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Friday, December 21, 2007

A Jewish Casket Invites the Elements

Did the carpenter who built this coffin bore holes into its base?

That's the question I had as members of the Portland, Maine, Jewish burial society wheeled the coffin above into the receiving paddock of a local funeral home, pulled off the protective wrapping, and invited me to take a look.

Orthodox Jews take a “dust to dust” view of burial, as advocated in that well-known verse in Genesis, and their coffins (when used at all) are thus crafted to allow for the ready decay of both the box and its occupant.

I'd seen plenty of pictures of Jewish coffins. This was my first look at a real one, which proved representative of the type. It had been fashioned from plain, pine boards and fastened without the use of any metal -- that is, non-biodegradable -- parts. The box itself was of a simple, plain make. No stain or varnish had been applied to the lumber; looping rope sufficed for handles.

The lid was split into two panels, which were attached to the body with wood dowels. When members of the society pulled out the dowels and lifted off the panels, they revealed the coffin's rough, unlined interior. There was no mattress or cushion to receive the body that would eventually reside here, no bedframe. This was clearly nothing more than a plain, pine box, a no-frills vehicle to quick decomposition.

I'd read in the course of my research that some Jewish coffin makers go one further for natural return: they drill holes into the bottom of their boxes to invite the elements, super-speeding the decay they'd already designed into their handiwork.

And the builder of this coffin, I saw as I looked inside it, had clearly done just that. If you look closely at the photograph above, you'll see the three holes he/she had bored into the center of the coffin base.

As the natural burial movement gains traction, it's beginning to offer families caskets fashioned from all kinds of eco-friendly materials, from cardboard to recycled paper mache. Most, if not all, are better for the planet than the sealed, metal caskets that are standard feature of the modern American funeral. Few, I would argue, are as truly green as this Jewish make above.

Back with a post on January 4th. Happy holidays.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, December 14, 2007

Cedar Brook: New England's First Natural Cemetery

New Englanders seeking a natural return for their loved ones won't have to wait until Maine's Rainbow's End goes, ah, "live," this coming spring.

A new woodland cemetery in the southern part of Maine offers dust-to-dust, chemical-free burial in a verdant green right now.

Launched three months ago, the Cedar Brook Burial Ground takes root on a two-acre wood of mostly pine and hemlock in Limington, a rural hamlet some thirty miles due west of Portland. Within its borders sits the rock wall-enclosed Joshua Small Cemetery, a tiny, historic graveyard whose dozen burials date back to the early 1800s. Both new and old cemeteries are part of larger, 150-acre expanse of pine forest that is owned, and, at times, selectively cut, by Peter McHugh.

That's a lot of green. And Peter, a genial, 70-something jack-of-all-trades, wants to make sure it stays that way. "I was looking for a way to preserve the land from development," Peter told me on my recent swing through Maine in November, "and on the Internet I came upon this article about green burial and cemeteries."

The very idea of natural burial squared with what Peter calls his KIS philosophy of life: Keep It Simple. In fact, he'd already planned for his own basic burial on a small family plot he'd staked out next to the Joshua Small cemetery, as is allowed by state law. [Maine residents may legally establish family graveyards on no more than a quarter-acre of their private land as long as it's at least 413 feet from a public water source, no permit required.]

Peter saw that transforming a larger parcel of his holdings into a green cemetery would pay bigger dividends. It would not only accommodate other, non-family members who sought a greener way to go but, as the article suggested, also keep bulldozers from his land. A green cemetery would bring some changes to the landscape -- the appearance of engraved fieldstone among the pines -- but these changes were preferable to the alternatives. "If you have to have neighbors, the dead make awfully good ones," says Peter.

Peter investigated the legal requirements for non-family, private cemeteries this past summer and found few hurdles. No ordinances in the town of Limington address the issue. And, as Ellen Hills had found with Rainbow's End, the state of Maine's few requirements were easy to meet (see the Nov. 30 blog entry below). This past summer, Peter invested a couple of thousand dollars in a survey of the land and for some signage. In September, he sent his completed application for cemetery registration to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Within two weeks, his application for a private cemetery was approved.

Since opening Cedar Brook three months ago, Peter has had many inquires but no burials as of yet (although he wrote me just this week to say the first is imminent). As with other natural cemeteries, burials at Cedar Brook will occur in vaultless graves; coffins made from metal or treated wood are banned, embalmed remains are prohibited. Peter will supply a family with a smallish stone, collected on site, for use as a grave maker, at no charge.

Cost of burial is $800 per single site, $1,200 for two sites. The burial of a military veteran, of which Peter is one, runs $600.

In some natural cemeteries families are welcome to "open" – that is, dig out -- the grave themselves. When I asked Peter if he'd allow that at Cedar Brook, he chuckled. "You can’t put a toothpick into the ground there without hitting a rock," he says. "We'll dig them out with a backhoe." For that, Peter hires an independent contractor, who charges families an additional $500 ($700 in winter, when the ground is harder to work).

