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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 (


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the update on the Ecopod Mark, Hopefully the price will come down significantly so it will be within reach of more people in the USA.

YourFuneralGuy, a prosumer.

Farewell Assistant said...

I've seen the ecopod, and other coffins at the Natural Burial Company. It is very beautiful. When you walk into the gallery filled with artistic and hand-made coffins, urns and shrouds you realize how limited the conventional funeral industry coffin selection is. I'm leaning towards the willow coffin for myself.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Janie. I agree with you about the importance of the art.

Regarding the price of the Ecopod:

It's not likely to come down unless it's built with slave labor. The Ecopod is a handmade paper sculpture and more akin to art. Expecting the price to be lowered is like asking a carpenter or a stone carver or a ceramicist to charge less for their time and skill. No piece of the price is fluff - everyone who gets a part of the price plays a role in getting the Ecopod to its final user.

A healthy society pays all its parts to do necessary bits of work. An unhealthy society requires some to make sacrifices out of proportion to others' - someone who makes 100K a year can certainly afford an Ecopod. Someone who doesn't can certainly find something else.

Does everything "green" have to be cheap to be worthy? What happened to our ability to applaud people for putting art and craft out there, and change minds with it, and why do we always end up asking artists and craftspeople to work for free? (I feel a little defensive for the Ecopod folks, and the other hand-coffin makers out there, always being asked to work for free...excuse the charge in my words!)

Sure, we can 'mass produce' something with a machine, but what happens to the cost of making that machine, and the environmental pricetag assigned to THAT? Who's tallying the price of pulling "handmade" out of the picture because of the fantasy that a machine can build it better, or cheaper? Who pays for the cost of the machine? Who pays for the cost of the people's jobs lost to the machines? Who pays for the loss of small businesses as they can't keep up with buying bigger and bigger machines just so that the thing at the end is priced so that "anyone" can afford it?

The mold alone to make something like the Ecopod costs 100K. The machine (that doesn't exist anywhere yet) is probably a 1-2 million dollar piece of equipment. It takes a huge corporate infrastructure to invest in that, yet apparently if it spits out a few-hundred dollar item, that's somehow considered "progress".

I'm very appreciative of folks' being interested in natural burial and other natural ways of doing things, but I'm also very aware that there remains an ignorance about what it actually COSTS to make things CHEAP.

The bottom line: human energy from human hands is the "cheapest" way we'll ever get almost anything. If you have a happy human, being creative, eating good food and turning that into Ecopods (or woven willow picnic baskets for trees, or shrouds, or ...) isn't that a much better "carbon footprint" than something made "cheaply" by a machine?

For people who can't afford the current cost to get it here and handle it (much less than what people pay for a Prius, for example) there are plenty of affordable coffins - the EveryBody Coffin comes to mind. There's cardboard. There's a shroud. There's your friend the boxmaker. .

And what happened to the element of sacrifice, or the willingness to celebrate craft with your money, or even the exaltation of the impermanence of things, like the Tibetans do with their glorious sandpaintings that are blown away in an instant??? Burying great art in the ground or burning it on a pyre actually has a spiritual purpose, something materialists have difficulty grokking, but it's appropriate to draw a line with materialism somewhere (a focus on cheapness is definitely materialist) and recognize that when we face our ends we finally have an opportunity to stare materialism squarely in the face, and even thumb our noses at it a bit...goodness, we're so clever we can even figure out how to turn ourselves into TREES!!! (how many other animals can get their friends to dig a hole and plant something to grow on top of them?)

Finally, I'd like to see us get off our addiction the superficial measure of "cheap." Being cheap is not always the right goal. A low price in dollars is NEVER the best way to measure true cost - in 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, and its makers are betting you won't account for them, either (and in the process forego the handmade item because it's "too expensive" choosing that cheap machine made thing instead)

Closing the cycle and understanding the importance of paying the FULL COST, up front, before our children's children have to do it, is.

And yet, none of us can do it perfectly, and none of us can do it alone. Every single innovation we experience in society is an act in a chain of acts. We can only approach improvement incrementally, and be thankful if we find enough people to help us along the way. Changing the funeral industry is hard enough - it takes artists and visionaries to do it. Making them do the profound for bargain-basement prices while the rest of one's life-dollars are spent on trivia is an accident we'd do well to avoid.

In the meantime, the Ecopod may not be what the average person can afford but, at $3,500.00 or so, with very limited production, it only takes a relative handful to keep the workshop in production, and that's all we're aiming to do right now - feed the Ecopod people so they can turn us into food for trees.

ha ha - you can think of a coffin artist as an edible package maker (with some packages prettier than others) and YOU are the morsel that will someday be residing within!

(( Oh my. That was a rant...surprise...nothing personal, Prosumer - you just hit my "on" button!))

Thanks for your blog, Mark.


who sells (and will hopefully someday make) Ecopods

Mark Harris said...

Hi Janie and Cynthia. Well, these are great comments and worthy of a larger discussion. I'll take them up in an upcoming blog. Thanks for offering your perspectives -- Mark

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