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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 (


Anonymous said...

Well stated.

owenmunger said...

Thanks for the great information! Ed Abbey's views were certainly interesting and before his time. It's very selfless of him to want to maintain the natural cycle of life and death, have his body be the catalyst for creation and growth. He was the first green burial and now they are becoming more common, but I'm still in favor of traditional burial ceremonies. I even know where the best priced caskets are so my loved ones don't have to break the bank to honor my death.

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