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Friday, July 11, 2008

Could Utility Trump Memorialization in a Green Burial?

One of the more thoughtful comments to the Grave Matters blog came a couple of weeks ago from Thomas Friese.

Responding to my post about how some funeral directors have dismissed green burial as a mere fad, Thomas praises the green burial movement -- with this cautionary note: Natural return -- with its emphasis on restoration ecology, land preservation, and resource-sparing interment -- is certainly good for the environment. Yet, if the graves in natural cemeteries are marked only with trees, the green burial movement runs the risk of de-emphasizing the personhood, the individuality, the memory of the deceased. If that happens, Thomas writes, natural burial becomes a mere utilitarian and "nihilistic" mode of body disposal.

I have posted Thomas' comments in full below. I invite your responses. I'll return with mine in the coming weeks.

Mark Harris
Author, Grave Matters (

Note: The photo above was taken in on the ashes-only FriedWald in Germany (the subject of last week's blog).

From Thomas Friese:

I can't say enough about how positive I find the growing movement towards natural burials. Poisoning our mother earth with formaldehyde and filling her up with concrete and steel is entirely unjustified. As is poisoning her with mercury from our dental fillings and wasting so much fossil fuel by cremating our bodies. YET I need to mention a potentially nihilistic trend which I perceive in some aspects of the natural burial movement.

The thought was prompted by a recent reading of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, whose awful utopic vision seems to be coming true in many aspects. Among the negative developments for humanity in the brave new world, Huxley predicts the ultimately nihilistic attitude towards death. In the brave new world, only cremation exists. When people die, they are immediately transferred to a central crematorium, where they unceremoniously disappear in a puff of hot air. No funeral service, no mourning or sadness, no memorialization at all - people have been thoroughly conditioned from early childhood to altogether disregard death, see it as quite inconsequential, not worth a second thought. Indeed, the only significant emotion their conditioning leaves in them regarding death is that by being cremated, they will contribute to society via the fertilizer recovered from their body's cremation. That is, they will help grow plants. I quote:

"Why do the smoke stacks (of the cremetorium) have those balconies around them?" enquired Lenina.

"Phosphorous recovery", exclaimed Henry. "On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. Phosphorous used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight percent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of 400 hundred tons of phosphorous every year from England alone." Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as if it had been his own. "Fine to think that we can go on being socially useful even after we're dead. Making plants grow."

We understand that in the Brave New World, the significance of death has been reduced to the amount of useful fertilizer returned to the environment, to a merely ecologically useful function.

To return to the natural burial movement now. We can only agree that land conservation, pollution reduction, energy conservation and tree planting are noble and necessary aims. And that conversely, preserving the material body is evidently NOT the point - only the ancient Egyptians and 20th century North Americans thought this at all relevent.

THE POINT IS that burials and funerals should never become ONLY about their utility to the earth's ecology and to the social collective. Eliminating our negative effects on the earth and collaterally conserving green space are only first steps in redressing the historical aberration that our modern death care has become. Then we need to return to the truly traditional aims of death care, those primary aims which have motivated people through the millenia: paying tribute to the existence and dignity of the individual; creating momento moris for the survivors; and testifying to hopes of transcendence and immortality in whatever form that takes for a particular people. Whether people are cremated or naturally buried, if no LASTING individual markers and no eternally protected and sacred burial sites are left, these three primary functions will not be served and the natural burial movement will have failed in its potential.

Which means that conserving green space by burying people there and then forgetting who those people are is insufficient. That only planting a tree as a grave marker, though it may serve the earth and thus society, is insufficient. Trees are among Man's oldest and most faithful friends and protectors, and the more we have the better - but trees die like humans, sometimes sometimes sooner, sometimes later. Thus they cannot be substitutes for lasting and individualized grave memorials.

Why do we think this is an either/or situation? We can have more trees, more protected green space AND lasting memorials and cemeteries. If "traditional" grave stones and cemeteries provoke aversion and morbidity in people today, let's change the way we memorialize - all sorts of appealing, meaningful AND natural alternatives might be created with artistic imagination and creative use of technology. After all, ancient burial sites that archeologists now uncover contain no plastic or concrete, only natural materials that have lasted thousands of years. Are we not capable - or worthy - of something equally lasting, beautiful, dignified and individual?

Or will we choose the way of the brave new world?

Thomas Friese


GreenBurialPittsburgh said...

