A number of readers weighed in on my assessment back in January of the British-made Ecopod, the stylish but pricey coffin that's making its debut in this country. One of the most thoughtful, articulate, and passionate reactions came from Cynthia Beal, a green burial advocate who sells Ecopods and other funerary products in her Portland, Oregon, shop named the Natural Burial Company.
You can read Cynthia's full response to my blog post here. In brief, she defends the $3,000-plus sticker price of the Ecopod because, among other reasons, those dollars support every person involved in the production and delivery of a beautiful, handcrafted and earth-friendly piece of artwork, from artist to shopkeeper. "A low price in dollars is NEVER the best way to measure true cost," Cynthia writes. "[I]n fact, if you see something that's cheap, that's almost a sign that it has a whole host of externalized costs it's NOT accounting for," including environmental degradation, low wages for workers and the like. Those who can afford the Ecopod support good work with their purchase. Those with shallower pockets aren't out in the cold; they have their pick of other, more affordable and eco-friendly alternatives, from cardboard boxes to pine caskets.
Well, amen to that. Price may matter to the family pocketbook, but Cynthia is right: it shouldn't be the sole arbiter in gauging greenness. When it comes to the planet, sometimes more really can be better. Consider cemetery space. A plot at the local graveyard may go for half of the two thousand dollars that Ramsey Creek charges (mostly because regular cemeteries typically sell plots as loss leaders and make up the difference in vault sales and such). But the higher cost of eternal real estate at Ramsey Creek is simply worth it. Not only does the memorial preserve allow for the natural return of one's remains, but the actual cost of burial there also funds the preservation and restoration of ecologically significant land that's otherwise threatened by the bulldozer. The greater investment may exceed the reach of some families, but the investment is nonetheless one worth making. The same is true of the Ecopod, which, as I wrote in the January blog, is "certainly worth the greenbacks."
Cost isn't my beef with the Ecopod (and some of the other earth-friendly burial goods that are washing up on these shores from abroad, including British-made caskets of willow and bamboo coffins woven in China). It's provenance.
As far as I know, the Ecopod is manufactured solely in Great Britain. The short distance between the Ecopod's ARKA production plant in Brighton and the 200-plus natural cemeteries scattered throughout in the U.K. makes the Ecopod a high green vehicle to the afterlife for eco-conscious Brits. Not so for their American counterparts.
To reach them, ARKA must transport Ecopods thousands of carbon-spewing miles across the great pond of the Atlantic and, from there, possibly across the entire North American continent to its various points of sale. That trans-oceanic and -continental journey freights the otherwise eco-friendly Ecopod with a significant environmental drag that can't be dismissed in the name of aesthetics, particularly when the artwork itself is billed as earth-friendly. A family that spends its greenbacks for the lovely Ecopod certainly supports the manufacture of a good product and of good community. But until the Ecopod is produced closer to its final destination in this country, the plain Jane cardboard box, cloth shroud or simple pine casket would, in most cases, trump it in overall greenness.
That said, it's important to put reservations about the Ecopod into perspective. First, the British coffin's a better deal for the planet, its carbon footprint notwithstanding, than the U.S.- (and increasingly Mexican-) made metal casket that's standard issue in this country. Plus, the Ecopod's carbon footprint may be a temporary phenomenon. I understand that ARKA is considering setting up a manufacturing plant in North American, to service U.S and Canadian customers closer to where they live.
Cynthia Beal, a smart and dedicated environmentalist with a long history in the natural products industry, understands these arguments as well as anyone and is working to address them. One of the many compelling projects she's looking forward to launching involves planting willow trees in this country and then training artisans in local communities to weave the willow into fetching and readily biodegradable coffins. When that happens, Cynthia won't just be producing true green coffins; she'll have established the basis of the kind of truly sustainable economy that, I believe, is the only way we'll thrive in a warming age.
One note about cost and aesthetics. They don't always correlate. The $800 cherry coffin that heads this post is every bit as handsome as an Ecopod or willow or bamboo casket. Same for the cardboard coffin above -- grand total: $35 -- that two Texan women decorated for the grandmother whom they'd helped wake in her own home. Or, frankly, any of the cardboard coffins that children slop over with fat paint brushes. A frugal family that wants to send its loved one off in high, green style can do so on a penny pincher's budget.
So, when my time comes go ahead and "bury me beneath the willow," as the old bluegrass standard puts it and as Alison Krauss, below, sings it. But, please, lay me down in a simple cardboard coffin -- or pine box or cloth shroud. Save your money.