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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 (


Farewell Assistant said...

Fittting correlation, and worthy of pondering, I think. This movement did start with food, check out the book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Or would you call it a revolution, as the book's author Thomas McNamee does? The Natural Movement? The Ecomovement? The Local Revolution, perhaps? Are we presciently realizing that going global isn't practical, that a strong global economy does not necessarily support a healthy local economy? This reminds me of the Arts & Crafts movement that was in response to the Industrial Revolution. I don't think it succeeded though. I hope this one does.

I agree that perfection is a worthy goal, and we might need to accept "greenwashing" until the movement can get a toehold. Maybe this time we will not have a choice. Did I ask too many questions, or did you just give is all something more to think about? I like how you connect the dots.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the emphasis on local, Mark.

Anytime a dollar is spent locally, the estimate is/was that it circulates an average of 7 times or more before leaving its immediate economy. When money is spent with an out-of-state/out-of country business, chances are that it almost immediately leaves the community it was spent in, rather than going to another local person or business.

Circulating local funds is helpful - my grandmother (a depression grocer from the Cumberland Gap) used to always remind me that one of the most important things she had in her community was her "trade". She treated it like a fungible commodity; she spent it with the people she wanted to support, and she pulled it away from them when she thought they weren't being good neighbors.

People who want "local" for their coffins and shrouds need to do a little more work in advance than the average person for awhile. We've contracted with a local cabinet company to make beautiful boxes of locally grown woods for others, and we've got several local makers working on items for use in our area. Having a gallery also helps, because we can connect with the general public directly, but we find that the demand is still very low - until a critical mass of interest is raised (and this seems to happen through the mainstream more readily than in the alternative wings, oddly enough), local makers will remain skeptical and may be in short supply or remain very low profile.

The low-profile is still necessary because (as several have reported to me) makers can get in trouble with their state funeral directors' associations for infringing on "their" territory - apparently, some funeral directors still think that if you make a casket and then tell people how to use it, you're dispensing funeral services without a license and are subject to harrassment and potential prosecution. Of course, the danger to public health and safety escapes me – unlike practicing medicine without a license, no one here is at risk of dying!

I've been working to get local producers to craft the green grave goods we want to sell for several years, now. The biggest hurdle we currently confront, aside from local makers' reluctance to engage fully in something so new, is a lack of awareness on the part of the general public that natural burial is 1) possible, 2) legal and 3) options for local use of the coffins unavailable. This keeps demand low, local makers uncertain, and also ensures that people who face death at the last minute (the encouraged norm) don't have time to do the planning that they'd like, and time to pre-plan is even more precious in our speeded-up economy.

Generating largescale awareness so that critical mass can be reached, thus creating a tipping point that justifies a change in practice from publicly owned institutions, for a start, is also necessary to stop the harassment of independent coffin producers like the folks I cite above, because it creates empathy on the part of the general public and newsworthiness when these producers are unfairly interfered with.

One challenge for natural coffin producers who need to sell more than their local area buys in order to support a shop and workers duplicates that faced by organic farmers of the sort that serve the White Dog Cafe (and my own organic grocery in years past). When we do business at an 'appropriate' scale, we don't often think we need the 'middle-man', (at least not until we've worked the field all week and then have to be at 2-4 farmers markets every week, as well, setting up at 5 am, tearing down 12 hours later, driving home, and going to work in the field the next morning) but we usually do need them – eventually, once we stop being newbie-producers and start really focusing on the hard work of production. And there's more to creation than production.

Even the White Dog Cafe sits in the middle, between the producer and the eater, marketing and cooking their food for profit and, as Edward Abbeyites have long pointed out to me, spending store prices on food and having someone cook it for you is an elitist luxury that only the well-enough-off can afford. It’s unlikely that every farmer drives to the White Dog every day with their fresh produce – that would mean that each of those carrots or eggs has a huge distribution footprint compared to the non-organic one in the school cafeteria down the street. Efficient distribution takes middlemen.

In addition to creative forms of value-add that range from generating demand, to customizing, to building a selection that can serve a wide variety of needs and capacities on the part of the end-consumer, these "green" middlemen often create the trade associations and group intelligence that (in an ideal situation) support, rather than externalize costs to, the producers, helping to ensure - as in food producers' cases - that locally grown foods can continue to be sold directly to the public, for example - or that coffins can be sold with instructions for use legally dispensed.

It is usually the "middle men", the distributors, that end up with the commercial presence (and the time and cash-flow) necessary to combat legislative flank-attacks from over-protective market forces who don't cede territory easily -- and in the funeral business, no amount of "we're doing it" from the NFDA will ever compensate for the fact that for 3-4 decades they ignored green completely, just as the US auto makers ignored fuel efficient cars. In order to truly support this movement the NFDA will HAVE to come out and chastise its sister groups from state to state for continuing to hinder peer-2-peer commerce through spurious and punitive state "regulations."

Finally, empathetic values-driven middlemen are some of the best originators of industry standards, especially in an emerging marketplace. Because they sit squarely between the producer and consumer (who have conflicting needs that, in a tightening economy, center on price, and price almost always is lower at the expense of the environment or the workers and their community) they can moderate and help create a standard of production and use that can be dynamic over time, shifting as the landscape shifts, ensuring the producer stays in business, the customer gets their needed goods, and the track is toward constant improvement while optimizing the ratio between the now and a greener future.

