Death with options: How we bury our loved ones is changing

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By Sybil Fix

Death with options1

The family of Mrs. Jean Dukes lowers her simple casket into the grave at Greenhaven Preserve. The natural burial is an alternative to traditional mortuary practices.

After burying her mother a few years ago, Sheila Holt found herself contemplating her own death.

There was no urgency to it: she was in her early 50s and in good health. But the Summerville health services online school teacher was not inclined to look at death shyly. With a career in nursing behind her, she felt an urge to plan for it and, specifically, for the disposal of her body.

Meditating, envisioning a reel of sensations, Holt quickly excluded embalming, for both the chemicals and the removal of the organs, which felt violating. And then caskets, too.

She considered cremation, and quickly discarded that option: Fire felt violent and destructive.

“It did not feel free to me. I want to view my death as freeing,” she said.

Frustrated, she turned to Google and read about something called natural burials and three places in South Carolina that offered them. On a rainy winter day, she and her husband drove two hours north to Eastover to visit Greenhaven Preserve, a 360-acre nature land trust where one can be buried in a simple shroud in the thick of the woods.

Walking the grounds, they came to a small clearing big enough to park a large SUV and framed gracefully by four hollies. The space seemed to suggest a bucolic grave. Suddenly, the sun came out and the dappled rays came to rest there.

“That was it. I looked at my husband and said, this is it. This is my afterlife spot,” Holt said. She paused in thought. “I have the deed and everything … I could not be more prepared and happy.”

Confronting our mortality and planning for it continue to be hard things to do. Yet, Holt may be representative of a significant shift not only in willingness to discuss death but to chart it so it can unfold in a way that is more truthful what we want for ourselves.

Once, said Archie Willis, president of McAlister-Smith funeral homes here, people did whatever the family did, on a spit of land that had meaning to them, united by the same religion and tradition.

Now families often are split by distance, divorce, second marriages and different religions. Those things complicate decisions regarding burial.

But other influences are budding as people question embalming and caskets, want ritual without artifice, want more individual choice and question their impact on the planet, even in death.

“There is an awareness and a demand for public information about choice that is unprecedented,”said Kate Kalanick, executive director of the Green Burial Council, based in California, which created standards for environmentally conscious deathcare.

College of Charleston professor George Dickinson, who has taught a class called Death and Dying for some 30 years now, calls us “a death-denying society.” But, he said, “the conversation is coming to the forefront. We don’t have to do what Mom and Pop did anymore and we are freer to be frank about it.”

Changing conversation

Every couple of months, people gather in small groups to talk about death. Called Death Cafes (and elsewhere, Death Over Dinner), people venture over food and drink into an uncomfortable conversation, but one that nearly everyone yearns to have.

The group’s foundational belief, “is that if we talk about death in an open way, people will make the most of their lives,” said Jan Schreiber, who retired to Charleston and founded the Death Cafe chapter here. “Talking about death clarifies your life.”

Some people come to talk about coping with dying; others want suggestions on how to discuss death with their aging parents. And some of the conversation is about planning, which nationally many are expressing a need to discuss.

According to the Funeral and Memorial Information Council’s Study of American Attitudes toward Ritualization and Memorialization, in 2015, 69 percent of adults over the age of 40 say they would prefer to prearrange their own service. It may sound like a chore, but, interestingly, the more planned it is, the better we feel about it.

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Greenhaven Preserve offers spaces for natural burials.

“I think people are taking more control over their relationship with death,” said Dickinson.

In one large way, that means that people are beginning to question or revisit practices that, in some cases, have survived and been tweaked over thousands of years: among them, embalming and protecting the body in heavy containers that separate us as much as possible from nature. Now there are more options.

Ashes to ashes

The most obvious revolution in deathcare is the meteoric increase in cremation rates, which have gone from 25 percent in 2009 to nearly 50 percent in 2014 and is estimated to exceed 60 percent by 2025, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In favoring cremation, people cite lower costs, practicality and sometimes wanting to save space on Earth.

In Charleston, mecca for retirees and second-home owners, cremation rates exceed 60 percent, said Willis.

At McAlister-Smith, they handle so many that they have changed their logo. Meanwhile, the ways to memorialize cremated remains have grown proportionally: They can be made into diamonds, art, bird baths and reef balls. They can be launched into space or divided in vials that fit easily in a purse. A deceased loved one can come with us everywhere.