Mark Harris
author, Grave Matters (

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Natural Cemetery Preserves a Small Green in Maine

The fourteen acres of meadow and pine forest that hug the Penobscot River just south of Bangor, Maine, look as bucolic and unspoiled as they did when a school teacher named Charles Annable bought the land in 1921 and turned it into a natural retreat he called Rainbow's End.

Decades later, his daughter is making sure it stays that way -- by turning it into a natural cemetery.

"I was looking for a way to preserve my father's land after I died," a retired teacher in her mid 80's named Ellen Hills told me as we walked Rainbow's End on a bright autumn afternoon recently. The town she offered it to had no use for the additional property, a local nature conservancy told her they'd sell it. "And then I came across this article in AARP Magazine on Ramsey Creek Preserve and thought, 'That's just what I should do with Rainbow's End."

The first green cemetery in the United States, Ramsey Creek offers a simple, natural return to the elements on thirty-some acres of mostly pine forest in the South Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The AARP article touted the strategy's clear value to families -- its low cost, the opportunity for highly personal funerals, the ecological pluses of dust-to-dust interment, and the beauty of the final resting place itself.

But for Ellen, it was the potential benefit to landowners that appealed most. Ramsey Creek didn't just offer a green burial in a green locale; it provided a model for how to preserve good land like hers from the bulldozers. By transforming her property into a natural cemetery like Ramsey Creek, Ellen saw that she could forever put Rainbow's End off-limits to the developers who might someday turn it into a housing development or strip mall or water park. The strategy even provided a mechanism to fund the on-going preservation her land: the burial fees themselves.

As she explored the green cemetery concept, Ellen found no insurmountable legal roadblocks. The state of Maine, for one, allows for private cemeteries, as long as a site plan is submitted and the graveyard is located at a certain distance from nearby homes and drinking water supplies, among a few other requirements. Orrington, the town in which Ellen's property sits, also permits private cemeteries in rural zones such as Ellen's.

To get her cemetery off the ground, Ellen enlisted the help of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (FCA) of Maine, a pro-consumer group based in Auburn whose advocacy of simple, low-cost funerals squares with the ethics of green burial. After much discussion, the FCA became a major supporter of the project, assuming owner/operator status of Rainbow's End and agreeing to loan the cemetery up to $10,000.

Since that time, ownership of the land has passed to a non-profit corporation made up largely of Ellen and other landowners adjacent Rainbow's End. The corporation has drawn up a site plan, which deeds four acres of the property to the Hill family members (until their deaths) and establishes the remaining land as a cemetery. The group has also decided to funnel 25% to 30% of the cemetery income into an account for the perpetual upkeep of the property. The Orrington planning board reviewed the plans and granted its approval in August.

On the day of my visit to Rainbow's End in early November, its board of directors was discussing the cemetery fees (as I reported in last week’s blog) and considering arrangements for the opening and closing of graves, the use of a local carpenter to provide pine coffins, and the like.

The board secretary was in the process of submitting an application to the state for tax-exempt status. The board hopes that the application will gain approval sometime in early 2008 and that Rainbow's End will open for burials in the spring.

When it does, Maine families won’t have to travel out of state to find a final, green resting place.

Turns out Rainbow's End won't be their only choice. Two weeks before my visit with Ellen Hills, I learned that another landowner in the southern part of the state had recently opened the first natural cemetery not just in Maine but in all of New England.

We'll look at Cedar Brook next week.

Note on photos. The photo that heads this blog shows Ellen Hills at Rainbow's End. The one following pictures the site Ellen has roped off for her family's graves, including her own.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Natural Cemetery Grows in Maine

Add Maine to the small but growing list of states that can boast of green burial grounds within their borders.

Located just south of Bangor, Rainbow's End offers a natural return to the elements on fourteen acres of meadowland and pine forest that hug the lower run of the Penobscot River, not far from where it flows into the Bay and, from there, the Atlantic.

The meadow, which accounts for half the total cemetery acreage, greets you when you pull up to the site. On the day of my visit a couple of weeks ago, ankle-high grass covered the ground, though in the spring and summer months it's overrun with wildflowers native to this corner of Maine and a profusion of white and yellow daffodils.

Burial of whole bodies may take place here, as well as the burial and/or scattering of ashes. As with other natural cemeteries, the non-profit organization that runs Rainbow's End permits only unembalmed remains to be buried, in either cloth shrouds or coffins made from readily biodegradable materials. Metal caskets and burial vaults are banned. Flat stones may be used to mark the grave.

The board of directors, many of whom live on properties adjoining the cemetery, hope to open Rainbow's End in early 2008, after they've gained tax-exempt status from the state. At this point, they expect to charge $750 for burial/scattering rights, plus somewhere in the $300 to $400 range to open and close the grave.

