Return to Nature

Green burials go beyond not polluting or wasting. It’s about people needing and caring for land, conducting life-affirming activities there—including death.


In March, Stiles Najac buried her partner, Souleymane Ouattara, at the Rhinebeck natural cemetary and looked forward to returning with their baby son, Zana, to picnic in the woods near his dad.

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Initially, the cemetery in Rhinebeck, New York, appears conventional: businesslike granite squares placed in rows, flags and silk flowers sticking up here and there, grass mowed tight all around.

In one corner, however, a walking path roped off from vehicles invites visitors to stroll into the woods. The area looks wild, but it turns out to be part of the cemetery. A hardwood sign marks it the “Natural Burial Ground.” Cherry, beech, and locust trees stretch tall. Ferns cover the ground. The sweetness of phlox, a purple wildflower, wafts in the air. The lawn portion suddenly looks as contrived as a golf course.

“It’s stark, isn’t it?” Suzanne Kelly, the cemetery’s administrator, says of the contrast. On a spring day, she’s taking us on a tour of the natural section she helped establish in 2014. We step in and she starts describing the deer, wild turkeys, and songbirds that pass through (and also warns us about a poison ivy patch). About 100 yards in, we start to see mounds and a few small fieldstones, some engraved with simple words like “Dear Nature, Thank You, Evelyn.” These 10 acres have been permanently set aside for bodies to be buried without the chemical embalming, nonbiodegradable caskets, or concrete vaults that often accompany the modern American way of death.

Kelly is a thoughtful Gen X academic-turned-garlic-farmer-turned-green-burial-activist-and-expert. She remembers first feeling disconnected from standard funerals when her father died in 2000. She stared at the vinyl carpet covering his deep concrete vault and wondered what all the trappings of her dad’s Catholic service were for.

“The idea of ‘dust to dust’ seemed to be missing,” Kelly remembers. “Even though we were standing at the grave saying those words, we were not living those words.”

After moving back to the Hudson Valley in 2002, Kelly joined Rhinebeck’s cemetery advisory committee. She hoped to create options for people who wanted highly personal burials that connected to the earth. Since then, Kelly has positioned the Rhinebeck natural burial ground at the forefront of a growing international movement to reclaim death by bringing back burial traditions that are more environmentally friendly, more personalized, and more connected to place.

The municipal cemetery in Rhinebeck, New York, offers an area for natural burial. There are now around 225 natural burial grounds in the U.S., up from around 100 just five years ago.

In 2015, Kelly wrote Greening Death, the definitive book on the grassroots efforts behind the movement. “The impetus has been to make death more environmentally minded, less resource-intensive, and less polluting,” she says. “And to tie us back to the land.”

While Stiles Najac buried her partner in March, she found that the Rhinebeck ground gave her an unexpected peace. Najac was nine months pregnant with their son when her partner, Souleymane Ouattara, died by suicide last fall. Six months of bureaucratic complications followed before Najac could lay him to rest. (A medical examiner stored Ouattara’s body in a cooler, a common preservation method before natural burials.) Ouattara was an Ivory Coast native, and his Muslim family wanted Islamic “dust to dust” burial traditions, which typically eschew vaults.

So on a crisp day, Ouattara’s friends and family traversed the burial ground’s muddy lane to a chosen spot in the sun. They lowered his body into the ground using straps.

“It added another level of connection,” Najac says. “People actually returned him to the earth.”

As sunlight flickered through the branches, each mourner had a chance to speak. Ouattara’s uncle had plainly felt the stigma of a family suicide. As the service went on, Najac watched his demeanor change. His nephew was still beloved.

Afterward, though lunch was waiting, everybody lingered. “We were nestled in the trees, which create warmth on even the coldest day,” Najac remembers. “I had that feeling of comfort and acceptance. This was nature’s home.” She plans to bring their exuberant baby son, Zana, to picnic in the woods with friends in the warmer months near his dad.

Since the Civil War, American death rituals have become increasingly elaborate, complete with artificial embalming, concrete vaults, and satin-lined metal caskets. But in 1963, writer Jessica Mitford’s witty exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, sold every copy the day it was published. (Spoiler: Plenty of material is wasted along the way, but lavishly buried bodies still decay, perhaps even more spectacularly than their pine-boxed counterparts.) The book changed the way Americans thought about funerals and contributed to the growth of cremation rates, from 2% then to more than 50% today.

Still, cremation has limitations in both cost and impact. In 2017, the median cost of an American funeral with viewing and vault was $8,755, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. The median cost of a comparable cremation wasn’t dramatically less, at $6,260.

In the age of climate change, environmental concerns have also prompted more people to cremate. For example, a conventional burial contributes to the production of about 230 pounds of CO2 equivalent, according to Sam Bar, quality assurance and manufacturing engineer at Green Burial Council, a California-based nonprofit that advocates for “environmentally sustainable, natural death care.” But burning isn’t as eco-friendly as many assume. Cremation relies on fossil fuels, produces about 150 pounds of CO2 per body, and releases mercury and other byproducts into the air. Burning one body is equivalent to driving 600 miles. And scattering “cremains” isn’t good for soil.

