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Friday, February 29, 2008

Keeping it Local Even in Death

If you want to see a model of how we can survive -- and even thrive -- in an increasingly warming world, book a table at the White Dog Café.

Sprawling across three brownstones that front a narrow side street just west of center city Philadelphia, the White Dog serves up a hearty New American cuisine that has won over food critics and attracted a large and loyal clientel. But good eats alone aren't what bring patrons back for more. It's the White Dog's commitment to the region it calls home.

Every dish is quite literally a taste of southeast Pennsylvania.

The Big Juicy Burgers on the lunch menu come from grass-fed cows that graze on a small, family farm some 40 miles away. An Amish-area farm supplies the eggs (from free-range chicken) that fill out the Three Egg Omelette. The cheese in the beet salad starter comes compliments of goats gamboling in meadows just beyond the city limits; beers -- Stoudts, Sly Fox, Victory -- are native brewed.

The White Dog's regional outreach nourishes a local economy that's a win-win for all involved. The short distance from farm to plate is good for the environment, limiting the commute of gas-guzzling and carbon-spewing delivery transports. Area farmers gain reliable markets for their goods. The greater Philadelphia region benefits from financial transactions that recycle funds within their communities. The Café itself is able to offer fresh and usually organic fare that’s good for patrons, suppliers and its own bottom line.

The arrangement works for southeast Pennsylvania, and it can do so elsewhere. (To learn how other communities are doing just that and to see how you can join the effort, click on this link to the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies). Local is the new organic, and, the way I see it, we'll have to start living much closer to home to have any chance of prospering in a rapidly changing environment.

So, what's the connection to green burial?

As the green burial movement gains traction, we'll see the rise of a market in "natural" funerary products, from coffins that biodegrade harmlessly and quickly in the environs of the grave to cloth shrouds with lowering straps stitched into the fabric. Most will prove better for the planet than the hermetically-sealed steel caskets that for now are still standard feature of modern burial. Others will turn out to be more green-washed than true green.

How to tell the difference?

First, figure out what's necessary. Edward Abbey's simple, desert burial (the subject of last week's post) reminds us that less is almost always better for the Earth. Mother Nature does green burial best when nothing stands in her way. Like compost, the body's decay happens. Our job, as Abbey said, is to just "get the hell out of the way" of the natural process.

When you decide to use coffins or shrouds or urns or other funeral/burial goods, try -- as the White Dog does -- to purchase those produced closest to home. In Grave Matters, I profile an octogenarian living in Iowa who buys a plain, pine box from a nearby carpenter. The arrangement worked to the benefit of buyer, seller, the economy of eastern Iowa and the planet.

The arrangement could have worked to even better advantage, certainly. The coffin's white pine, for example, was timbered in northern Minnesota, a good day's transport from its point of sale; the forest where the pine was felled, I believe, is not sustainably harvested. So, while sold locally, the coffin is in some deeper way not a completely home-grown or green product. (An issue, by the way, that some casket makers are addressing, a topic of a future post).

Perfection is a worthy goal. That doesn't mean we should necessarily shun natural funeral products that fall short of such high green standards (particularly, again, since the small "e"co good is likely world's better than the standard, mass-produced alternative). It does mean, however, that we should set high standards and encourage producers -- and ourselves -- to reach for them.

Keeping it local in death is a good place to start.

The photo above pictures the entrance of the White Dog Café. You’ll find more information on the White Dog’s commitment to local economies in this story I wrote many years ago for Hope magazine.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, February 22, 2008

Edward Abbey: Green Burial’s First Modern Practitioner

The opening of Ramsey Creek Preserve in the fall of 1998 may mark the genesis of the modern green burial movement in this country. But I prefer to start it a decade earlier, when friends of environmentalist and author Ed Abbey trucked his remains into the Arizona desert and then buried them, wrapped in nothing but a sleeping bag, under a pile of rocks.

The date was March 12, 1989.

As befitting a hard-bitten naturalist, Abbey's burial was a simple dust-to-dust (and illegal) affair -- no embalming, no coffin, not even a signed death certificate. An epitaph carved into nearby stone reflected, in brief, the contrarious character of the deceased: Edward Paul Abbey. 1927 - 1989. No Comment.

