required for conservation cemeteries.

Many states mandate that new cemeteries set up a large endowment fund for future maintenance, which green-burial advocates say is a burdensome requirement for places that are intended to be left in their natural state.

Some states require a licensed funeral director to handle transportation, and some laws mandate refrigeration or embalming once a person has been dead more than 24 hours. Green-burial advocates say families should be allowed to take care of arrangements themselves, and these laws are based on misguided fears that the dead carry diseases.

In many places, local officials may not give green cemeteries the zoning permits they need or may pass other regulations to block them. In 2008, for instance, commissioners in Georgia’s Mason-Bibb County adopted an ordinance requiring leak-proof containers for burials after neighbors complained about a proposed green-burial cemetery.

Advocates say their movement is long overdue. According to the California-based Green Burial Council, cemeteries in the United States put more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid and 64,000 tons of steel into the ground each year, along with 1.6 million tons of concrete.

Consumers are shifting their behavior as well. More than half of the dead in the United States are cremated today, according to a report from the National Funeral Directors Association, up from an industry-estimated rate of just 4% in the 1960s.

That’s at least partially because cremation is less expensive, but some Americans also have expressed a desire to leave a smaller environmental footprint. However, the council estimates that cremation—which involves heating a furnace to close to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for up to two hours—produces about the same emissions as driving 500 miles in a car.

Burial also is a land-use issue, as cemeteries must claim ever-increasing acres to accommodate new arrivals. Conservation cemeteries, on the other hand, are designed to preserve and expand existing wilderness areas while using the burials as a funding mechanism for the environmental work.

White Eagle, which has buried about 85 people so far and has reserved another 130 sites, charges a little more than $3,000 for a burial, which helps with continued land acquisition, invasive-species monitoring and forest management to reduce wildfire danger.

A 2019 survey from the funeral directors’ association found that nearly 52% of Americans expressed interest in green-burial options. Most cited environmental reasons, but others mentioned cost.

“Most people know what green burial is,” said Lee Webster, who heads education for the Green Burial Council. “They just don’t know how to make it happen.”

The council currently recognizes 72 cemeteries in the country that conduct green burials, ranging from “hybrid” cemeteries that allow green burials alongside conventional plots to conservation cemeteries that can span vast wilderness areas. While an increasing number of cemeteries are adding green options, operators say they face many hurdles in trying to set up new cemeteries dedicated to the practice.

Heidi Hannapel and Jeff Masten run Landmatters, a consulting firm based in North Carolina that helps those seeking to establish conservation cemeteries. The partners are attempting to set up their own such cemetery in North Carolina, but obstacles have stalled the project.

“We’d have to pave an entire road throughout the property,” Hannapel said. “That completely defeats the purpose of what we’re trying to create. We’d have to establish a large endowment that would have to be held back. There’s no room within existing North Carolina law that allows for what we’re talking about.”

Freddie Johnson, executive director of the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Florida, said the cemetery does not sell sites in advance, which exempts it from state statutes that would have required more than $250,000 upfront. However, that requirement makes it difficult for customers who can’t pre-plan their burials.

“The whole industry is set up to accommodate modern burial,” Johnson said. “You’re trying to do something simple and better for the environment, and some rules and statutes become hurdles. There needs to be another model available for cemeteries to choose based on natural and conservation burial.”

Few states are looking at changes to their burial policies. Wisconsin legislators are considering a bill to allow alkaline hydrolysis, an eco-friendly form of liquid cremation that uses a pressurized solution to rapidly decompose a body. But green-burial operators say they’ve seen little action on policy related to their cemeteries.

Aside from regulatory hurdles, operators say there’s also much work to be done in educating consumers.

“Everybody assumes you need to be embalmed or you can’t transport unembalmed bodies,” said Kimberley Campbell, who operates Ramsey Creek Preserve, a conservation cemetery in South Carolina. “The idea that you’re going to be spreading disease if you don’t embalm the body is complete codswallop.”

Buller, who manages the preserve in southern Washington, said she would like to see hospital chaplains and hospice workers present green burial as an option when they talk with families about their end-of-life choices.

Meanwhile, the so-called death care industry has begun to offer options with various “shades of green”—such as wicker caskets, urns designed to grow into trees and an organic mixture that reduces the toxicity of cremated remains, allowing for safe mixing into the soil.