Then a couple decades ago, activists on both sides of the Atlantic came up with similar alternatives to the $20 billion funeral industry: What if we returned to burial practices that allowed bodies to decompose naturally? And what if lands could be preserved in the process? The author and social innovator Nicholas Albery helped establish “woodland burials” in the United Kingdom in 1994. The first similar but independently generated concept in the United States was Ramsey Creek Preserve, established in South Carolina in 1998. Billy and Kimberley Campbell are proud that it is now a dedicated Conservation Burial Ground, with a permanent land trust agreement. “Instead of wasting land, you’re actually protecting ecologically important land,” Billy says.

Whether next to a regular cemetery or on conserved land, there are now around 218 natural burial grounds in the U.S. , up from around 100 just five years ago. The Green Burial Council certifies about one-third of them. (New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy keeps a longer list that includes grounds not certified by the Green Burial Council, while other burial sites remain unreported.)

The Green Burial Council holds dual nonprofit status: a 501(c)(6) that certifies grounds and a 501(c)(3) that conducts education and outreach. The organization formed in response to the growing green burial movement and has since become the standard bearer of, and leading authority in, the U.S. movement. That’s no mean feat, given the divisions of purpose that have fragmented the nascent industry in the past. Lee Webster, director of the Green Burial Council’s education and outreach arm, says parts of the early movement were “very elitist,” and there is still a lot of confusion around terminology and standards.

The Green Burial Council currently has three certification standards for green-burial grounds. Certified “hybrid cemeteries” are modern cemeteries that reserve space for burials without embalming or concrete vaults (each year, burials in the U.S. use more than 827,000 gallons of dangerous chemicals and 1.6 million tons of concrete, materials that can be toxic to produce and damaging to the environment). Certified “natural cemeteries” prohibit the use of vaults and toxic chemical embalming. And certified “conservation burial grounds” meet the other requirements of hybrid and natural cemeteries plus establish a land trust that holds a conservation easement, deed restriction, or other legally binding preservation of the land.

Webster spent three years on the Green Burial Council board through 2017 and returned earlier this year to help steer education and outreach. “Because of the myth people have been sold about vaults and caskets, we have to reeducate people on the safety of bodies being buried in the ground without all the furniture,” she says.

The Council updated its standards this spring to better align them with land trust and land management conservation practices. Establishing a land trust for a burial ground lends legitimacy to what’s still a niche movement, in addition to preserving the land and creating a potential revenue stream—crucial at a time when cemetery funding is short (in large part because increasing U.S. cremation rates have cut burial-plot revenues).

As private and municipal-run burial grounds fill up, they can’t keep adding bodies, which means they have to dip into endowments to fund operations, Webster says. It’s not uncommon for a private cemetery to be abandoned when it runs out of money, at which point a nearby municipality often takes over, stretching funds even thinner.

To advocates like Webster, land conversation is the future of green burial. “The way it’s been approached has been to see it from a cemeterian’s point of view rather than a conservation point of view,” she says. “We’re going back now to encourage more land trusts to participate in this and understand how burial can be a conservation strategy.”

“Because of the myth people have been sold about vaults and caskets, we have to reeducate people on the safety of bodies being buried in the ground without all the furniture,” Lee Webster of the Green Burial Council.

Others are going even further. In May, Washington became the first state to legalize body composting as an alternative to cremation or casket burial, a process pioneered by the Seattle-based company Recompose. Other companies offer still more unusual methods of handling human remains: You can have your body mummified, dissolved in water and lye, buried in a pod and planted with a tree, “promessed” (frozen, vibrated into dust, dehydrated, and reintegrated into soil), or put into the ground with a burial suit embroidered with mushroom-spore thread.

Webster believes that body composting and other methods of reintegrating human remains into the environment are “the answer” for urban settings, where burial space is increasingly scarce. So why keep advocating for natural burial grounds like the one in Rhinebeck? It’s the potential they hold for land conservation that’s exciting, she says, and remembrance ceremonies can become new ways to engage with the land.

On the day we visited the Rhinebeck natural burial ground, two people bicycled on the pathway through the woods. Although they’d heard the site was a cemetery, they were using it as they’d use any public park.

“Conservation is about people needing and caring for land,” Webster says. “They’re going to conduct life-affirming activities: Getting married there, baptisms, confirmations, bird-watching, hiking, family picnics—all kinds of things are happening in these spaces because they’re conservation spaces first. That’s the value of it.

“It’s not just that we’re going to put people in the ground without concrete. It’s about the big picture and how it affects people, the way we relate to death but also the way we relate to each other in life.”

There is disagreement within the movement on how best to grow. The values driving green burial suggest there should be more conservation cemeteries, but to meet that standard usually requires starting a new cemetery rather than converting or hybridizing an existing one. That costs a lot of money and requires securing new land and going through a complicated zoning process. To date, the Green Burial Council has certified only six conservation cemeteries in the U.S., compared to 35 hybrid cemeteries.

Cynthia Beal, of the Natural Burial Company in Eugene, Oregon, is a vocal proponent for converting existing cemeteries to natural burial spaces. That averts the zoning issue and provides an educational opportunity for the community.

