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Friday, July 25, 2008

Going Gentle into that Good Night

Sometime after he was diagnosed with end-stage cancer of the pancreas, Michael Miller considered the kind of death he wanted.

His would not take place in the hospital, he vowed. A retired physician in his late 70s, Michael had seen too many patients with fatal illnesses spend their final days in the sterile, clinical environs of his onetime workplace, tubes jammed down their windpipes.

His death would also be under his own control. As far as he could, Michael intended to direct the course of his final exit, to ensure that it was gentle, humane and ultimately peaceful.

How Michael arranged for and carried out that considered death is the subject of Karen van Vuuren's poignant and powerful documentary, Dying Wish (2008, WordWise Productions).

Michael came upon that dying wish after turning up research indicating that it was possible to die with less pain -- and in some cases, with an even heightened sense of well being – by fasting, literally, to death. To show us that such a good death is both possible and largely painless (as well as legal), he invited Karen to record the fast that leads, thirteen days later, to his death.

A lifetime is wrapped up in that final fortnight of Karen's documentary. We see Michael recalling childhood events in the company of his siblings. Reading and flagging sections in a book on death and dying. Enjoying a last meal with his family. And as Michael becomes too weak to rise from his bed, we see him slip -- and that's the word, slip -- slowly into the coma that presages the end. Surrounded by his family, in his own home, in his own bed. As he'd wished and planned for.

Like the physician he was in life, Michael notes his vital signs to the end. He tells us of his increasingly dry mouth, of the ache in his back. He is our guide to the afterlife and, with much grace and courage, shows us that we can take our last steps without fear and in much peace.

For more information about Michael Miller, his fast and how to order DVD copies of Dying Wish, click here. DVDs are $19.99 each for individuals, between $49.99 and $89.99 for organizations.

Note: I'm on vacation next Friday. Back with a post on August 15.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, July 11, 2008

Could Utility Trump Memorialization in a Green Burial?

One of the more thoughtful comments to the Grave Matters blog came a couple of weeks ago from Thomas Friese.

Responding to my post about how some funeral directors have dismissed green burial as a mere fad, Thomas praises the green burial movement -- with this cautionary note: Natural return -- with its emphasis on restoration ecology, land preservation, and resource-sparing interment -- is certainly good for the environment. Yet, if the graves in natural cemeteries are marked only with trees, the green burial movement runs the risk of de-emphasizing the personhood, the individuality, the memory of the deceased. If that happens, Thomas writes, natural burial becomes a mere utilitarian and "nihilistic" mode of body disposal.

I have posted Thomas' comments in full below. I invite your responses. I'll return with mine in the coming weeks.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Note: The photo above was taken in on the ashes-only FriedWald in Germany (the subject of last week's blog).

From Thomas Friese:

I can't say enough about how positive I find the growing movement towards natural burials. Poisoning our mother earth with formaldehyde and filling her up with concrete and steel is entirely unjustified. As is poisoning her with mercury from our dental fillings and wasting so much fossil fuel by cremating our bodies. YET I need to mention a potentially nihilistic trend which I perceive in some aspects of the natural burial movement.

The thought was prompted by a recent reading of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, whose awful utopic vision seems to be coming true in many aspects. Among the negative developments for humanity in the brave new world, Huxley predicts the ultimately nihilistic attitude towards death. In the brave new world, only cremation exists. When people die, they are immediately transferred to a central crematorium, where they unceremoniously disappear in a puff of hot air. No funeral service, no mourning or sadness, no memorialization at all - people have been thoroughly conditioned from early childhood to altogether disregard death, see it as quite inconsequential, not worth a second thought. Indeed, the only significant emotion their conditioning leaves in them regarding death is that by being cremated, they will contribute to society via the fertilizer recovered from their body's cremation. That is, they will help grow plants. I quote:

"Why do the smoke stacks (of the cremetorium) have those balconies around them?" enquired Lenina.

"Phosphorous recovery", exclaimed Henry. "On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. Phosphorous used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight percent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of 400 hundred tons of phosphorous every year from England alone." Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as if it had been his own. "Fine to think that we can go on being socially useful even after we're dead. Making plants grow."

We understand that in the Brave New World, the significance of death has been reduced to the amount of useful fertilizer returned to the environment, to a merely ecologically useful function.

To return to the natural burial movement now. We can only agree that land conservation, pollution reduction, energy conservation and tree planting are noble and necessary aims. And that conversely, preserving the material body is evidently NOT the point - only the ancient Egyptians and 20th century North Americans thought this at all relevent.