A number of board members I walked the leaf-strewn meadow with told me they thought most families would want to be laid to rest here. But as we entered the forest that fills out the back half of the cemetery, I wasn’t so sure. Overspread with mostly towering white pines, intermingled with spruce and fir, some birch along the shoreline, the enveloping green of this simple woodland seemed a more visually compelling, somehow more welcoming site for a natural return.

Walking the path that cut through these woods, we arrived at the far end where the land falls away to the Penobscot. Standing on the promontory overlooking the river, I could imagine Maine families standing on this very spot and wanting, when their time came, to use what remained of the physical part of their life, to rejoin this ground and become part of the natural cycles that turn here.

The place at which I was standing, in fact, is where Ellen Hills told me she will be buried someday. Ellen's family has owned this land for more than eighty years, and it was her idea to transform it into a natural cemetery.

Next week: We’ll learn just why -- how -- Ellen did it.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Ramsey Creek Redux

The Ramsey Creek Preserve, as enthusiasts of natural burial know, is the first -- and until recently only -- green cemetery in the United States.

On a trip down to Georgia last week, I stopped off in tiny Westminster, South Carolina, to tour Ramsey Creek's leafy grounds for the first time since visiting some four summers ago and coming away with the germ of an idea that would become Grave Matters.

I found it looking even more beautiful and -- for that final rest -- more inviting than I'd remembered.

The somewhat utilitarian signpost at the entrance had been replaced with a rugged boulder bounded on two sides by rock pillars, the cemetery's name and founding date etched into the boulder's smooth face. And the weather-beaten chapel, which owners Billy and Kimberley Campbell had saved from demolition and installed at the head of the main cemetery trail, boasted fresh clapboard siding and a small porch.

What impressed me most, though, was the burial ground itself. Now the site of dozens of additional burials, the pine forest that is the Ramsey Creek cemetery had retained its natural character, remaining more nature preserve than graveyard. As before, I had trouble identifying most of the graves that skirt the trail running through the preserve. The minimal graves still blend so seamlessly into the landscape that they’re largely inconspicuous, and remain free of the usual dross of the modern cemetery -- the plastic flowers, pottery vases, crepe displays -- I'd frankly expected to find here.

Not surprisingly, I guess, my short walk brought me to Billy Campbell, who was digging a grave on a break from seeing patients at his family practice. He'd just started turfing off the top layer of dirt and depositing it onto a tarp beside the grave, the first step in an ecologically-sensitive excavation strategy Billy describes in the book.

Green burial has come a long way since Billy dug that first grave at Ramsey Creek in the fall of 1998 and, with it, launched a movement. What at the time struck many as a quirky idea whose appeal would be limited to granola crunchers, green burial is now reaching into the mainstream. A summer issue of People magazine devoted four pages to the Campbells' approach to burial, sandwiched between stories of Matthew McConaughey's bachelorhood and Paris Hilton's meltdown in rehab. A Canadian film crew was in the woods scouting out shots during my walk; a photographer from the Chicago Tribune would follow days later.

The media is here because it recognizes that green burial isn't just about the environment. As the Campbells have long argued, it also represents an embrace of old-fashioned American values of simplicity, thrift, and self-sufficiency that continue to have widespread currency. And far from being quirky or bizarre, natural burial is little more than a return to a once common practice in this country, a default burial that has served humanity for thousands of years.

As the green burial movement grows and matures, it can look to Ramsey Creek as a model of the best of what green burial has to offer: A thriving, natural green where the dead can return to and rejoin the elements as directly and simply as possible and, in the process, perpetuate the cycles of life that sustain all life. More than that, this pine forest in the wilds of South Carolina provides a compelling strategy for preserving land from development and returning it to ecological health.

Next week: A natural cemetery takes root Maine.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Green Burial: An Idea as Old as the Hills

What we call green burial -- that is, the burial of an unembalmed body that's placed in a basic, biodegradable casket which is then lowered into a vault-free grave, usually in a natural setting -- is seen in our CyberAge as a novel approach to handling the dead.

But, as several people I interview in Grave Matters point out, it's nothing new, bizarre or even remarkable. In the early years of this country, such natural return simply defined the standard American Way of Death. It was the norm, not the exception.

In more rural regions, the practice -- and the embrace of an organic philosophy of life that undergirds it -- endured well into the 20th century.