“If you’re coming into a situation where the cemetery has been abandoned or poorly cared for and you make natural burial its new focus, you’re likely to have neighbors as advocates, happy to see the grounds renewed and the place cared for again,” Beal says. “Every cemetery is unique, telling its own stories of a community’s establishment and growth, and that history is also worthy of stewardship.”

Webster, for her part, is pragmatic about the challenge: While it would be great for more conservation cemeteries to come online, practices at local cemeteries should be improved in the meantime. That would also increase education and access.

“A sense of place is critically important to this,” she says. “I’m not going to [be driven] 300 miles to be buried in a green cemetery. My family is going to associate me with here, where we lived.”

Even in places like Rhinebeck that build at least partly on existing cemetery infrastructure, establishing green-burial sites takes time. Ramsey Creek Preserve was easier, Kimberley Campbell says, because South Carolina didn’t bother regulating. “I called down to the funeral board and got a delightful secretary,” Kimberly remembers. “She said, ‘The cemetery board has shut down. … I think what you are doing sounds marvelous, and there is absolutely nothing to stop you.’”

For Rhinebeck administrator Kelly, using municipal land didn’t require raising the $50,000 in trust for upkeep that is standard in many places. Still, it had to be planned, bid, surveyed, plotted, and certified, which took around five years.

The payoff of a natural burial ground can be big for a community. Gina Walker Fox, a Rhinebeck real estate agent, says she feels more comfortable with death for having bought a plot. (At 61, she recently asked a local quilter to sew her a raw-linen shroud, which she plans to embroider with a symbolic river.) Fox’s plot is near a blackcap raspberry bush she knows her adult children will want to visit.

“That old way—where people pick berries, sit, visit, picnic—that speaks to me,” she says.

Kelly laughs when we ask where she’ll be buried. She hasn’t picked or purchased a spot yet. Even a green-burial activist can feel like she has plenty of time to live.

“Once in a while,” she says, “I come by here and think I should probably get around to getting a plot.”

Complete Article HERE!

We’re in the middle of a revolution on death

Mary Klein, center, speaks at a news conference in Washington on April 5, 2018, to urge D.C. officials to educate doctors about the city’s “death with dignity” law.

By Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is the author of “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”

Tuesday was to be the day — in the morning, because everything was taken care of. The goodbyes had been said, the tears shed, the coffin handmade. In the spring of 2018, Dick Shannon, a former Silicon Valley engineer with untreatable cancer, took advantage of California’s “death with dignity” law to end his own life once all other medical possibilities had been exhausted.

“My observation about the way people die, at least in America, is they . . . are not allowed the opportunity to be part of the process,” Shannon explained. “For my way of thinking, the part that bothers me just immensely is not being allowed to be part of that process. It’s my death. Go with what you believe, but don’t tell me what I have to do.” Discussing the ultimate decision with his doctor, Shannon remarked, “It’s hard to fathom. I go to sleep and that’s the end of it. I’ll never know anything different.” He paused, then said simply: “Okay.”

When the day came, Shannon was ready. The end-of-life medical cocktail was mixed in a silver stainless steel cup, and he drank it in front of his loving and tearful family. “I’ve accepted the fact that I’m dying,” he’d said earlier. “There’s nothing I can do to stop it. Planning the final days of my life gives me a sense of participation and satisfaction.” As he prepared to slip away, he told his family, “Just know that I love you — each and every one of you.”

America is becoming ever more like itself when it comes to death. From Walden Pond to Huck Finn’s lighting out for the territory, we’re a nation of individualists, shaped and suffused by self-reliance and a stubborn allegiance to the live-free-or-die motto of the Revolutionary era. With this twist: Baby boomers and their successor generations are insisting on being free to take control of death itself. Innovation, creativity and customization — the hallmarks of our time, an age in which we can run much of our lives from our mobile phones — are now transforming both how we die and the mechanics of remembrance that come afterward.

The coming revolution in death — and Dick Shannon’s story — is laid out with uncommon wisdom in a powerful, new HBO documentary, “Alternate Endings,” which debuts Aug. 14. Only eight states and the District of Columbia have death-with-dignity laws, but three of those states — Hawaii, Maine and New Jersey — have put their statutes on the books within the past year. And 18 other states considered such laws in the 2019 legislative season.

The movement has not attracted the same attention it once did; in the 1990s, Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, the right-to-die advocate, drew considerable public alarm. As the documentary by Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill makes clear, the conversation has entered a new and compelling phase now that Americans are thinking about death as something as disintermediated as commuting, dating and shopping.

The United States has a long history of rethinking the rituals of death. Embalming became part of the popular understanding and tradition of death during the Civil War; the task then was to preserve the bodies of dead soldiers so their families could see them one final time. Abraham Lincoln may have done the most to raise the profile of embalming when he chose first to embalm his 11-year-old son and then when his own corpse was embalmed for the long train ride home to Springfield, Ill., after his assassination.

Now the death industry in the United States has evolved with the culture. For many, corporate consolidation has reshaped a funeral home industry, which was once made up almost entirely of local, family-owned companies. (And which, as Jessica Mitford wrote in her 1963 book “The American Way of Death,” unctuously gouged grieving families.) The Internet has disrupted the casket industry with Walmart and others selling directly to families. As “Alternate Endings” reports, there are now green burials (including using a loved one’s ashes to help restore coral reefs), space burials and even drive-through, open-casket viewings.