THE POINT IS that burials and funerals should never become ONLY about their utility to the earth's ecology and to the social collective. Eliminating our negative effects on the earth and collaterally conserving green space are only first steps in redressing the historical aberration that our modern death care has become. Then we need to return to the truly traditional aims of death care, those primary aims which have motivated people through the millenia: paying tribute to the existence and dignity of the individual; creating momento moris for the survivors; and testifying to hopes of transcendence and immortality in whatever form that takes for a particular people. Whether people are cremated or naturally buried, if no LASTING individual markers and no eternally protected and sacred burial sites are left, these three primary functions will not be served and the natural burial movement will have failed in its potential.

Which means that conserving green space by burying people there and then forgetting who those people are is insufficient. That only planting a tree as a grave marker, though it may serve the earth and thus society, is insufficient. Trees are among Man's oldest and most faithful friends and protectors, and the more we have the better - but trees die like humans, sometimes sometimes sooner, sometimes later. Thus they cannot be substitutes for lasting and individualized grave memorials.

Why do we think this is an either/or situation? We can have more trees, more protected green space AND lasting memorials and cemeteries. If "traditional" grave stones and cemeteries provoke aversion and morbidity in people today, let's change the way we memorialize - all sorts of appealing, meaningful AND natural alternatives might be created with artistic imagination and creative use of technology. After all, ancient burial sites that archeologists now uncover contain no plastic or concrete, only natural materials that have lasted thousands of years. Are we not capable - or worthy - of something equally lasting, beautiful, dignified and individual?

Or will we choose the way of the brave new world?

Thomas Friese

Friday, July 04, 2008

Ashes-only Cemetery Greens up German Funeral Practices

Axel Baudach consecrated the second of his ashes-only woodland cemeteries in North America two weeks ago (the subject of last week's post). But the genesis of his EcoEternity concept takes root some two decades earlier, when Axel attended the funeral of his grandfather at a small cemetery in Germany.

The funeral and burial were in keeping with Protestant tradition in the northern part of his home country, says Axel, a former financier with Deutsche Bank who was born and raised in Berlin. The director of the funeral home, which Axel describes as "sad and dark and old," delivered the unembalmed, wood-casketed body to the cemetery chapel. There, a Lutheran pastor from the area gave a somewhat generic, 10-minute eulogy, based on a brief conversation beforehand with Axel's family.

After a few hymns and prayers, pallbearers hired by the funeral director carried the casket out to the church graveyard, a landscape of headstones where, says Axel, "we were reminded of death and dying wherever we went.” The coffined remains of Axel's grandfather were then lowered into the vaultless grave, a handful of sand tossed into the hole.

For a grieving Axel, the whole affair was impersonal, sterile and not at all celebratory of the man he knew in life. When it was over, he had one thought: "When I die, I don’t want this to happen to me."

Axel found a picture of a better way to go when, trolling the Internet shortly after the funeral, he stumbled upon a company in Switzerland that opened forestland in the Alpine country to the burial of ashes. Axel visited the founder, Ueli Sauter, and, soon afterward, transplanted the concept onto German soil. The first EcoEternity Forest – FriedWald, in German -- opened in November of 2001.

Axel sites his green cemeteries on parcels owned by federal, state and municipal governments in Germany. From them, he leases acreage that's both popular with German hikers and best suited for a cemetery ground (i.e., offering prime vistas and easy accessibility). A naturalist inventories and then marks with colored bands trees that families may select for grave sites. No plastic flowers or headstones are allowed. Trees may be tagged with small markers.

Keeping in mind his grandfather's mortician-directed funeral, Axel encourages families coming to his forests to take control of the funeral service themselves. And they have. Funerals in the German FriedWalds typically feature families reading, playing music, and carrying the urn into the woods themselves. "Very often families will open a bottle of wine or champagne and toast the deceased at their tree," he says. "The sound of glasses clinking in the forest is so moving. It's very emotional."

Axel's green, personal approach to burial has caught on in a big way with his fellow Germans. Today, EcoEternity manages some 30 memorial forests all over the country; another 150 similar projects, not overseen by Axel, are in operation as well. A recent newspaper poll found that a third of all Germans are considering the EcoEternity option for their final return. "That survey shows that funeral traditions in Germany are changing,” says Axel. "There's a need for our forest concept."

Axel is hoping for a similar welcome in the U.S. He opened the first EcoEternity Forest last fall in Loudon Country, Virginia. The Pocono Plateau, which opened two weeks ago, is the first of three planned for eastern Pennsylvania by the end of the year. Also in the works are projects in the Virginia tidewater region and in North Carolina.

Note: The photos above were taken in the German Friedwalds.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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