The term "green burial" wasn’t part of the lingua franca of alternative funerals at the time (at least not in this country). But that's just what Abbey's was -- and that's just the way he wanted it. Throughout his adult life, Abbey often mused about his future natural return. At one point, he told his friends that his remains should "help fertilize the growth of a cactus, or cliffrose, or sagebrush, or tree." Following the burial, just "pile a lot of rocks on top of me to keep the coyotes off," he directed them, "and for an epitaph write: No Comment."

Abbey saw no reason to circumvent Mother Nature in her final act. On the contrary, he believed there was every reason in the world to allow her to take over. As he told his friend and fellow journalist Ed Loeffler, who would eventually write the fine biography of Abbey whose jacket heads this blog:

"[After] the moment of death . . . we should get the hell out of the way, with our bodies decently planted in the earth to nourish other forms of life -- weeds, flowers, shrubs, trees, which support other forms of life, which support the ongoing human pageant -- the lives of our children."

I've been thinking about Abbey's remark -- and his singular green burial -- as we've debated the merits of the new eco-coffins that are appearing in this country.

The caskets are just the first of a slew of "natural" funerary products we can expect to see as the green burial movement grows and, eventually, changes the American Way of Death. Their arrival is mostly cause for celebration, because it offers planet-friendly alternatives to the industrial, non-biodegradable goods that have filled the showrooms of Any Funeral Home USA for better part of the last century. The best of them, like the Ecopod, have the potential not just to green up burial practices but to create and support the kind of local economy that's our strongest path to a more sustainable way of life (and, perhaps, our very survival in a warming world).

Why only "mostly" cause for celebration? Well, because of Abbey. His comments to Loeffler and his natural return to the desert solitaire years later remind us that the greenest of all burials is the most minimal. Literally in the end, green burial is not about products – be they coffins made from recycled paper or wood or bamboo or cardboard -- but their very absence. It's not the stuff we bring to a burial that makes it green, but what we leave out. Natural return, as our first modern advocate showed in his life and death, is a natural process that Mother Nature can do all by herself. Our job, as good stewards of the Earth, is to just get the hell out of her way.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, February 15, 2008

Natural Return, Shown in Living Color

The typical funeral home sendoff -- with the body chemically embalmed, laid out for view in the metal casket, and then bunkered in a concrete burial vault at the local cemetery -- has been standard practice in this country for the better part of a century now. "Modern" burial has been with us for so long ago, in fact, that it's hard for us Cyberagers to even envision, let alone recall, the more sensible, simple and natural returns that our not-too-distant ancestors followed as a matter of course when death came calling.

The clip below offers a visual resurrection of sorts of that old-time burial, in living color. The segment, from a KQED television show called Quest, follows -- and shows -- a couple of families that revive those early American funeral rites in our own time under the guise of "green" burial.

Given our recent discussion of eco coffins -- which we'll return to next week in this space -- it's interesting to note how the families here have transformed plain, inexpensive cardboard containers into handsome vehicles into the afterlife.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Friday, February 08, 2008

How Green the Ecopod?

A number of readers weighed in on my assessment back in January of the British-made Ecopod, the stylish but pricey coffin that's making its debut in this country. One of the most thoughtful, articulate, and passionate reactions came from Cynthia Beal, a green burial advocate who sells Ecopods and other funerary products in her Portland, Oregon, shop named the Natural Burial Company.

You can read Cynthia's full response to my blog post here. In brief, she defends the $3,000-plus sticker price of the Ecopod because, among other reasons, those dollars support every person involved in the production and delivery of a beautiful, handcrafted and earth-friendly piece of artwork, from artist to shopkeeper. "A low price in dollars is NEVER the best way to measure true cost," Cynthia writes. "[I]n 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," including environmental degradation, low wages for workers and the like. Those who can afford the Ecopod support good work with their purchase. Those with shallower pockets aren't out in the cold; they have their pick of other, more affordable and eco-friendly alternatives, from cardboard boxes to pine caskets.

Well, amen to that. Price may matter to the family pocketbook, but Cynthia is right: it shouldn't be the sole arbiter in gauging greenness. When it comes to the planet, sometimes more really can be better. Consider cemetery space. A plot at the local graveyard may go for half of the two thousand dollars that Ramsey Creek charges (mostly because regular cemeteries typically sell plots as loss leaders and make up the difference in vault sales and such). But the higher cost of eternal real estate at Ramsey Creek is simply worth it. Not only does the memorial preserve allow for the natural return of one's remains, but the actual cost of burial there also funds the preservation and restoration of ecologically significant land that's otherwise threatened by the bulldozer. The greater investment may exceed the reach of some families, but the investment is nonetheless one worth making. The same is true of the Ecopod, which, as I wrote in the January blog, is "certainly worth the greenbacks."