Once the great gatekeeper of life and death, organized religion, too, is losing its sway. In an era in which friends routinely ordain themselves on the Internet to preside at weddings, the rising numbers of Americans who are “unaffiliated” with any particular faith mean that institutions that once gave shape to life and meaning to death are being gradually supplanted family to family.

The issues raised by Dick Shannon’s story are the most profound. Many religious authorities — notably the Roman Catholic Church — oppose euthanasia (Greek for a “good death”). Such teachings face a generational head wind as more people (and states) move from deferring to institutions to simply making their own decisions. The questions involved are intricate and complex and painful — but it is plain to see that we are witnessing another rite of passage undergoing an irrevocable disruption.

When the Shannons held a “living wake” for friends to say goodbye to Dick, the family hung a banner on the wall: “Life is what you celebrate. All of it. Even its end.” Before passing, Shannon said, “I want it to be on my terms.” Given that death comes for us all, so, too, will many of us have to confront the agonizing decision that he faced with grace.

Complete Article HERE!

How to Transport a Dead Body by Plane

By Elizabeth Yuko

People die every day—and yes, that includes when they’re traveling. It’s not something most of us think about when planning a trip, but for some, it’s an unfortunate reality. But what do you do if you’re traveling with someone and they pass away? It’s not like you can Weekend-at-Bernie’s them and fly them back on their original coach ticket—so what are your options?

In short, it depends on the circumstances of the person’s death and where it happens. Though it’s important to remember that each situation is different, here are a few tips to help get you started.

Acknowledge your grief

If the deceased is a family member, friend, partner or colleague, you are likely in shock and grieving. According to Robert Quigley, M.D., senior vice president and regional medical director of International SOS, the world’s largest medical assistance and security company, your first step should be to address the fact that you’re grieving. “It’s important that you’re emotionally stable when you start this process, because the process is extremely complicated,” he tells Lifehacker.

Take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the death

If there was any foul play suspected in the person’s death, then the authorities—meaning the local police or embassies—first need to sign off on any paperwork before the body is transported anywhere, Quigley explains. In this case, it could take weeks for the body to be released and cleared to travel.

But for the purpose of this article, let’s go with a hypothetical scenario that doesn’t involve foul play—like a relative having a sudden heart attack and dying while you are traveling together. More information on what to do in the case of a suspicious death—and pretty much every other scenario imaginable—is available in a detailed whitepaper from International SOS. The organization assists with the transport of approximately 2,500 deceased individuals each year, Quigley says, and has seen it all over the course of their 36 years in business.

Connect with a local funeral home

If someone dies while traveling, they will likely end up at a local hospital where they will be pronounced dead by a doctor or medical examiner, who will then fill out the appropriate paperwork. Since you are not from the area, the hospital should be able to put you in touch with a local funeral home. From this point on, the funeral director will be your main point of contact in the process of transporting the person back home.

If the death occurs abroad, Quigley says that there is huge variation in the quality of funeral homes and services around the world in terms of how they prepare and transport the bodies, taking into consideration different cultural and religious traditions. This includes factors like whether or not they embalm bodies, or if cremation is an option.

At this point, you may want to seek help from a medical assistance company like International SOS or Global Rescue to help you make local connections and the arrangements necessary for the remains to cross borders. Medical assistance companies work closely with insurers and hospitals to provide the medical services people may require while traveling—including in the event of their death. Like insurance policies, the cost of these services varies significantly, depending on where you’re traveling, your age, your health, the length of your trip and other factors. Your best bet is to either visit the company’s website or contact them directly for a quote.

If the death occurs in the United States and you are looking to transport the body to another location in the United States, it’s a little more straightforward.

Chances are, the funeral home has done this before and has a good idea of which local airlines are the best options, given that each have different criteria for transporting human remains. Quigley says the funeral director will ask you questions regarding how you’d like the remains handled (i.e. embalmed, not embalmed or cremated) and let you know how much it’s going to cost—more on that later.

According to Elizabeth Fournier, a funeral director in Oregon, in her experience, most dead bodies traveling within the United States are transported on Delta or American Airlines. Typically, funeral homes contact the cargo department of a particular airline and make a reservation. The ticket is not purchased until the body actually arrives at the airport, she says, because plans change all the time. For example, sometimes a family member decides at the last minute they want to be on the flight with the body, or there may be a delay with the paperwork. A body must arrive at the airport at least two hours prior to the flight’s departure. In addition, there has to be a funeral home lined up at the final destination, which will then claim the body from the cargo area of the airport, she explains.

If the body is traveling within the United States, Fournier says you just need a death certificate and a permit. However, other regulations involving the type of transportation and the condition of the remains vary from state-to-state, so make sure to check local laws before doing anything. Usually the local funeral home is familiar with the laws on their end and can help you navigate any other legal questions.