In Washington, lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year allowing for human composting. The measure was based on a technology that rapidly converts human bodies into soil. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the Democrat who sponsored the bill, said it enjoyed broad support.

The bill passed on an 80-16 vote in the House and a 38-11 vote in the Senate. Among those opposed was the Washington State Catholic Conference, which argued that human composting disrespects the body in a manner against church teaching.

“The Catholic Church strongly recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries and other sacred places,” the conference said in a news release when Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill. “The practice of burying bodies of the deceased shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”

Pedersen said that he would be open to looking at more changes to state law to accommodate green burial.

“If there are obstacles to responsible practices for the disposal of human remains,” he said, “it makes sense for us to clear those away and leave space for the practice to develop.”

Any movement to change cemetery law would make Washington a rare case, said Marsh, the legal expert.

Some in the green-burial movement blame that on the existing funeral industry, which they believe has outsize political influence, as well as control over many local cemetery commissions. But Jimmy Olson, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, noted that many conventional cemeteries are adopting their own green options.

“With cremation rates now over 50%, I would think they would welcome this with open arms, because they would see this as an option to continue to use their cemeteries,” he said. “This is only going to help them as more and more people choose not to use a cemetery.”

Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said it’s important for customers to know they can opt for a green burial—and save money—at many conventional cemeteries, simply by declining options that aren’t eco-friendly.

Some green-burial plots are less expensive than conventional ones, but they still cost more than cremation. However, because of the costs for embalming, caskets and vaults, green burials are often more affordable than the full cost of a conventional burial.

The typical U.S. funeral costs more than $8,000, according to the funeral directors’ association, even before the purchase of a cemetery plot. An average burial plot costs from $1,000 to $4,000, according to the life insurance company Lincoln Heritage. Green- operators interviewed for this story charge from $2,000 to $4,500 for plots.

“Everything about death is so commercialized that we have a hard time thinking about anything other than a product that can be purchased,” Slocum said. “No state requires embalming as a condition of being buried. No state law requires a coffin or casket. No state requires a concrete vault.”

Still, he acknowledged that many who choose green burial may prefer not to be put in the ground between plots with vaults, caskets and embalmed bodies. Regulations may need to change to accommodate new cemeteries that don’t fit the traditional mold.

“We need to get over this idea that everything needs to look like an MGM backlot and manicured within an inch of its life,” he said. “I’m hoping that the artificial prissiness that has dominated the American approach can go away.”

Complete Article HERE!

First green living, now green dying

Biodegradable caskets, water-based cremation

Jack Davenport, owner of Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory, adjusts a lamp near a wicker casket Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. A biodegradable wicker casket is one option offered to those who want a green funeral.

By

Seven years ago Jack Davenport, co-owner of Davenport Family Funeral Homes and Crematory, was approached with what seemed to be an unusual request.

A family trying to grant the last wishes of a loved one wanted the body buried in a biodegradable casket to allow for natural decomposition.

Davenport, 53, was able to accommodate the family, and in the process launched a new line of business that caters to environmentally conscious families. His firm now offers biodegradable caskets and shrouds, which are typically a linen cloth used to wrap the body of the deceased.

“I do this because the environmental, green movement is growing,” Davenport said. “Some families don’t want cremation. They want a burial … their mentality is that what comes from the earth will have to return back to it.”

Green burials aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by cremations and toxic chemicals used for embalming a body. And as consumers become more conscious about the products and services they use, Illinois funeral homes are ramping up their green burial services for a small but growing client base interested in reducing their carbon footprint, even in death.

Several funeral homes in the state offer services in which the body is buried in the ground in biodegradable materials like willow, seagrass or bamboo. Other green options include biodegradable urns and a water-based alternative to cremation called alkaline hydrolysis.

According to a 2019 survey from the National Funeral Directors Association, less than 20% of funeral homes across the country performed green funeral services in the past year. And some funeral homes are limited by state laws in what they can offer. But demand for green funeral services is growing, so much so that the funeral directors group now offers a green funeral practice certificate.

Linen burial shrouds are pictured Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. The shroud consists of overlapping pieces of fabric that can be loosely tied in front and feature woven carry straps and handles.

Davenport, who has funeral homes in Barrington, Lake Zurich and Crystal Lake, said his firm has performed about eight green burials so far this year.