Memorial services for the cremated are often more elaborate and painstakingly planned than funerals at which the body is present, said Cynthia Linhart, McAlister-Smith’s director of support.

“Cremation opens the door to the possibility of multiple services and unique locations outside of church,” Linhart said. “They are real celebrations of life … I hear the most romantic of stories.”

But a newer urge is to achieve true dust to dust, the body returning to the soil, as it were, in its immediacy and purity.

Interest in green burial options has gone from 43 percent to 64 percent over the past five years, according to the FMIC study. In the past 10 years, since it began certifying green burial sites, the Green Burial Council has certified 54 cemeteries around the country; another 50 or so practice green burials though they are not certified, Kalanick said.

Green burial requires the use of nontoxic and biodegradable materials such as pine or sweetgrass caskets and cotton shrouds. It appeals to environmentally minded people but also people who feel connected to the land and, Kalanick said, observers of religions that cherish the belief in ashes to ashes. There is a newfound spirituality in the simplicity of nature, she said.

“It’s the most natural thing on Earth,” said Ronnie Watts, an amiable man who started Greenhaven Preserve with his nephew after reading an article on natural burials. “They were walking a pine box through the woods in jeans. I said, ‘That sounds good. I’ve never worn a suit in my life and I don’t want to wear one when I’m buried.’ ”

In the woods

The practice may sound revolutionary, but it’s ancient and legal.

In South Carolina (and most other states), it is legal not only to handle your deceased, but to bury them without funeral home or director, casket or embalming. While many may continue to rely on someone to take and transport a body — and funeral directors continue to be the preferred professionals to call for help — many people are also trending now toward rituals that seem less artificial and cumbersome.

At Greenhaven people get to choose a plot 10 feet by 10 in expanses of woods over rolling hills. Walking the grounds among the hollies, the dogwoods in bloom, the Bradford pears and pines reaching to the sky, the shrieks of birds and dodging of deer, one barely sees the natural stones marking the graves here and there.

Often the deceased are shrouded and lowered in the ground by their own family members. Families plant blooming bulbs on the graves and trees to shade them. There is no danger of tripping over another grave or cars driving by. And, said Watts, you can have a whole funeral for $2,500, including the cost of the plot, opening and closing the grave, and a shroud or pine casket.

“And you can come and stay as long as you want,” he said.

Pamela Horton, of Irmo, buried her husband, William “Steve,” at Greenhaven in 2014. They visited there after Steve was diagnosed with lung cancer, at 63. He wasn’t too keen on cremation; for her part, she didn’t want a casket or embalming. The concept of a natural burial appealed to them spiritually.

When they toured the grounds, they saw a spot they liked at the foot of a hill, facing the rising sun, a Biblical reference to Jesus’s return. They lay down on the ground together, side by side, like children making snow angels, “to figure out how we wanted to be,” Pam said, tenderness in her voice.

Some months later, Steve died, at home. He was washed and shrouded in a white sheet they had slept in together. The family had a gathering in the woods and they all shoveled in the dirt.

“It felt natural and right. It’s a good way to be buried. It’s the way it’s supposed to be,” she said.

Dying as we live

To accommodate this new appeal is a plethora of green products, including biodegradable shrouds, cardboard caskets and biodegradable containers for cremated remains that look like turtles and dissolve in water.

And ingenuity is taking it further.

An Italian company, Capsula Mundi, is proposing treed pod burial capsules in which tree saplings are planted in the earth with a body folded in a fetal position.

From death sprouts life, truly.

And a company called Coeio, in New York, is poised to release something called the Infinity Burial Shroud, a burial cloth woven of mushroom spores that degrade contaminants in the body as it decomposes.

“It would not be a far cry to say that people want to die the way they live,” said Mike Ma, co-founder and president of Coeio, citing market demand for hybrid cars and organic foods.

Since word of the company got out in the past several months, its mailing list has grown to thousands; they also have a list of hundreds interested in being early adopters of the death infinity suit.

“It’s growing into a movement that people are willing to put themselves into, literally,” Ma said.

Personally, development of the company clarified Ma’s life.

“If we come to grips with our death, we have the potential to live life better,” he said.

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