When I first conceived the idea for a book on natural burial, I intended to write a chapter on the cool and compostable coffins that visionary artisans across the globe were handcrafting from a leafy biomass of materials, like bamboo and sea grass, willow and plain old pine.
All of these alt.coffins proved worthy, planet-friendly substitutes to the cookie cutter, bullet-proof metal boxes of the standard American sendoff. But the most striking by far was -- and remains -- the Ecopod.
Pressed from old newspapers and molded into the shape of a seed pod, the Ecopod elevates coffin-making to high, green art. Not surprisingly, it's the brainchild -- the creation -- of an artist and one with wide-ranging interests in ecology, natural childbirth and ancient Egyptian death rituals to boot.
You don't have to tease out the nuance to see how those passions come together in the coffin that British Hazel Selina first crafted over a decade ago and more recently began manufacturing at her ARKA shop in Brighton.
Looking at the photograph of the Ecopod above, it's hard to image a more lovely transport to the Great Hereafter. All the better that it's fashioned from minimal and reused material and that in the environs of the grave quickly biodegrades, speeding its lone passenger's return to the elements. What a way to go. If the fourcorner steel casket was our grandparents' Cadillac to the Life Eternal, the Ecopod is surely the hybrid drive of a great last ride in the Cyberage -- but with Mini-Cooper styling.
So, why didn't I write about it in Grave Matters instead of the carpenter-built pine box? Among other reasons, I decided early to focus on the natural burial movement in this country and, at the time, Ecopods were only made and almost exclusively purchased in the U.K. and, eventually, parts of Europe. I thought briefly about trying to locate a U.S. family that had purchased Selina's funereal handiwork and had it shipped thousands of carbon-spewing miles across the Atlantic. But, really, could the burial it was used in -- even if it did take place in a woodland ground -- actually be considered "green"?
Price was another factor. I don't remember what ARKA was charging for Ecopods at the time of my research, but I recall that the sticker price was pretty steep, starting somewhere in the low thousands of dollars and zooming up, depending on the choice of lining and finish.
Don’t get me wrong: Selina's coffin is certainly worth the greenbacks. The Ecopod offers both an earth-friendly and stylish way to go, particularly when compared to the clunky, resource-heavy alternatives that fill out the casket display room of almost Any Funeral Home USA. Still, the high price seemed at the time of my research to be at odds with the more conserving and often frugal ethic of the families I was interviewing for the book and, to a certain extent, with the ethic of a large segment of the green burial movement. When choosing caskets, these families were finding more meaning in less -- less upholstery, less flash, less outlay of cash.
Not every natural burial enthusiast feels that way, of course. And for those who want to go out green and in high style -- and don't mind paying the fare -- the Ecopod offers the ride of, well, a lifetime.
That's never been truer that now. Ecopods are now for sale in this country, at shops in Portland, Oregon, and Boston. I also understand that ARKA is looking into establishing a manufacturing plant in North America, which would hugely reduce this sleek coffin's otherwise heavy carbon footprint for customers in the U.S. and Canada.
The Portland store I mention is proving to be a popular one-stop shop for natural death in the United States. We'll look at Cynthia Beal and her Natural Burial Company in an upcoming post.
Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)