“By and large it’s a request by the deceased,” Davenport said. “It’s something that’s preplanned by families.”

Proximity has helped Davenport in his effort to offer green burials. Davenport said his funeral homes are only a few miles away from Windridge Memorial Park and Nature Sanctuary, a cemetery in Cary that has a nature trail dedicated to natural burials.

The 48-acre cemetery has been offering natural burial sites along the trail for a number of years, Windridge family service manager Kelly Lawyer said. The cemetery is plotting an additional 400 natural gravesites at a different location on the property, Lawyer said.

Illinois state law does not require bodies to be buried in caskets, although cemeteries typically require gravesites to have some type of reinforced concrete box — either a vault or a grave liner — to keep the ground level and prevent settling. A handful of cemeteries are willing to waive the vault requirement and allow natural burials, at least on a portion of their properties.

It’s unclear exactly how many Illinois cemeteries reserve sections for natural burials, but Lawyer said she knows of at least four, including one in Springfield and another in Vernon Hills.

Marion Friel, owner of Green Burials of Love in Norwood Park East, said she also uses Windridge for green burials, a service she has been offering since 2010.

Last year Friel helped Cheryl Barnes, of Beverly, set up a green burial for her 66-year-old sister, who died of uterine cancer on Dec. 28. Barnes said she was able to honor her sister’s last request, which was “to be put in a bag and then be put in the ground under a tree.”

Barnes said her sister was wrapped in a light shroud and buried next to a tree near a hill at the Windridge nature trail.

“I thought I had to settle for a second-rate of what my sister wanted,” Barnes said. “But I was able to give my sister exactly what she wanted.”

Jack Davenport, owner of Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory, adjusts the top of a wicker casket on Oct. 30, 2019, in Lake Zurich. A biodegradable wicker casket is one option offered to those seeking to have a green funeral.

The overall cost of the burial alone was about $6,000, plus other expenses for the funeral service, Barnes said.

According to the funeral directors group, National Funeral Directors Association, a family can pay up toward $9,000 for a traditional funeral service and a burial. Green burials tend to be less expensive because they don’t involve embalming chemicals and vaults, and instead allow the body to decay naturally. Davenport said he has different prices for green burials — a service with a wicker casket can cost about $5,200 with a ceremony, or about $4,800 for a burial with a shroud.

The availability of green burial options varies by state and locality.

Traci Macz, owner of Irvin Macz and Day Macz Funeral Homes in Sandoval, Illinois, doesn’t offer natural burials yet. Macz said she’s been working with local leaders to reserve a section in the city-operated Sandoval Cemetery for green burials. Currently, she educates families about other green options available to them like less harmful embalming fluids or biodegradable urns.

“For us, having two young sons, we have to set the bar and educate consumers on what is available to them,” Macz said. “That why it was important for us to get the green funeral practice certificate from the National Funeral Directors Association.”

Jimmy Olson, owner of Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, said state law wouldn’t allow his funeral home to accommodate a family’s request to perform alkaline hydrolysis, a water-based cremation process that breaks down the body to liquid and bone using water and either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide.

The relatively new process is sometimes referred to as flameless cremation, resomation or aquamation.

“It’s so new. We are all trying to find a way to explain it and offer it to consumers,” Kurt Soffee, a funeral home director in Murray, Utah, and a spokesman for the national funeral directors group, said of the process.

Several states, like Wisconsin, do not yet permit alkaline hydrolysis. Olson said he found a funeral home in Minnesota that was able to accommodate the family’s request.

“I’ve spent the last year working with (Wisconsin) state Sen. Patty Schachtner to pass a bill that will allow for alkaline hydrolysis,” Olson said.

Although Illinois has allowed alkaline hydrolysis since 2012, only a handful of funeral homes have the equipment to perform it.

Matt Baskerville, who owns four funeral homes under the names Reeves and Baskerville in Illinois, said he began offering the service to clients shortly after it became legal in the state.

Baskerville, who refers to the process as flameless cremation, said it’s a much greener option because it does not burn fossil fuels or release emissions. The funeral home charges about $3,000 for alkaline hydrolysis, which is a little more than cremation because the firm has to use another company to perform the process, Baskerville said.

“I think there are so many different forms of green funerals. Many shades of green,” Baskerville said. “A natural funeral can involve no harmful embalming products or using biodegradable caskets, or it can also include purchasing locally owned flowers. People are more conscious of this today.”