And as Quigley explained previously, you’re arranging for human remains to be transported internationally, you’ll need additional documentation from authorities in both the origin and destination countries. This can become even more complicated if the person died abroad of an infectious disease (another topic addressed in the International SOS whitepaper). In these situations, those handling the remains must balance respect for the deceased, with the health and safety of those who come in contact with the remains, like a coroner or mortician. Depending on the type of the infectious illness, the body may be placed in quarantine, in compliance with local regulations and public health authorities. For example, the remains of those who had smallpox, plague, botulism, Ebola, Lhasa fever, Junin fever or any viral hemorrhagic fevers are typically treated with more caution. Those with yellow fever, encephalitis, HIV, tuberculosis, shigella, Nipah virus or Hanta virus may also require special handling or quarantining, though do not pose as much of a danger to the people who come in contact with the body as the illnesses in the first category.

Preparing the body

Again, the funeral home will handle any preparations necessary for the body before it is transported. This is another case of checking state laws: some allow unembalmed bodies to travel, while others require embalming or cremation.

According to Fournier, prior to a flight, the average deceased person would be embalmed and then placed in an air tray—a wood-bottom tray with a lid made of cardboard. The body may or may not be wearing clothing. She recently shipped a body from Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas. They were unembalmed and they flew on Southwest—one of a handful of airlines that permit unembalmed bodies (yes, in addition to considering state laws, you also need to check on airline regulations).

That said, the process of preparing the body for a flight is relatively straightforward, according to Fournier. First she double-wrapped the body in plastic, then packed it into an air tray filled with cooling gel packs. Typically, caskets aren’t used in this process, she explains, because there’s a good chance the casket could get damaged during travel. Instead, caskets are usually purchased from the funeral home on the receiving end of the flight. Once the body has reached its final destination, the receiving funeral home will take over the rest of the arrangements.

The costs of shipping a body

Initially the funeral home—either the one shipping or receiving the body—pays for the cost of transporting the body and that expense is then added to the rest of the cost of the arrangements. Like plane tickets for the rest of us, fares vary for shipping human remains. For example, the ticket for the body Fournier sent to Texas from Portland cost $750, while shipping another person from Portland to Idaho a few months ago cost $500. Cargo passage to the Netherlands from Oregon costs nearly $2,000, she says.

If a person dies while traveling for business, Quigley says that oftentimes the deceased’s employer will assist the family with bringing their loved one home. They may even bridge the gap in costs if the person’s insurance doesn’t cover the transport of their remains, which, he says, is pretty typical. If this is coverage that you do want, he suggests reading the fine print on your insurance policies—including any life, health or travel insurance (including policies that come with certain credit cards) you may already have—though note that most policies don’t cover all of the multiple steps involved with transporting human remains. For example, one of your insurance policies may cover the plane fare, but not the cost of embalming. Or, it may have a sub-limit on the cost of the coffin, or stipulations on coverage based on the cause of death, according to the International SOS whitepaper. But, as is the case with other types of insurance policies, Quigley says that you can purchase a rider specific to your needs.

Transporting cremated remains

If the deceased has been cremated prior to traveling, it is much easier to transport the remains. Most U.S. domestic airlines allow you to bring human ashes in your carry-on, but again, this is something you should check with the airline first. However, it is important to select a TSA-approved urn in order to make the process as smooth as possible. It is illegal for TSA employees to open the urn in order to determine what’s inside—even if requested by the passenger—so it must be X-rayed. As a result, select an urn that is easily X-rayed, like one made out of a light-weight structure like wood, cardboard, fiberboard or plastic—even if it’s only temporary.

Though TSA doesn’t require that you disclose that you’re carrying human remains, if you’re worried about being stopped for having a suspicious powder substance, you may want to bring the deceased’s death certificate or other documentation from the funeral home as proof.

Complete Article HERE!

What to Know When Choosing Cremation

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Americans are increasingly choosing cremation over burial, making it the new norm for end-of-life practices, a funeral industry report finds.

Demand for cremation — the disposal of a body using flame or heat — continues to outpace that for traditional burial, says the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2019 report on cremation and burial. The cremation rate surpassed 50 percent in 2016 and continues to increase, the association found. It is expected to rise to 79 percent by 2040.

The burial rate, meanwhile, is projected to drop to just 16 percent over the next two decades, which means that cremation “is no fading trend,” the association concluded.

Cremation is growing in popularity for several reasons, including cost, the association found. The median cost of a basic cremation — without visiting hours, a memorial service or any other trappings of a traditional burial — is about $2,400. By comparison, the median cost of a burial with a coffin and full funeral home services is about $7,400.

Cremation has generally become more culturally acceptable. The association’s research found that the proportion of people age 40 and older who feel it is important to have a religious aspect as part of a funeral has declined, to 35 percent in 2019 from about half in 2012.

As cremation becomes more popular, more funeral homes are starting to offer it, said Kurt Soffe, a funeral director in Murray, Utah, and a volunteer spokesman for the funeral directors association. Mr. Soffe said his funeral home has offered cremation since 2002. The association says about one-third of funeral homes now run their own cremation equipment, and more are expected to do so in the next five years to meet demand.

Options other than standard cremation are also starting to emerge. Twenty states now permit a process called alkaline hydrolysis, according to the Cremation Association of North America, but its availability is still somewhat limited. Sometimes called “flameless” cremation, the process uses a mixture of pressurized water and chemicals to dissolve the body.

