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Friday, January 25, 2008

Six Feet Under: Taking Green Burial to the Mainstream

Like many expirations, the end of the HBO series Six Feet Under came all too soon and, to its huge base of mordant fans -- including this one -- with profound sadness.*

But not before taking one big, parting swing at the American Way of Death. In a near-to-last episode of the final season, director Alan Ball and his cast introduced the then-new concept of green burial to the great mainstream and, in the process, showed it to be a more personal, moving and natural alternative to the standard, funeral home affair.

I've long believed that Ball's fetching view of green burial, which aired on August 21, 2005, did more to sell the idea to the greater public than any newspaper story, newscast or magazine piece at the time. In large part, that's because of Ball's compelling script and of the character of Nate Fisher himself, the show's dazed, confused, but ultimately decent free-thinker who's laid to rest six feet under -- in the most natural of ways -- in the clip above, from episode 61.

* Fair warning: If you haven't watched Six Feet Under and plan to (as you should) read no further and skip the clip. Both give away the ending.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Ecopod: That's One Stylin' Coffin

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 (

Friday, January 11, 2008

Green Burial Goes Cartoon

In the 1960s, brainy Brit and muckraker Jessica Mitford dubbed the U.S. a "society where the funeral industry got completely out of control." GOOD Magazine delivers the modern update, in this stomping, cartoon tour of the American Way of Death. Includes a side trip into the green -- and sometimes bizarre (ashes into pencil lead?) -- alternatives that are springing up to challenge it.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, January 04, 2008

Green Burial: Proof It's on the Move

Hardly a day passes without a story on green burial making headlines. Yesterday, CNN aired a segment; Monday, a lengthy article with photographs from a recent natural burial at Ramsey Creek ran in the newspaper that serves Pueblo, Colorado.

Growing coverage of the natural burial movement suggests what I've found in my own research and travels: that green burial has mainstream appeal and will, I believe, change funeral practices in our time. In part that's because natural burial isn't just about the environment, but, as I've argued in this blog and in the book, speaks to long-held American values -- of thrift, simplicity, a respect for tradition -- that continue to have widespread currency.

That has been my gut sense from the beginning. Now, a new AARP survey gives it some validity.

Conducted last May and published in November, AARP's "Funeral and Burial Planners Survey," found that nearly a quarter of all respondents said they were "interested" or "very interested" in an eco-friendly alternative to the standard, funeral home sendoff.

The percentage is remarkable given the movement's short, ten-year history in this country and the fact that it represents the most significant change to U.S. burial practices since the Civil War.

The vast majority -- 86% -- of the AARP respondents said they'd never heard of green burial. So, most who noted that the idea intrigued them had to rely on the definition their questioners offered: "green burial tries to leave the burial site as natural as possible -- such as using a biodegradable coffin or blanket. No embalming fluids or concrete vaults are used."

The definition is accurate as far as it goes, but it hardly does justice to natural return. There's no mention of the natural state of the burial ground itself (i.e., that it typically takes root in a woodland, meadow or nature preserve). The uninformed respondent probably doesn't see the hand-painted, personalized cardboard coffin or handsome pine casket in the survey's bland mention of the green burial's "biodegradable coffin." Some of them, perhaps many, probably don't believe that it's legal -- or even preferable -- to present a body for viewing without embalming it first.

A more encompassing definition of green burial would, I believe, have produced a much higher percentage of respondents in favor of natural burial. In fact, I'm sure that would happen now if AARP were to conduct that very same survey today, which would take in all the media stories on green burial – in USA Today, Chicago Tribune, CNN – that have appeared since AARP dialed out last May.

Note on the photo above. This was taken at Glendale Nature Preserve, a natural cemetery that sits on a 70-acre expanse of creeks, ponds and woods on the Florida Panhandle.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

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Grave Matters

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