Barnes, who visited her sister’s gravesite a couple of weeks ago at the Windridge cemetery, said she hopes more people will consider the greener options. Barnes said she herself would like to donate her organs after her death and have a natural burial for the rest of her remains.

“My sister, at the time, she did not want to be embalmed or put in a box,” Barnes said. “I hope people realize all they’re doing is putting chemicals into the ground when the body is filled with embalming fluids.”

Complete Article HERE!

Cemeteries Get Creative to Survive in Their Role of Caring for the Dead

by Bonnie Jean Feldkamp, RCN

As a teenager, I frequently walked to St. Stephen Cemetery after school to sit by my mom’s headstone. She died in a car accident when I was seven and I didn’t fully understand it enough to confront what that meant for me until adolescence.

That was the memory that jarred me when my husband sent me an announcement for a movie to be shown in Linden Grove Cemetery. He thought it might be fun. I didn’t like the idea of movie night in a place of mourning. It seemed flip. Disrespectful at the least. An exploitation of death at worst. I envisioned strangers using headstones as seats to keep their bottoms clean and dry while they munched popcorn and enjoyed themselves. It bothered me. I had questions. Luckily, I knew just who to ask.

Cole Imperi is not only a friend but a leader in the death community. She’s a Thanatologist, an expert on death and dying. She also happens to be the Vice President of the Board of Overseers of Historic Linden Grove Cemetery and Arboretum. Imperi helped me understand what I was missing.

Two things I learned right away. One: movies are shown on five acres of greenspace where there are no burials. Two: the cemetery is essentially full. Those two statements seem contradictory to me. How can you have five open acres but still be considered full? Easy. There’s an underwater spring in the greenspace area and any attempted burial would be submerged in water. That means plenty of respectful room for movies and other events.

Cole Imperi

The next thing Imperi helped me understand is this conundrum: when a cemetery can no longer perform burials, how does it afford the maintenance and management of a 22.5-acre graveyard that’s over 175 years old? This struggle isn’t unique to Linden Grove Cemetery. Many older cemeteries face this same predicament. Historic Linden Grove was consecrated in 1843. It’s hard to imagine them not being full.

Whose budget carries the line item for cemeteries? I assumed either it fell on the municipality or whichever religious institution founded it. The truth is, it depends. Some cemeteries, like St. Stephen where my mom is buried, are the responsibility of the Catholic Diocese. Linden Grove Cemetery, however, has a more complicated history of ownership and disrepair. These days the Board of Overseers manages and operates the cemetery with some funding from both the City of Covington and Kenton County. However, that funding does not cover everything.

The next assumption I had to confront was that cemeteries are a somber place of mourning for everyone. That’s simply not true. Linden Grove Cemetery has walking trails and Pokemon Gyms, and it hosts events like movie nights and even an upcoming car show. This is nothing new. Imperi is quick to say, “Cemeteries were our first parks.” Historically, before we had museums and public parks, we had cemeteries. People would take quiet walks among beautiful sculptures. Families would picnic on the lush lawns and there were even carriage races and hunting happening in cemeteries.

Cole Imperi and Bonnie Jean Feldkamp

“Civic engagement and history connects in the cemetery,” says Imperi. Linden Grove Cemetery is so close to both St. Elizabeth Hospital and Kenton County Administration that it’s the place many go for their lunchtime walk on a nice day. The Pokemon activity even prompted a group of players to reach out to the cemetery and volunteer their time in appreciation. On the hottest days of summer, thanks to greenspace, the cemetery stays a whole 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding urban streets. This provides those without air conditioning respite from the heat in a beautiful park-like setting.

My initial perspective was an emotional one, born of fear that stemmed from traumatic childhood experience. My knee-jerk reaction was to internalize and judge. I’m glad I stopped and took the time to reach out to my friend Cole Imperi to learn more. Not only did it ease my pain, but it gave me a different outlook on cemetery experience. Our society likes to separate death from life as something of lore and gore, especially around Halloween time. But death is a part of life, not apart from life. We can honor that connection at our community’s cemeteries.

Complete Article HERE!