One of the more powerful, personal narratives about those earlier rural customs comes from the late Rufus Morgan, an Episcopal minister and renowned naturalist from the backwood mountains of North Carolina. In the early 1970s, when Rufus was in his 80s, he sat down with the student writers of the Foxfire books to tell them about the funerals and burials he witnessed as a young man. There's no indication of the exact years he refers to in this passage, though I'd imagine they extend into the 1930s or '40s:

"I really wish that the same burial customs prevailed now as then. . . . . [T]he neighbors would come in during a sickness, and then in death, and they would lay out the corpse and dress him – get him ready for burial. And a neighbor carpenter would make the coffin, and neighbors would dig the grave, and the coffin would be taken to the churchyard or cemetery in a farm wagon drawn by horses or mules. Then the remains would be buried by the minister; sort of a very simple -- and to my way of thinking, more reverent than the present -- practice."

"There wasn't any idea of a metal casket or a means of preserving the remains because, as the scripture says, 'Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.' And I'd much rather think of my body as just going back to the earth where it came from and fertilizing some tree or the grass or flowers, than just having a metal box with me inside preserved like a mummy."

As much as anything I’ve read or written myself, that last sentence of over thirty years ago could serve as a perfect manifesto for the green burial movement of today.

Rufus passed away in 1983, not quite reaching his 100th birthday. Thanks to the ongoing work of the Foxfire project, his views on old-time burials live on in Foxfire 2 (Anchor, 1973) .

As a kid, I was enthralled by the Foxfire project, an effort by a Georgia English teacher and his students to interview old-timers living in the nearby Appalachian Mountains and document their history and passing traditions. (Click here to learn more about its continuing work.)

In fact, I’d read this entry when the book first appeared in the early 1970s. I’d forgotten about it until Lisa Carlson, author of Caring for the Dead (Upper Access, 1997), mentioned it in a recent listserv posting. Thanks to her for the lead.

To learn more about Rufus Morgan, click here.

The photo of Rufus Morgan that heads this blog was taken by John F. Schlatter in 1969. Thanks to John for his permission to reproduce it here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Green Burial in Pictures

I spilled close to 100,000 words describing various green burials in Grave Matters. Few of them, though, come close to showing off the idea as well as the photos I collected in the course of my research.

Point in fact is the image above. It pictures the woodland grave that awaits the remains of Chris Nichols, the 28-year-old stonemason from South Carolina who, as I recount in the book, passes away after a brief struggle with colon cancer. Chris had asked his family to bury him at Ramsey Creek Preserve, the first natural cemetery in the United States, which lay some half hour from his home.

This single, powerful photograph shows viewers just why Chris asked for such natural return to the elements. No words needed.

A couple of weeks ago, Ilker Yoldas invited me to write a guest post on green burial for her intriguing site, The Thinking Blog.

You’ll find that final post here. As you can see, the images that drive the text really are worth 1,000 – or 100,000 – words.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Green Burial Happened by Default in Historic Cemeteries

Some half dozen natural cemeteries lie scattered across the new green deathscape. But that doesn’t mean you have to travel to these few leafy locales to find good green burial grounds.

Practically any historic cemetery, whose final interments took place in the last decades of the 19th century, will do.

Pine Ridge Cemetery in Hancock, New Hampshire, is a prime example. Nestled behind a low rock wall that skirts the two-lane road that bisects this colonial town, Pine Ridge is the final resting place of local residents from the late 17th to late 18th centuries. Carried off at mostly young ages, some of them children who fell prey to the dysentery epidemic that swept through the area in the early years of the 1800s, the deceased were given natural burials by default.

Embalming, which early Americans considered a desecration of one's scared remains, wasn't practiced until after the Civil War. And burial vaults, which were first used in the mid- to late-1800s to deter grave robbers who supplied early medical school with cadavers for anatomical study, didn't become a standard feature -- and later requirement of cemetery owners -- of cemetery burial until the end of the same century. Metal coffins, which now account for some three-quarters of all coffins sold in this country, were rare.

As a consequence, historic cemeteries like Pine Ridge present real, compelling pictures of green burial. (True, the headstones are less biodegradable than the fieldstones typically erected in the best of our modern, natural cemeteries. Those at Pine Ridge are hewn from granite, and, as these photos from my summer visit to the cemetery indicate, still stand strong.)

As is not the case in more modern cemeteries, the deceased here sleep in green repose. Washed, dressed, laid into simple pine coffins and lowered into vaultless graves, their remains quickly degraded and soon thereafter rejoined the elements. And, in doing so, perpetuated the cycles of nature that supported -- and continue to support -- the living.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Death of Abraham Lincoln -- and of the Traditional American Funeral

On a raw, wet afternoon back in early April, I marched with a crowd of other umbrella-shielded mourners behind a horse-drawn hearse that carried the casket of Abraham Lincoln down the main drag of Allentown, Pennsylvania, to the solemn beat of a lone drummer.

The casket was a mere (though exact) replica of the cloth-covered walnut case Abe was long buried in, the hearse clearly a prop. But with a troop of re-enactors outfitted in Civil War uniforms and the street fronted with antebellum manses, our modern funeral train caught the spirit of the very real processions that marched through some dozen Northern cities like this one almost exactly 142 years ago to the day, the date of Lincoln's assassination.