Cost isn't my beef with the Ecopod (and some of the other earth-friendly burial goods that are washing up on these shores from abroad, including British-made caskets of willow and bamboo coffins woven in China). It's provenance.

As far as I know, the Ecopod is manufactured solely in Great Britain. The short distance between the Ecopod's ARKA production plant in Brighton and the 200-plus natural cemeteries scattered throughout in the U.K. makes the Ecopod a high green vehicle to the afterlife for eco-conscious Brits. Not so for their American counterparts.

To reach them, ARKA must transport Ecopods thousands of carbon-spewing miles across the great pond of the Atlantic and, from there, possibly across the entire North American continent to its various points of sale. That trans-oceanic and -continental journey freights the otherwise eco-friendly Ecopod with a significant environmental drag that can't be dismissed in the name of aesthetics, particularly when the artwork itself is billed as earth-friendly. A family that spends its greenbacks for the lovely Ecopod certainly supports the manufacture of a good product and of good community. But until the Ecopod is produced closer to its final destination in this country, the plain Jane cardboard box, cloth shroud or simple pine casket would, in most cases, trump it in overall greenness.

That said, it's important to put reservations about the Ecopod into perspective. First, the British coffin's a better deal for the planet, its carbon footprint notwithstanding, than the U.S.- (and increasingly Mexican-) made metal casket that's standard issue in this country. Plus, the Ecopod's carbon footprint may be a temporary phenomenon. I understand that ARKA is considering setting up a manufacturing plant in North American, to service U.S and Canadian customers closer to where they live.

Cynthia Beal, a smart and dedicated environmentalist with a long history in the natural products industry, understands these arguments as well as anyone and is working to address them. One of the many compelling projects she's looking forward to launching involves planting willow trees in this country and then training artisans in local communities to weave the willow into fetching and readily biodegradable coffins. When that happens, Cynthia won't just be producing true green coffins; she'll have established the basis of the kind of truly sustainable economy that, I believe, is the only way we'll thrive in a warming age.

One note about cost and aesthetics. They don't always correlate. The $800 cherry coffin that heads this post is every bit as handsome as an Ecopod or willow or bamboo casket. Same for the cardboard coffin above -- grand total: $35 -- that two Texan women decorated for the grandmother whom they'd helped wake in her own home. Or, frankly, any of the cardboard coffins that children slop over with fat paint brushes. A frugal family that wants to send its loved one off in high, green style can do so on a penny pincher's budget.

So, when my time comes go ahead and "bury me beneath the willow," as the old bluegrass standard puts it and as Alison Krauss, below, sings it. But, please, lay me down in a simple cardboard coffin -- or pine box or cloth shroud. Save your money.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Natural Burialists: No Dying Breed

What a difference a year makes. Since I last surveyed the green burial movement in a March blog, one new natural cemetery -- the Cedar Brook Burial Ground -- has taken root in southern Maine and another half dozen similar efforts are well underway, including those in Santa Fe (New Mexico), Macon and greater Atlanta (Georgia) and in the Bangor area (Maine). They join the exiting green cemeteries that have cropped up in South Carolina, New York, Texas, Florida and California.

More are on the way. My own tally below counts a score-plus of other groups and individuals who are working to get green graveyards off the ground in their areas. In some cases, they've secured and/or identified land; in others, they're gauging local interest, seeking board members and drafting bylaws. So far, I've heard or learned of efforts in the following states:

Humboldt County
Los Padres National Forest

Denver area

Central part of the state



Indianapolis area
Northwest part of the state (an hour outside Chicago)



Detroit area

New Mexico
Santa Fe

New York
Hudson Valley



Philadelphia area

Central part of the state



In Canada
British Columbia
Nova Scotia

I'm connecting readers who want to learn more about the green grave goings-on in their area. If you'd like to join those who are active in your area -- or if you just want to learn what they’re up to -- let me know. I'll forward the information I have, and, if you wish, send the group your contact information.

P.S. The photo above was taken at the Cedar Brook Burial Ground, in Limington, Maine.

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.