And Washington State recently approved legislation allowing “above ground decomposition,” or composting, of human remains. The resulting soil will be returned to families, just as ashes may be returned after cremation. A company called Recompose is expected to begin offering the service in Washington as soon as next year.

As cremation and other alternatives eclipse traditional burials and funeral services, funeral homes are becoming more flexible in their offerings to remain competitive. Mr. Soffe said his funeral home, for example, had arranged a service for a man who had been a Harley-Davidson enthusiast. Before the cremation, Mr. Soffe said, the man’s body was displayed for viewing dressed in his motorcycle gear.

Here are some questions and answers about cremation:

What does the price of a cremation include?

A basic cremation — called “direct” cremation by funeral homes — generally includes pickup and transportation of the body, filing necessary paperwork, the actual cremation and the return of the ashes to the family, said Joshua Slocum, executive director with the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Some funeral homes have their own cremation equipment, but others use outside contractors. If an outside provider is used, Mr. Slocum said, consumers should be careful to review the fees to be sure they are not charged twice for similar services.

Rates vary by location, he said, but a reasonable rate for a direct cremation is $800 to $1,200.

Don’t be pressured to buy a coffin. There’s no need for one if someone is being cremated, AARP advises.

The Federal Trade Commission says that no state or local law requires the use of a coffin for cremation and that the funeral home must inform you that alternative containers — such as those made of unfinished wood or even cardboard — are available.

Must I hold a memorial service before or after a cremation?

No. Add-ons like visiting hours or a memorial service are entirely up to you. “You can do everything, or nothing, before the cremation,” Mr. Slocum said. Families sometimes organize their own informal memorial gatherings after the cremation without involving a funeral home.

Are cremation prices available online?

The federal Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to provide prices for all services, including cremation, upon request by telephone or in person. But the rule, which took effect in 1984, doesn’t address online pricing. Consumer advocates are pushing for the rule to be updated to require funeral homes to post their price lists online.

The F.T.C., which enforces the rule, was scheduled to review it this year, but whether that will happen is unclear. Earlier this year, the commission said that the 10-year review period it uses was not mandatory, and the commission could change timelines if it chooses.

A commission spokesman didn’t respond to a request for an update on the review’s status.

One state, California, requires funeral homes with websites to include pricing information online, or to list services and note that prices are available upon request.

Complete Article HERE!

Here’s How You Can Save the Earth, Even After Dying

Traditional funerals are terrible for the environment. But the green burial movement allows people to be kind to the planet, even after they’ve passed.

by &

If you’re planning a traditional Western funeral for a loved one, burial according to industry standards will cost you — in more ways than one. The materials typically used in the process, from embalming chemicals to casket varnishes and sealants, can seep into ground, polluting the water that you use every day.

In addition, U.S. cemeteries contain an estimated 15 tons of casket steel, enough to build almost all of the skyscrapers in Tokyo, according to TalkDeath, an online community dedicated to encouraging positive conversations around death and dying. Even cremation — often considered one of the most environmentally friendly options — spews fossil fuels into the atmosphere.

So what’s an eco-conscious funeral planner to do? A green burial uses biodegradable materials for caskets and shuns the use of chemicals to preserve bodies. That means adopters can help save the planet while saving themselves (or their families) money in the process.

To learn more about green burials, watch the video above.

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People in western China smoked marijuana to bury their dead 2,500 years ago

— the oldest evidence of weed smoking in human history

In a tomb in western China, scientists discovered human remains and evidence of marijuana use from 2,500 years ago.

By

It appears people have been smoking weed for more than two millennia.

Researchers reported on Wednesday that they’ve found some of the earliest evidence of ritual cannabis smoking in the archaeological record.

The evidence comes from stone-filled braziers — a device used to burn a plant and fill the air with its vapors — that were unearthed in eight tombs at the Jirzankal Cemetery in the Pamir Mountains of western China.

Preserved in the 2,500-year-old braziers were traces of cannabinol (CBN), the compound that forms after tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) comes in contact with the air. THC is the most potent psychoactive agent in marijuana.

This wooden brazier with burnt stones in the center provides some of earliest evidence of ritual cannabis smoking.

The authors published their findings in the journal Scientific Advances. The chemical signature of THC residue in the tomb, they said, indicates that people in this region of China likely smoked marijuana during burial ceremonies, perhaps as a way to communicate with the dead.

“It’s the earliest strong evidence of people getting high” on marijuana, Mark Merlin, a botanist at the University of Hawaii, told USA Today.

This marijuana was potent

Marijuana is one of the most widely used psychoactive drugs in the world today, but the legacy of its use and cultivation spans millennia. The earliest known cultivation of cannabis plants occurred in Eurasia roughly 6,000 years ago, but it was used as a food crop and for hemp material — not smoked for psychoactive effects.

Previous evidence of ancient cannabis smoking came mostly from historical anecdotes, not archaeological evidence. Greek historian Herodotus wrote about ritual and recreational pot use around the same time that these braziers were buried in distant China.