Our re-enactment noted the end of one great man's life (and of his era). Unbeknownst to most of my fellow mourners that afternoon, it also marked the anniversary of another kind of death altogether: that of the traditional American funeral.

Up to the time of Lincoln's funeral, deathcare was a primarily family affair. Women of the house typically washed and dressed the body of their deceased, laid it out in the front parlor, often in a wood coffin built by the local carpenter. Mourners came and went. Burial took place on the back forty or community cemetery, and the body was lowered into a simple, vaultless grave a family member may have dug himself.

Chemical embalming, as I explain more fully in Grave Matters, was considered an abuse of the body and thus limited to cadavers used for anatomical study. Resistance to the practice softened during the Civil War, however, because embalming helped preserve the remains of slain Union soldiers for the long rail ride North to their home parlors and family cemeteries.

The connection to Abraham Lincoln? Like many of those Northerners who died under his command, the body of Lincoln was embalmed following his assassination -- the first president to be so -- and loaded onto a funeral train for its long journey to the Springfield cemetery. The train followed a northerly route, taking nearly two weeks and stopping at select cities along the way.

At each one, Lincoln's casket was transported to a central location (via marches like the one in Allentown) and opened to public view. More than a million Americans in total would file past the body of the 16th president. Preserved to enough of a life-like appearance that mourners would reach out and touch it, Lincoln's body put a good face on embalming and, in the process, gave life to a new funerary practice.

Embalming became a mainstay of the American funeral, and, since only an embalmer/undertaker/and eventual funeral director could do it, a true funeral "industry" was born.

Note on the photograph of Lincoln's coffin. The Batesville Casket Company produced the original coffin for Lincoln's funeral the day following his assassination. The image above shows an exact replica, also created by Batesville. In addition to the cloth cover and walnut case, the coffin is lined with satin and silk and adorned with silver handles. In the upper left corner of the image here, at the brim of the soldier's hat, you can see a print of the only existing photograph of the real Lincoln lying in his coffin.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Good Green Burial Media

I’m back to the blog after a spate of deadline reporting and travel, the latter of which will inspire a number of upcoming entries in this space (next week: a re-enactment of Abraham Lincoln's funeral and how Abe's passing 142 years ago connects to the natural burial movement of the Cyberage). In the meantime, I thought I'd share some of the better, recent press about natural burial.

The first is an interview with Terry Gross, on her NPR show, Fresh Air. In brief periods when construction workers next to the studio had laid down their jackhammers, Terry gamely led a wide-ranging discussion on the costs of modern memorialization and the merits -- and challenges -- of green burial. To listen, click here and follow the link.

I'd not heard of the California Literary Review until the editor e-mailed me with his request for an interview. Turns out CLR is a lively, compelling on-line arts journal, and in keeping with the publication, Paul Comstock's questions were direct and intriguing, making for one of the better, brief overviews of what the green burial movement is all about. Click here to read it.

Back next time with Abe and more about the re-enactment of his funeral, as seen in this picture above.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Connecting with Natural Burialists Near You

I'm still gathering information from local hospitals about a family's right to reclaim their deceased and bring them home (or to the crematory). Apparently, so few -- if any -- families make this request that none of the administrators I spoke to had any idea how their doctors were supposed to respond to it. As far as they know, no hospital policy on the issue exists. The administrators promise to look into the matter further and get back.

In the meantime, I'll turn to addressing the question I'm asked most often: is anyone else in my area interested in starting a natural cemetery? The question comes up frequently enough that I've created a database of names/contacts and have started putting people from the same general region in touch with each other.

I'm happy to add your name to the list. When someone from your region writes in, I'll forward on your name and whatever contact information you care to share.

Here's the list to date, by state/region:

California (Humboldt County, Los Padres National Forest)

Colorado (Denver area)


Georgia (Central part of the state, Savannah)

Indiana (Bloomington)

Kentucky (Lexington)

Maine (Orrington, Solon)

Ohio (Cleveland)

Pennsylvania (Bucks County, Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia)

Virginia (Roanoke)

Add to this list the score of groups that already exist in the following states: Texas (Austin), greater Midwest (group based in Wisconsin), New York (Tarrytown), as well as Canada (Ontario and British Columbia), among others.

I'm in the process of putting together a short primer on how to go about getting a natural cemetery off -- or on -- the ground. I'll post that at a later date.

Note on the photograph: This is the entrance to the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, outside Ithaca, New York.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Planning for Your Own Natural Return

When I set out to write Grave Matters, I imagined a future reader handing the finished book to her family and saying, "When I die, do chapter [fill in the blank]."

I consequently laid out the book in what I hope is a fairly straightforward arrangement. Each chapter presents a picture of a greener, more natural alternative to the standard funeral home send-off, as experienced by a real family in a real place. An appendix offers a brief how-to, with enough information to help readers pursue the given alt.burial strategy when the time comes.