I like natural stone monuments flat with the ground but protruding a few inches above the surface. The Weather Channel video of a few months ago shows Billy Campbell of Ramsey Creek vigorously sweeping off a grave stone so the name could be read. Unless the marker is 4" to 6" above the surface, I think it will quickly be covered over with dirt and then obscured by vegetation. RFID chips combined with GPS coordinates are okay as a back up, but not as the only marker. And I agree, trees only without markers aren't enough either.

Pete McQuillin
Green Burial Pittsburgh

Erika said...

Thank you so much for publishing this commentary by Thomas Friese. Brave New World was one of my favorite books and I am glad to have been reminded of this particular passage about disposition. I have always thought that the "immortality" issue was the one area where green burial, and the scattering of ashes for that matter, have fallen short. I know that few people think of this, but I think that it is important that our future relatives, those that come after we are dead, should be able to find us and make that connection. There is something important about seeing a person's name and dates in print, in stone.

I think Pete makes a good point that stones need to be maintained so that they do not disappear, and I'd add that even having a separate area of the cemetery, where all of the names of those who are interred there are engraved on memorial bricks or stones, could make maintenance easier while still providing for a permanent memorial.

My grandfather's name is engraved on a memorial brick at a public garden and even though the brick is not with his cremated remains, I sometimes go to that garden to look at the brick, to see his name in stone, and remember him. It is a permanent place to honor his immortal spirit.

Billy Campbell said...

Concerning the issues of conservation burial, memorials and memory.
I would like to reassure Thomas Friese that he is on the same page with many of us working on restoration ecology/natural burial . In 1996, when getting ready to launch Memorial Ecosystems, we hired a marketing company to do focus groups; these seemed to show that we would lose a significant number of our potential clients if we did not allow permanent markers. I thought that if we lost 20-40% of our potential clients, we were sacrificing a significant market share for aesthetic purity, and that allowing markers would not actually affect the ecological functionality of the projects. At the same time, I had found evidence that (at least in the Southern Appalachians and a number of other ecosystems) that forest/grassland floor stones might play important ecological roles and that human collection of these stones for building materials had actually degraded habitats for animals (including ants, which are keystone species in the southern Appalachians). Nicholas Aubrey of the UK’s Natural Death Care Centre and I had an exchange about the idea-he stuck with the position that stones were bad, period.
We allow stones, but they must be in keeping with the geological context of the site, and we take great pains to ensure that the stones are “ecologically functional”.
We were also looking at the idea of having what I called “life history archives” available on an information appliance that visitors could walk around with. I saw a story in the Wall Street Journal about an outfit in California (Hollywood Forever) that was already doing innovative work with what they called “Life Stories”. A year or two later, I received a call from Joe Sehee (founder and director of the Green Burial Council), who was working with Tyler Cassity and Forever Enterprises at the time. It seemed like a natural-uniting Forever’s technological expertise for life stories with our expertise with restoration, land selection, etc…..Unfortunately, things did not work out, to say the least. Still, Thomas is on the right track with his comments about integrating restoration with creative ways to remember.
Beyond the basic business objectives of not losing market share and basic ecological objectives of saving more land, it turns out that the relationship between effective restoration and memorialization might be deeper and more fundamental than generally recognized.
The quick version:
Bill Jordan, one of the founding fathers of modern restoration ecology, once said that land is not truly restored until we restore the ghosts. Not only the missing non-human ghosts (wolves, nearly extinct plants, etc.), but the ghosts of those humans that helped create or maintain many ecological niches, including areas like open prairie/meadows in the eastern US. Restoration ecology is “re-storying” the land as much as a technical pursuit. Without active human engagement over timescales that are several orders of magnitude beyond modern faddish attention spans, restoration attempts will fail. Restoration ecology is ultimately about people actively engaged with the landscape. The inspiration for our approach to conservation burial is the belief that one of the most powerful long-term tools for land conservation will be human ritual, and the assurance of the long term memory of people and their interaction with that landscape. This will require significant endowments, and the reliable, long-term archiving of biographical and ecological information much more detailed than that achievable with relatively anonymous, detached names and dates engraved in granite or bronze.