However, in order to finance even 7-10 living wage jobs (to say nothing of the extra dollars needed to build market and buck trends) at a 20% labor margin (high for distribution), such a "small" middleman has to generate several million dollars a year in gross sales. That's usually not available in a local or semi-rural economy, especially one vulnerable to state-based professional association attacks. And yet without that species of "distribution" creature in the middle of the producer/consumer coffin-food chain, the niche will stay small, confined to rarefied arenas symbolized by Judy's White Dog, while the polluting and disempowering status-quo will be maintained for the millions of folks living in urban areas without access to the new ideals being promoted. This gives rise to charges of "elitism", provides wedges that can be driven by the old-guard into the advancing ranks of the new, and fragments our energies rather than uniting them.

But if reciprocally supported, empathetic middlemen will blaze the way for the producers in ways they can't themselves, and often in ways they might not have even considered. For example, did you know that a lightweight woven fiber coffin doesn't even have an NMFC classification? That means that it is not rated for commercial transportation commerce in the US, and THAT means that no LTL trucking carrier can even quote a fair price on it for delivery! There are tens of thousands of US NMFC classifications but none for our biodegradable coffin products. (BTW, it is illegal - or at least fraudulent, and perhaps even a breach of one's carrier contract - for anyone to ship a product that is not truthfully NMFC rated)

Further, the current NFMC classification for coffins (a rating created for the modern industrial product) is so high that the cost of its transport can meet or exceed the production price of the item, and evidence suggests that the NMFC classification itself, at a rate that does not reflect the cost of transporting the goods but is instead much higher, may be a backhanded 'favor' to established industry somewhere, further entrenching the separate private coffin distribution system run by the major US coffin manufacturers that currently exists to offer expedited coffin delivery on its own trucks (talk about a carbon footprint!).

This, like so many other things, is a barrier to fair trade that the general public, and even the producers, will NEVER be aware of without the presence of 'middlemen' who attempt to pierce the veils of "the way it's done" and uncover its questionable undersides. It's also evidence, BTW, that the mainstream funeral service providers have never even thought of distributing lightweight biodegradable coffins - if they had, there would be an NMFC classification.

But perhaps the biggest obstacle I see on the horizon for natural burial products is the greener-than-thou syndrome, used so effectively to fragment the organic foods market to its now obvious detriment (California in the 90's is a lesson-filled case in point). For example, I was told by green burial proponents early on that because we sold products we were not "welcomed" in the natural burial movement because "profit has no place" in end-of-life service, and affiliation with for-profit business would contaminate their non-profit mission (this group has since expanded to work with and staff the boards of profit-making entities, however, as reality hits home for them, too.)

Many people - and this is especially true for a stressed-out public in general - don't know how to hold the continuum of choice in mind - they don't know how to champion the best without belittling the "lessers" – non-profits with privileged funding denigrate for-profits who make work and producer jobs, alliances are stillborn, and a public that just wants to “do the right thing” is confused.

That confusion can be exploited consciously by others that know how to use it. Managing a spectrum of options is usually too complex for the average person who just wants a natural end, and constantly performing the calculus of industry-transition becomes exhausting. In the end, the "menu" is too daunting – how green? which green? from whom? why? -- and the obstacles soon appear even larger than they are; the default becomes temporary, flowing into permanent inaction. That inaction leads back to the default: no planning, no green coffin, no green grave, or worse -- inattention while members of the industry make legislative shifts in an attempt to lock up its remaining advantages, obstructing or even rescinding rights that eventually require mass-public action and multiple legislative sessions to undo. Just because a home funeral is legal today doesn't mean it will be in 6 or 18 months.

When we started actively promoting local farm-gate food sales here in Oregon (what places like the White Dog depend upon, and buying meat, milk and eggs direct from farmers for sale to the public is not legal in every state) one of the first things we faced was local conventional agribusiness in the legislature declaring food that wasn't federally inspected was unsafe, and that local farmers were endangering the public by offering food directly for sale without the benefit of government oversight. (BTW - rules like this commonly require the producer to hire federal inspectors and have them onsite at all times, guaranteeing a requirement of gross sales in the multiple millions in order to afford this kind of policing) There are other examples of industry-protective legislation generated at the federal level, as well.

In this and other instances, it was not the independent farmers or consumers that turned the tide of public opinion - it was proof of the fiscal damage to sales for the emerging middle-men, the natural foods and products wholesalers and retailers, the distributors that aggregated the producers' output and let the producers focus on production - that kept such wrong-headed legislation at bay.

The expected watered-down organics backlash - the multi-nationals like Wal-Mart jumping on board the "green bandwagon" - happened next, and now we've got large-scale co-optation of the organic foods industry to penetrate BUT there are now thousands more acres of land using fewer pesticides, and hundreds more tons of food are being produced more cleanly than before, and the pale-green mass market is still forced to preserve (at least for a time) small niches on the side where bright green can thrive. I continue to believe that the natural burial movement will replicate the natural foods movement in many ways, that compromises will be made up and down the line by those truly committed to the change, and that somehow we'll figure out how to avoid being divided and conquered in the greener-than-thou quicksand and get on with the business of life, with a terminus of trees.

Thanks for continuing to extol the beauties of the brilliant green while letting us pale-green hopefuls co-exist by your side.



Cynthia Beal

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