Still, I'm under no illusion that arranging your own future green burial is as simple as handing over the book to a loved one, with a bookmark stuck in the relevant chapter. Funerary laws vary from state to state, region to region. The backyard burial that's possible in the county I examine in the book may be illegal in yours. When an expected death occurs at home, your municipality may demand more than the hospice nurse's declaration to that effect when issuing a permit that allows you to transport the body to the crematory or cemetery.

Your family, who will be in charge of overseeing your final arrangements, will need concrete, site-specific information that's beyond the reach of the book. They'll need to know, for example, the best, local crematory to use and just where to turn to buy a cardboard coffin. Whom, exactly, should they contact to arrange the scattering of your ashes at sea? If you die in the hospital, what paperwork do they need in order to transport your body back to the house for the home funeral?

And, by the way, where's the will that states your preference for your green burial of choice? Some hospitals, after all, will only release your body to family members if you've indicated that in a living will or other pertinent document. Otherwise, the funeral director gets involved.

Your family can probably come up with the answers to those and the host of others that arise with death comes calling. But you can save them no small effort and even greater anxiety -- and guarantee that the green burial you want comes about as you envision it -- if you plan for it yourself.

What does that mean exactly?

In the coming weeks we'll look into question. I'll use this space to craft a plan a family could use to conduct a natural burial in this corner of the planet. The information I glean, which I'll post, will be specific to this locale, of course. But the questions I ask -- if not the specific answers -- are the very ones you'll have to consider for yourself and your family. At the very least, I hope the exercise I conduct here inspires you to undertake a similar one in the place you call home.

Next week: Checking in with the local hospital.

And speaking of hospitals: In the course of searching for funeral images of Abraham Lincoln, who was embalmed and subsequently viewed by some million mourners, I came across this Civil War-era photo of the Douglas Hospital in Washington, D.C. Source: Library of Congress.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Yanking Teeth Before the Final Burn?

After learning that the major air pollutant billowing from crematory smokestacks consists of mercury that taints the dental amalgams/fillings of the deceased, a number of readers have written to ask the logical question: Why not yank riddled teeth from the dead before loading them into the hearth?

Pulling those teeth would, of course, prove an immediate boon to the environment, preventing their cache of mercury from eventually contaminating soil and surface waters. It could also be done cheaply and easily, by, say, a dentist or cremator. The latter, after all, sometimes doubles as a funeral director who, as a matter of course, may himself remove pacemakers from the deceased's chest prior to cremation.

The strategy would, at the very least, cost significantly less than outfitting cremation units with mercury-scrubbing filtering equipment, an option that can run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Targeting teeth is a sensible enough idea, in fact, that legislators, environmentalists and the cremation industry itself have all considered it. A government agency in Sweden, a country with a 70% cremation rate, proposed the practice back in 2004. On this side of the Atlantic, the state legislature of Maine recently debated a bill that would require crematory operators to remove their deceased's mercury fillings (or install mercury filters).

Like many logical proposals, however, this one held little appeal to human sensibilities. That Maine bill, for example, promptly died because funeral directors said they didn't want to engage in pulling teeth from cadavers, in part because they found the act both "repulsive" for themselves and potentially stressful to grieving family members. Cremators, on the other hand, contended that laws prohibit them from "tampering" with bodies in their care.

All legitimate reasons, certainly, though ones that do nothing to actually solve the very real threat mercury deposition from crematoria poses to the environment -- and, ultimately, to the health of the living.

Which leaves us with mercury filters, a technology, as I wrote earlier, I believe will come to crematory smokestacks. In the meantime, each of us can take a few steps now to ensure a green send-off later. One idea comes from those Maine legislators: include a provision in your will that allows your mercury-laden teeth to be removed prior to cremation. Another is even more obvious: the next time you have a cavity, ask your dentist to pack it with a composite -- mercury free -- filling.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Natural Return by the Numbers

Percentage of Americans who were cremated in 1964: 4
In 1984: 13
In 2004: 31
Number of years from now when more Americans will be cremated than buried, for the first time in our history: 18

Percentage of Americans cremated in body bags/wrappings: 2.5
Percentage cremated in cloth-covered caskets: 5
Percentage cremated in wood caskets: 9
Percentage cremated in cardboard/pressboard containers: 82

Of twenty-four countries surveyed, rank of Japan for highest percentage of population cremated: 1
Rank of Ghana: 24
Rank of U.S. 11
Of U.S. states, rank of Hawaii for highest percentage of population cremated: 1
Rank of Mississippi: 50

Average cost of funeral in U.S.: $6,500
Typical cost of funeral plus burial: $10,000
Average cost of cremation, including casket/container: $1,800
Cost of burial at the natural cemetery of Ramsey Creek Preserve, including cardboard container: $1,950

