Adding a Final Nail to the Coffin

When they die, many people have embalming fluid fill their bodies to keep them from rotting. The body then goes into fine clothing and sometimes makeup. The clothed body, sometimes accompanied by other personal property, then lies within plush padding. The padding is built into a coffin made of steel and wood that has been crafted and chemical-finished as carefully as expensive furniture. The coffin then moves into a large concrete and steel vault. The vault lies in a hole in the ground, often dug with and to be later filled by a backhoe. The hole in the ground sits within a cemetery that, except for the headstones, looks like a park as the result of a large amount of effort, chemicals and equipment — equipment that can be used on top of graves only because the vaults prevent the equipment from caving in the ground underneath.

Or sometimes the coffin goes into a mausoleum, which often sits in a large, ornately decorated building, and which makes bodily decomposition even more problematic than burial does.

Or sometimes the coffin goes into a very hot oven, which uses so much fuel that it destroys the coffin and the body so thoroughly that virtually all that’s left afterward are a few pounds of bone fragments lying in the bottom of the coffin’s steel frame. These fragments need to be ground up by a powerful machine if they are to look like “ashes.” Toxins, incidentally, enter the atmosphere as a result of the combustion process.

Each year in the United States, we bury (Smith, 2003 — see Resources below):

  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, which includes formaldehyde
  • 180,544,000 pounds of steel, in caskets
  • 5,400,000 pounds of copper and bronze, in caskets
  • 30 million board feet of hardwoods, including tropical woods, in caskets
  • 3,272,000,000 pounds of reinforced concrete in vaults
  • 28,000,000 pounds of steel in vaults

…and who knows how much padding, clothing, makeup and other personal effects.

Imagine all the effort, all the expense, all the resources. Spent on things that nobody will ever see again a few days after the person dies. Spent to ensure that, even after nobody will ever see the person again, the person as much as possible will avoid decomposition, avoid rejoining the community of life, the very community from which the person had gotten every molecule of his or her being from conception until death. Spent to keep ever more space on this planet in the service of nothing but giving living people a tidy place to wander while they visit dead people.

These kinds of practices may seem entirely sensible to a culture that imagines itself to be something apart from nature, that imagines people to be something apart from and above nature. But they seem entirely senseless to me.

When I die, I’ll wear no clothing or makeup. I won’t bring along any trinkets. As little else will come between me and the ground as the law will allow. And the ground I go in will not be in a typical cemetery. That ground will be in what hopefully may one day become a more typical cemetery. That ground will be in a green cemetery. Specifically, that ground will be in Greensprings, New York State’s first green cemetery.

Throughout Europe, the United States and elsewhere, green cemeteries serve simultaneously as cemeteries and nature preserves. Burial plots are not arranged tightly in neat rows on a lawn which requires vaults for each plot. They are distributed sparsely and randomly throughout woodlands and meadows which continue to exist as unmanaged ecosystems. Burials are not marked by gravestones but by native trees or shrubs, or by indigenous stone markers that lie flush with the earth. Bodies are not embalmed but are simply kept cool to prevent decomposition until they reach the cemetery. The cost of burial in such places is much less expensive than in a traditional cemetery, and the locale is almost invariably a more interesting and beautiful place to visit afterwards. Intriguingly, the majority of people who opt for green cemeteries don’t describe themselves as environmentalists.

Green cemeteries certainly aren’t the only option for a more “natural” burial. There are home funerals, and even burial in a traditional cemetery can be lighter on the Earth — and on your pocketbook — than you might think. Look into the Resources noted below.

How should I end this piece? I’ve said all I wanted to say. Do I need a pithy ending, a sensibly phrased and well-segued conclusion? After all, much of the point of green burial is that death isn’t simply an ending, the final point on a line, but rather just another step in the ongoing cycle of life on this planet. Instead of rejecting our place in that cycle, we can honor it, in both life and death.

I guess that’s a thought worth ending on.


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