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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.