Percentage of caskets sold in U.S. that are metal: 68
Percentage made of hardwood: 18
Percentage made from pressed wood, softwood, or cardboard: 12.5

Average cost of casket: $2,200
Cost of plain pine casket, made by woodworker Loren Schieuer: $800
Board feet of lumber used to produce standard wood casket: 140
Board feet of lumber Loren Schieuer uses: 50

The bamboo "Eco" coffin pictured above is manufactured by the SAWD Partnership, a British company headquartered in Kent which the London-based Natural Death Centre recently named best coffin manufactuer in the U.K. The bamboo is handcrafted in the company's workshop in China's Hunan Province. It is sold in the U.K. and not distributed in North America.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Coming to a Crematory Near You: Mercury Filters

Mom was right: we should have done a better job brushing our teeth. For us Baby Boomers at least, better brushing would have meant fewer silver fillings. And for us Baby Boomers who plan on heading to the hearth when the time comes, that would have meant that much less mercury polluting the environment.

Mercury is a prime ingredient of those dental/silver amalgams. When a body with silver fillings is cremated, its cache of mercury doesn't disappear in that final blaze. The hearth's searing 1,600 degree temps transform it into still-potent vapor, which then escapes up the smokestack and rides the prevailing winds. At some point, the mercury falls to earth, on ground and/or water, where it's consumed by wildlife, including fish. When we, in turn, eat that tainted fish, we ingest a bit of its mercury makeup.

Mercury, as scientists and consumer health advocates continue to document, is highly hazardous to human health. Exposure to the metal has been linked to a host of ills, from infertility to developmental delays and brain damage, particularly in the young.

It's hard to say just how much cremation contributes to mercury pollution. The EPA, which conducted tests with the cremation industry in the late 1990s, contends that U.S. crematories collectively emit a mere 230 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere every year. The non-profit advocacy coalition New England Zero Mercury Campaign, however, argues that the release is significantly higher, accounting for some 2.5 tons.

Either way, the amount of mercury pollution from crematoria pales next to the 100 tons emitted every year by our coal burning power plants. That said, less mercury fouling the environment is clearly better than more, particularly given the raft of recent reports showing the greater extent of mercury pollution than previously believed and the minute amounts needed to actually harm human health.

The government of Great Britain, 70% of whose population is cremated, is concerned enough about the issue that it recently required the country's cremation operators to outfit their units with filtering equipment sufficient to cut mercury emissions in half by the year 2012.

No such rules appear on the horizon here. Still, word about the mercury issue will gain traction and select cremators will, I believe -- in part, per a phone call with a U.S. cremator just this week -- begin voluntarily installing filters in order to appeal to consumers looking to "green up" their final exits via the hearth.

The Green Burial Council will make it easy to find them. The non-profit organization is looking to certify and then list on its site those crematories across the country that boast mercury filters.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Benefits of Caring for Your Own at Death

It's hard to image being able to muster the will or energy to conduct a home funeral for someone you love when death comes calling.

Beth Knox had the same thought. Readers of Grave Matters know Beth as the "deathcare midwife" and director of Crossings who in chapter six describes the home funeral she conducted for her seven-year-old daughter, Alison. Recounting how she learned of Alison's death from a low-speed auto accident, Beth admitted to participants in one of her recent deathcare workshops that she'd have expected to want someone "to give me a tranquilizer and wake me up in five years."

In fact, just the opposite happened. "When it happened, the last thing I wanted was anything clouding my consciousness," Beth said. "I wanted to be nowhere else than at my daughter's side and to care for her myself as I had always done" when she was alive. Over the course of three days, a period she calls both "terrible and beautiful," that's just what she did.

Beth's workshops make the idea of the home funeral easier to contemplate, and then actually pull off. For a full afternoon, Beth gives participates the nuts and bolts of post-deathcare -- how to wash and dress a body, buffet the remains with dry ice to enable a home wake.

Sure, the work isn't easy, the engagement with the deceased intense. Still, for Beth and others I interviewed, the challenges proved well worth the effort. "There are rewards from having a home funeral," Beth told me. "There's a comfort and healing that comes from physically caring for the dead and from spending quiet, private time in the presence of death."

I thought of Beth's comment this week when I read a new Johns Hopkins health policy study on the benefits that accrue to family and friends who care for loved ones in the final stages of life ("End of Life Care," Jennifer Wolff, Archives of Internal Medicine, Jan. 8, 2007). While reporting that the endeavor caused emotional, physical and sometimes financial strain, a full 2/3rds of the caregivers said they nonetheless reaped significant rewards as well. Nearly 70 percent, for example, said that the experience "ma[de] me feel good about myself" and "enable[d] me to appreciate life more." More than 3/4ths said their role made them feel useful and needed.