A Personal Día de Los Muertos Journey

By Joseph Leahy

A transplant to Los Angeles since 1988, Joseph Leahy was familiar with mortality. His family was in the funerary business. His family often took him to the cemetery as a child. “I’ve spent a lot of time around death and dying,” Leahy said. It was only when he moved out West, however, that he discovered the traditions of Día de los Muertos and identified with it. His enthusiasm for the celebration was so much so that his altars were often lauded in the early years of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s annual celebrations. Today, he continues to honor its sanctity with a yearly ritual commemorating his loved ones through a personal altar made at home and with the help of his daughter. His appreciation for the sacred tradition has also influenced his work in the HIV positive/AIDS communities. Apart from his yearly personal altar, Leahy has also helped these communities celebrate the ones they’ve loved and lost through meaningful remembrance.

Is there greener life after death?

An alkaline hydrolysis device

By Tom Jokinen

In Winnipeg in a January blizzard, there are few places as toasty and sheltered as a crematorium. I know this because I worked in one. When the cremation chamber, or retort, is firing at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (900 Celsius), the work space is balmy, like a ski lodge. The noise of the powerful gas jets is buffered by the stone and steel of the machinery. When the gear is running, all you hear is a low, soothing rumble. It’s peaceful. I used to read Eudora Welty short stories while the body burned, stopping regularly to monitor temperatures and stoke the remains with an iron hook passed through a small, eye-level porthole in the oven door. The process is conducive to reflection.

Cremation seems clinical: fire, ashes. But in fact there is enormous spiritual heft behind it. We talk about the cleansing power of fire. As a funeral rite it goes back to the Bronze Age at least. “Fire,” writes the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “magnifies human destiny, it links the small to the great, the hearth to the volcano.” Man “hears the call of the funeral pyre” not as destruction but as a road to renewal. This is overstating the case, as French philosophers do, but it still scans. Now try saying the same about a chemical process.

Last week, I read a story about a new process called alkaline hydrolysis. In a nutshell, it’s like cremation without the fire: The body is immersed in chemicals in a cylindrical device that looks (judging from the photo, as I’ve never seen one up close) like a large telescope with an Instant Pot lid. The chemicals break down the soft tissue, which is flushed away, leaving behind bones and any non-organic residue such as tooth fillings or artificial hips. The device is called a Resomator, a Doctor-Whovian commercial euphemism for what is basically a body-dissolving machine.

Industry licensing bodies such as the Bereavement Authority of Ontario are not sure what to make of alkaline hydrolysis. Is it safe to just flush the liquefied organic material into the city sewage system? Are there health risks? Is it dangerous or just very, very creepy? Is it any creepier than cremation – or burial for that matter? For now, though, its main selling point is that alkaline hydrolysis is considered greener, or less carbon-intensive, than other methods.

According to the Ecology Action Centre, the average cemetery buries 4,500 litres of formaldehyde, 97 tonnes of steel and 56,000 board feet of hardwood per acre. A single cremation, which intuitively (and emotionally) seems so clean and efficient, uses as much fossil-fuel energy as an 800-kilometre car trip. Sulphur dioxide and mercury are released into the atmosphere, up the flue. That warm feeling on a January day in Winnipeg comes at an ecological cost.

Meanwhile, hydrolysis uses one-eighth the energy spent in cremation. There is no embalming, no casket or container. Even with cremation, there is always a container of some kind, including, in my experience, very expensive hardwood caskets with brass trimmings. So alkaline hydrolysis is marketing itself thusly: your green alternative.

When you’re dead, there are few options for what happens next. I don’t mean spiritually – that’s between you and your God or His/Her metaphysical substitute. I mean with the body. We all leave a remainder. Some more than others. You can bury it, sink it in the sea, leave it in the trees or on hilltops to be devoured by carrion birds – known technically as excarnation, a natural process of removing the flesh before earth burial (in Tibetan and Comanche cultures, known as sky burial) – or most commonly you can burn it. In Canada, the cremation rate varies by region, but in 2018 more than 61 per cent of the dead in Ontario and Manitoba and more than 71 per cent in Quebec were cremated. The national cremation rate is expected to rise to 76.9 per cent by 2023, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

For the funeral industry, cremation has always been a shoe that pinches. It’s an industry based on the pricing of intangibles: the meaning of life and death, ritual, the concept of “closure.” It has been able to translate the emotional turbulence of death into product (caskets, vaults, embalming) and real estate (cemeteries), but over the past 50 years has watched as a cultural revolution changed everything. Religion loosened its hold, and fewer people felt bound by tradition. Cremation was cheaper. People moved around – for work, for relationships – and the idea of a permanent resting place lost its appeal. Postmodernism struck the funeral industry: Meaning and ritual came down to personal taste.