Scientists also found cannabis seeds in a different 2,500-year-old Chinese tomb in 2006, but there was no evidence of smoking

Usually, wild cannabis ( Cannabis sativa) has lower levels of THC than its cultivated counterparts. But the residue in these Chinese braziers indicates that the type of cannabis smoked in them had higher THC levels than wild plants. It also had higher amounts of THC than the cannabis grown in ancient Eurasia, the authors of the new study noted in a press release

The authors aren’t sure whether the cannabis used in this region was intentionally cultivated to have higher amounts of THC (as it is today), or whether the people who conducted this burial had some other way of seeking out more potent plants.

Either way, they appeared to be aware that not all cannabis is created equal when it comes to its psychoactive qualities.

These tombs had evidence of human sacrifice

In the Jirzankal Cemetery, the archaeologists also found skulls and other bones with signs of fatal cuts and breaks, which they interpreted as signs of human sacrifice. They found a harp as well — an important musical instrument in ancient funerals and sacrificial ceremonies.

These clues from the past indicate that the burials had a ritual quality to them, and that smoking marijuana played a role in commemorating the dead.

The excavation of the tomb M12, in which evidence of the oldest ritual smoking of cannabis was found. In the photo, the cannabis brazier can be seen at the middle bottom edge of the central circle.

“We can start to piece together an image of funerary rites that included flames, rhythmic music, and hallucinogen smoke, all intended to guide people into an altered state of mind,” the study authors wrote.

Merlin told The Atlantic that this discovery does not suggest ancient Chinese people were into recreational drug use. Instead, he said, it was likely a spiritual practice — part of ushering the dead into the afterlife and helping the living commune with deities or the deceased.

Complete Article HERE!

Could Trees Be the New Gravestones?

A California start-up wants to “redesign the entire end-of-life experience.” The answer to “eternity management”? Forests.

By Nellie Bowles

Death comes for all of us, but Silicon Valley has, until recently, not come for death.

Who can blame them for the hesitation? The death services industry is heavily regulated and fraught with religious and health considerations. The handling of dead bodies doesn’t seem ripe for venture-backed disruption. The gravestone doesn’t seem an obvious target for innovation.

But in a forest south of Silicon Valley, a new start-up is hoping to change that. The company is called Better Place Forests. It’s trying to make a better graveyard.

“Cemeteries are really expensive and really terrible, and basically I just knew there had to be something better,” said Sandy Gibson, the chief executive of Better Place. “We’re trying to redesign the entire end-of-life experience.”
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And so Mr. Gibson’s company is buying forests, arranging conservation easements intended to prevent the land from ever being developed, and then selling people the right to have their cremated remains mixed with fertilizer and fed to a particular tree.

The Better Place team is this month opening a forest in Point Arena, a bit south of Mendocino; preselling trees at a second California location, in Santa Cruz; and developing four more spots around the country. They have a few dozen remains in the soil already, and Mr. Gibson says they have sold thousands of trees to the future dead. Most of the customers are “pre-need” — middle-aged and healthy, possibly decades ahead of finding themselves in the roots.

Better Place Forests has raised $12 million in venture capital funding. And other than the topic of dead bodies coming up fairly often, the office is a normal San Francisco start-up, with around 45 people bustling around and frequenting the roof deck with a view of the water.

There is a certain risk to being buried in a start-up forest. When the tree dies, Better Place says it will plant a new one at that same spot. But a redwood can live 700 years, and almost all start-ups in Silicon Valley fail, so it requires a certain amount of faith that someone will be there to install a new sapling.

Still, Mr. Gibson said most customers, especially those based in the Bay Area, like the idea of being part of a start-up even after life. The first few people to buy trees were called founders.

“You’re part of this forest, but you’re also part of creating this forest,” said Mr. Gibson, a tall man who speaks slowly and carefully, as though he is giving bad news gently. “People love that.”

Sandy Gibson, the chief executive of Better Place Forests, in the start-up’s Santa Cruz location.

Bring Your Dog, Forever

Customers come to claim a tree for perpetuity. This now costs between $3,000 (for those who want to be mixed into the earth at the base of a small young tree or a less desirable species of tree) and upward of $30,000 (for those who wish to reside forever by an old redwood). For those who don’t mind spending eternity with strangers, there is also an entry-level price of $970 to enter the soil of a community tree. (Cremation is not included.)

A steward then installs a small round plaque in the earth like a gravestone.

When the ashes come, the team at Better Place digs a three-foot by two-foot trench at the roots of the tree. Then, at a long table, the team mixes the person’s cremated remains with soil and water, sometimes adding other elements to offset the naturally highly alkaline and sodium-rich qualities of bone ash. It’s important the soil stay moist; bacteria will be what breaks down the remains.

Because the forest is not a cemetery, rules are much looser. For example: pets are allowed. Often customers want their ashes to be mixed with their pets’ ashes, Mr. Gibson said.

“Pets are a huge thing,” Mr. Gibson said. “It’s where everyone in your family can be spread. This is your tree.”

“Spreading” is what they call the ash deposit. The trench is a “space,” the watering can is a “vessel,” the on-site sales staff are “forest stewards.” When it comes to both death and start-ups, euphemisms abound.

Available trees are marked with ribbons. Multiple ribbons indicate type and size of the trees.