No one, to my knowledge, has as neatly quantified the benefits to the living that come from conducting a home funeral for their dead. Yet the rewards must be similar to -- and a continuation of -- the very ones that begin with caring for loved ones in their final days.

Note: The photograph above was taken at one of Beth's home deathcare workshops. For information on upcoming workshops, contact Crossings ( E-mail:

Friday, January 12, 2007

Ed McKenna: 1918 - 2006

A number of readers have told me they were moved by the story of Ed McKenna. Ed -- or "Eddie" as his family and friends know him -- is the eighty-seven-year-old retired meatpacker from rural Salix, Iowa, who buys a plain, pine coffin from woodworker Loren Schieuer in chapter seven of Grave Matters. Ed buys Loren's no-frills coffin for his eventual funeral, but, as he told me in couple of phone conversations and later during my visit to his farm, ends up having to use it to bury his wife, Evelyn.

Eddie liked the idea of the basic wood casket, which squared with the philosophy of simplicity by which he led his life. So, a couple of months after Evelyn's death, he returns to Schieuer Woodworks ( to buy another plain, pine box, for just himself this time.

Three weeks ago today, on December 29, Eddie McKenna put that coffin to its final use. Surrounded by his family, he died of lung cancer and, per arrangements he'd settled long ago, was buried in Loren's second wood casket next to Evelyn, that very same day.

The family-only funeral Mass that was held for Eddie just hours after his death and his subsequent burial in the church cemetery is a fitting tribute to this hardworking, thoughtful Irishman. In the late Depression, he farmed his hundred-plus acres and took a part-time job at the Swift meatpacking plant in Sioux City to support a family that would eventually include 10 children. For a time, Eddie farmed by day and by night worked the late shift at Swift, earning, he told me, 70 cents an hour, $28 a week. "We didn't have a whole lot coming up," he said simply, "but we never went hungry, either. And our kids all turned out well."

In part, it was the hardscabble farm existence and no-nonsense mindset of the post-Depression era that informed Eddie's view of life -- and just how to depart to the afterlife. "In those days you took life as it was. You stood on your own two feet and did the best you could," he said. Death, as unwelcome as it is, was "a part of life, another step down the road, and you just accepted it and moved on." For Eddie, his grandmother's death, home funeral, and simple burial in a wooden coffin, all of which he witnessed as a kid in 1925, was representative of that ideal and would influence the plans he'd eventually settle on for his own passing.

In our conversations, Eddie talked of how he was moved to see his family rally around Evelyn in her long decline. His girls, he told me, were particularly helpful. "They took real good care of their mother for that whole length of time," he said, "and I wouldn't trade that for all the money you could have piled up in this house." Not two years later, the McKennas, with the same love they showed Evelyn, would do the same for their father.

To the McKennas, I offer my condolences on your loss. To Eddie: I thank you for the gift of your story. May you rest in peace.

Friday, January 05, 2007

USA: Cremation Nation by 2025

In media coverage of green burial, it's whole body interment in the woodland cemetery that garners attention. Yet it's another, lesser form of natural return that's gaining the converts: cremation.

A look at the figures shows cremation's steadily rising arc. From 1876, the date of the first modern cremation in this country, the cremation rate ticks inexorably upward, accounting for less than 1% of all dispositions in the early part of the last century to more than ten percent in the 1980s. By the end of the '90's "Decade of the Environment," a quarter of all our dead are heading to the hearth; today it's nearly a third. Within the next two decades -- by the year 2025 -- the number of cremations will overtake burials for the first time in our history.

How popular will cremation become in a country where the modern funeral -- with its chemical embalming of remains which are then coffined, packed into a vault and buried beneath a ton of earth -- has defined the American way of death for the better part of the last century?

If historical precedent elsewhere is any indication, some 70% of all Americans will eventually opt for cremation's purifying fires. And not look back. "In almost every country where cremation surpasses burials and continues, the cremation rate gets to anywhere from 60 to around 70 percent and then holds," according to Jack Springer, director of the Cremation Association of North America (, per Great Britain (70%), Sweden (69%), and Denmark (71%). The same trend, Springer contends, will happen here.

No historical event or great awakening accounts for our turn to the flames. A recent survey points to the same impulses that are driving the popularity of green burial in general: low cost, simplicity, and environmental benefit (i.e., preserving land).

The funeral industry has fought our growing preference for cremation, which represents lost sales on the very goods and services that boost its bottom line -- embalming, metal coffin, the burial vault. Though it's starting to come around, however reluctantly. Witness the line of handsome urns being cranked out by coffin manufacturers, the addition of cremation services on the funeral director's General Price List. Even cemeteries are catering to the coming Cremation Nation. A recent newsletter from one memorial park heralded the opening a "nature trail" on its grounds, where cremated remains can be buried beneath a tree, along the trail or beside a pond.

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Facebook page for the book on green burial, Grave Matters, with updates on the growing movement.