So the industry reinvented itself. Funerals became “celebrations of life,” and funeral directors became event planners like those who booked weddings (and the cost of weddings, they noticed, was skyrocketing). If cremation was on the rise, it could surely be monetized: urns shaped like golf bags, garden watering cans or basketballs, depending on the hobbies of the dead in question. Cemeteries focused on marketing columbaria, the small, above-ground vaults for urns.

I once met a cemetery salesman who assured me that scattering human remains was illegal (not true) and that he himself once stepped on a human bone on a beach in British Columbia (unlikely, as most crematoria process the remains to a fine, biologically inert powder). His sales pitch was simple: Only the industry knows how to handle what we all leave behind – the rest of us are not equipped. It’s a powerful message. As Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, found out, people will pay to avoid dealing with death and will subcontract what is basically an existential puzzle (what’s to become of me?) to a professional.

But it’s possible to be too clinical. We like at least a little meaning with our rituals, especially the death rituals. “Belief in a future state,” writes Bertram S. Puckle in Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development, a 1926 text, “presupposed a material existence after death, with corresponding material necessities. Food must be provided, weapons and clothing, and a supply of charms with which to ward off evil influences.” And so even today people are buried with iPhones or cremated with a blanket from home. This is not superstition. It is about doing the right thing, even if the thing is a complete mystery. Alkaline hydrolysis is maybe too much like a chemistry experiment to bear much meaning.

And the industry continues to adapt and innovate. An Italian company used to market the Capsula Mundi, a starch-based, acorn-like pod that calls for no headstone as it, with the body, dissolves in time as compost and produces a tree. Demand, it turns out, was slim. Now the company offers an egg-like urn for cremated remains that does the same job for US$457 – tree not included. (But again, there’s the carbon footprint of the cremation itself.)

Straight-up green burial – in a shroud, with no embalming, in a legally designated forest (the law frowns on “freelance” burial) – is sparsely available. The industry has never embraced it.

Maybe it expects greater things from alkaline hydrolysis. After all, if meaning is and always will be knit deeply into our death rituals, it ticks the right boxes: In life, we rejected plastic straws and used twirly light bulbs. In death, we were thus safely melted. Carve it into your tombstone.

Complete Article HERE!

Netherlands nuns convert former battlefield to “natural burial” cemetery

Natural burials are a return to the old-world way, which avoids chemicals and resource waste.

By J-P Mauro

In a gorgeous plot of land that was once the site of the Battle of Arnhem in World War II, the Trappistine Sisters of the Abbey of Koningsoord in the Netherlands have opened a new cemetery where they will be providing natural burials.

“Natural burial” is a term that describes the burial practices of humankind for the majority of history. The process avoids embalming chemicals, as well as steel or cement vaults that are placed underground to protect the coffin from the natural course of decomposition.

These natural burials are becoming more popular today, as they are substantially more eco-friendly than the modern burial. According to Order of the Good Death, a website that supports the return to natural burial, modern burial practices can take a hefty toll on the environment, and squander valuable non-renewable and non-biodegradable resources. They write:

“American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood … 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”

At the Trappistines’ new cemetery, known as Koningsakker — King’s Field — the nuns are trying to remedy these ecosystem compromising factors by returning to the old methods of burial. Hettie van der Ven of Crux news reports that bodies there are not encased within a casket, but rather wrapped in a burial shroud made from linen, jute, hemp and wool that will biodegrade much faster. This avoids wasting natural resources and burying forever materials that would have impeded the decomposition process.

The sisters told Katholiek Nieuwsblad Foundation, a Dutch Catholic news organization, that they were inspired to open the cemetery by their American sister-house, The Trappistine Sisters of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Cross, in Virginia, who opened their own natural burial cemetery several years ago. The cemetery will provide the sisters with funds to sustain them, along with a book bindery and a restoration workshop.