It’s all pretty low-tech: mix ashes in with dirt and put a little placard in the soil. But there is a tech element: For an extra fee, customers can have a digital memorial video made. Walking through the forest, visitors will be able to scan a placard and watch a 12-minute digital portrait of the deceased talking straight to camera about his or her life. Some will allow their videos to be viewed by anyone walking through the forest, others will opt only for family members. Privacy settings will be decided before death.

Death Is a Growth Industry

As cities are running out of room to bury the dead, the cost of funerals and caskets has increased more than twice as fast as prices for all commodities. In the Bay Area, a traditional funeral and plot burial often costs $15,000 to $20,000. The majority of Americans are now choosing to be cremated.

“The death services market is very big — $20 billion a year — and customer approval is low,” said Jon Callaghan, a partner at True Ventures, an investor in Better Places. “The product is broken.”

The firm’s other investments include Blue Bottle, Peloton and Fitbit, and Mr. Callaghan sees consumers of those products as ones who would be interested also in Better Place trees.

“Every industry seems to have its time when things get wild,” said Nancy Pfund, the founder and a managing partner at DBL Partners, which led early funding. “It’s been mobile apps, it’s been cars, it’s been fake meat, and now it is death care,” she said.

“But we have to come up with a better name than ‘death care.’ Maybe it’s legacy care,” she added. “Maybe it’s eternity management.”

Around 75 million Americans will reach the life expectancy age of 78 between 2024 and 2042, Better Place suggests. The company’s pitch is that tree burial is good for the environment, the location is more beautiful than a traditional graveyard — and it’s cheaper as well.

Ms. Pfund also sees these forests as a way to monetize conservation. Actively managing a forest is expensive, so much so that financially strained state park systems are having to turn down gifts of land. Conservation easements, an agreement between an organization and the government to preserve land, have become more popular as a solution.

“No one has really made a big business monetizing conservation, nothing that could scale,” Ms. Pfund said. “So a bell went off when we heard this pitch.”

Where’s Grandma?

Those tracking the death services industry are more skeptical about how disruptive it will be.

John O’Conner, who runs Menlo Park Funerals, said more than 90 percent of his clients opt for cremation.

“Most of my people scatter on their own,” Mr. O’Conner said. “They just go at night, scatter grandma, have a cup of champagne, and every day they drive by that park they know grandma is there. Why would they pay $20,000 to go to a memorial grove when they can scatter at any little park they want to for free?”

That act is, technically, illegal.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Mr. O’Conner said. He said he knew of a few golf courses in the region that had to put up signs imploring people not to scatter guest remains there.

Ben Deci, a spokesman for California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, said Better Place Forests’ activities do not fall under the bureau’s purview.

“It looks to me like they’ve just purchased large tracts for forest land and are allowing people to disperse their ashes, and they say here ‘This’ll be your tree or whatever,’” Mr. Deci said. “You don’t need our approval to do that.”

Mr. Gibson does have a permit from the state verifying him as a cremated remains disposer. “But that’s not quite the right way to think about it,” he said.

How to Choose the Right Forever Tree

One recent day, Mr. Gibson walked through his 80 acres of Santa Cruz forest where about 6,000 trees are available, many wrapped in different colored ribbons, waiting to be chosen.

“The last major innovation in cemeteries was the lawn cemetery in the ’50s and ’60s, basically so they could get a lawn mower through easier,” Mr. Gibson said.

To claim a tree, customers walk through the forest and find one that speaks to them. The Better Place brochure also guides them: Coastal redwoods are “soaring and ancient,” tan oaks are “quirky and giving,” while a Douglas fir is “stately and reverent.”

“Some people want a tree that is totally isolated, and some people really want to be around people and be part of a fairy ring,” Mr. Gibson said. “Some people will come in and they’ll fall in love with a stump.”

“People love stumps,” he said, pointing out a few trees people bought just for the nearby stumps. “They’ve got a lot of personality.”

Younger people often choose younger trees because they like the idea of growth.

Debra Lee, a retired administrative assistant in San Jose, felt immediate kinship with the madrone tree she chose.

“She’s about 60 years old, and I’m 63,” Ms. Lee said of the mature evergreen with dark red bark. “Looking at her growth pattern you can see things have been hard at times because she’s kind of curved, but she made it to the top to get to the sunlight.”

When a customer chooses her tree, as Ms. Lee did, she cuts the ribbon off in what Better Place calls the ribbon ceremony.

As Mr. Gibson hiked across the Santa Cruz forest in a sweater and work boots, he noticed a rhododendron, his mother’s favorite flower, growing out of a stump.

Both his parents died when he was young, and, at 12, Mr. Gibson was adopted by his half brother. He is now 36, and, since then, he has spent many afternoons in Toronto at his parent’s grave site, set on a noisy corner, with a shiny black headstone that reflects traffic.

“You remember them dying, you remember the memorial service, and you remember the image of their final resting place,” Mr. Gibson said. He was haunted by that badly designed grave site. “It’s comically bad.”

Visiting their grave in 2015, he decided to quit his job running a marketing automation company. He would make a better graveyard.

“A lot of investors laughed at us when I first pitched this,” Mr. Gibson said. “People don’t really like thinking about this.”

Complete Article HERE!