While originally intended to serve as a Catholic cemetery, Koningsakker is now a public cemetery and the nuns welcome people of all faiths and walks of life, even those who come from foreign lands. The nuns feel that this was the right way to go, as it gives their graveyard an opportunity to impact a much wider range of the community. Riny Bergervoet, the cemetery’s location manager, said:

“Natural burials are a perfect fit for this day and age. At the end of their lives, people are looking for connection with the ground they came from and on which they are living … Choosing this as a resting place is a testimony to one’s identity. People know that we are praying for them on a daily basis, which they find very uplifting.”

CruxNews reports that Koningsakker currently only has four people buried on their property, but dozens have already reserved a plot. It’s only a matter of time before this “natural cemetery” will be full of people visiting their beloved lost.

Complete Article HERE!

A Documentary of Funeral Care for Abandoned AIDS Patients

With restrained camera work, “Departing Gesture” shows the process of a solitary funeral and burial, tended to by funeral-home staff.

By Sarah Larson

Jonathan Napolitano and Brian Bolster’s eleven-minute documentary “Departing Gesture” opens inside a suburban-style funeral home, with a long shot of a visitation room, where a white-haired man in a red necktie appears to be setting up for a wake. The casket is open, the flower arrangements generous and autumnal. The only people we see are the man in the coffin and the man taking care of him. “It happens more than you think,” a man’s says, in a voice-over. “Maybe ten or twelve deaths a year, I think, where their family would abandon them and never come back.” The film gives us a minute to contemplate this—the screen goes dark and shows a title card, and then the camera lingers on an exterior shot of the tidy funeral home. Who would abandon their late relatives, and why?

“Departing Gesture,” the first film in The New Yorker’s new series highlighting short documentaries, sheds light on this story patiently and with care. It focusses on the Sebrell Funeral Home, in Ridgeland, Mississippi, whose director, Trey Sebrell, is the person we have just heard speaking. Bolster’s camera observes the funeral home, both its public-facing rooms and its behind-the-scenes areas—offices, an embalming room—as we listen to Sebrell talk. “It’s one of those professions that, once you’re involved, you feel like you’re serving,” he says. “Even if I did not love working for myself, I still would be a funeral director and an embalmer at another funeral home in Mississippi.” As Sebrell goes about his work, in a suit and cufflinks, his movements have a calm certitude.

Sebrell Funeral Home has a partnership with a local charity, Grace House, which provides care and housing for people with H.I.V./AIDS; Sebrell cares for its dead, some of whom are ultimately abandoned by the family members who survive them. These families don’t hold a service and don’t want their relative’s remains. In the film, we watch the process of a solitary funeral, of sorts, and a burial, tended to by funeral-home staff.

Many of us have been in funeral homes like Sebrell’s and have attended memorials of various sizes—the wakes that teem with mourners, the calling hours that feel underpopulated. Either circumstance can enhance the sad surreality of death; in this case, the sadness is heightened further still. Bolster’s camera remains static, at a respectful distance, as it watches people at work: a man with flowers, a woman tending to the deceased’s makeup, pallbearers bringing the casket to the hearse. Other shots show us caskets, a lectern, the embalming room and its tools, embroidered seat covers that say “pallbearers.” The restrained camerawork subtly heightens the contrast between life and death, movement and stillness.

Bolster and Napolitano met on the film-festival circuit and have worked together on several projects; for “Departing Gesture,” Bolster shot and Napolitano edited. They met Sebrell in the course of working on a feature, still in development, about H.I.V./AIDS in the American South. The South has become the epicenter of the crisis in the United States, owing to factors including poverty, cuts to health-care funding, and social stigma. And H.I.V. infection in rural areas and smaller cities is on the rise. “I’m very interested in issues of regret,” Bolster told me. As a boy growing up in Massachusetts in the eighties, knowing that he was gay, Bolster watched reports of the unfolding AIDS crisis and the ignorance and fear that surrounded it. “Families abandoned their kids in hospitals,” he said. “I thought, This is what’s going to happen to me.” In 2019, an era of PrEP, undetectable H.I.V. viral loads in well-cared-for patients, and nationwide marriage equality, it can be stunning to see and hear about present-day ignorance that reminds us of decades past—for example, when Sebrell mentions a local funeral home that refused to collect a man’s body after learning that he was gay. “Departing Gesture” gives us a window into such stories with compassion, through Sebrell’s empathy and its own.

Complete Article HERE!