The longer version:
Restoration ecology has been criticized by both righteous environmentalists and “command and control” landscape architects as “mere gardening” or a dangerous distraction from real wildland preservation. Peter Del Tredici, writing in the Harvard Design Magazine (Spring/Summer 2004, “Neocreationism and the Illusion of Ecological Restoration”) said:
“Implicit in the proposals that call for the control and/or eradication of invasive species is the assumption that the native vegetation will return to dominance once the invasive is removed, thereby restoring the “balance of nature.” That’s the theory. The reality is something else. Land managers and others who have to deal with the invasive problem on a daily basis know that often as not the old invasive comes back following eradication (reproducing from root sprouts or seeds), or else a new invader moves in to replace the old one. The only thing that seems to turn this dynamic around is cutting down the invasives, treating them with herbicides, and planting native species in the gaps where the invasives once were. After this, the sites require weeding of invasives for an indefinite number of years, at least until the natives are big enough to hold their ground without human assistance.

What’s striking about this so-called restoration process is that it looks an awful lot like gardening, with its ongoing need for planting and weeding. Call it what you will, but anyone who has ever worked in the garden knows that planting and weeding are endless. So the question becomes: Is “landscape restoration” really just gardening dressed up with jargon to simulate ecology, or is it based on scientific theories with testable hypotheses? To put it another way: Can we put the invasive species genie back in the bottle, or are we looking at a future in which nature itself becomes a cultivated entity?”
Tredici is wrong in stating that practitioners of restoration ecology believe that we are “restoring the balance of nature”- defined as nature without humans, as he is wrong if he thinks he has discovered an embarrassing contradiction involving ecological restoration resembling gardening. A year before Tredici’s essay in HDM, Bill Jordan, who coined the term “ecological restoration”, and started the first scientific journal devoted to the subject, published a landmark book, The Sunflower Forest. Many of the ideas in the book had already been canvassed in Restoration and Management Notes (Later renamed Restoration Ecology). In it Jordan states:
“Traditional forms of gardening, for example, are valuable in part because they provide a context for a creative engagement with the landscape at the level of the ecological community. Ecological restoration, in contrast is valuable as a special form of gardening that is-or at least aims to be-explicitly noncreative with respect to objectives, neither improving on nature nor improvising on it but attempting, blankly, to copy it…..the value of the deliberately noncreative act as a stilling of the will, an expression of obedience and humility and the entrainment of consciousness to the gesture and movement of the other-an important element in religious practice-becomes clear. But this value is compromised or missed entirely so long as we insist only on the creative aspects of restoration and deny the commitment to noncreativity at its core.”
Tredici cannot be blamed for hesitating to embrace a science that seems to put brilliant creatives like himself (a plant/horticultural/design specialist) in a role more akin to Irish monks copying ancient Greek texts than the Greeks that actually wrote them (although I strongly support including LSAs in large scale projects to help design the human stuff (including entrances, visitor centers, etc.) to make it more interesting-this is worthy of another discussion). Others think that by working on restoration, we weaken the will to protect the last real wild areas (“we can always make more wetlands” as abused by the Bush administration).
The goal of restoration is not to develop a static, prettified simulacra or simulation of nature, but to (re)create a real, dynamic landscape that changes with time. At Fernwood Forever, the project in Marin, Tyler and company were selling “tree-spots”, with the implication that the tree would be replaced with another tree if it died. The result will be more arboretum than nature preserve. Not that arboretums are bad, they just do not pass the muster as ecological restoration.
The point here is that successful restoration ecology will require the long term (many hundreds of years) involvement of human communities, something almost everyone agrees with. Jordan and others point out that North American landscapes have been affected by people for many millennia, and that human activities such as burning and clearing helped maintain niches just as beavers do, and the now extinct mega-fauna did. Yes, it is an awful lot like gardening…but more in the sense of ancient meadowlands in the UK, where the orchids and other relatively rare plants (and dependent invertebrates) depend on regular human mowing and hay-making.
The question is how do we establish durable, trans-generational links between human communities and “restoration landscapes”? It is true that we can never truly restore pre-Columbian ecological communities: many of the elements are gone, or are impractical to re-introduce except very locally (passenger pigeons, eastern wood buffalo, etc.). But restoring an “old growth” hardwood forest will by definition take a couple of hundred years; probably much longer in some situations.
A major challenge for restoration ecologists is the need to create endowments for properties scattered on a continental scale, while ensuring the long term political/community support for these projects.
In The Sunflower Forest, Jordan makes the case that human rituals and customs that link human and natural communities are essential for success. That is the case we are making, and it is very dependent on preserving memory. It is not about burying people anonymously without ritual or some tangible and accessible link to the physical memory of that person.
Intellectual foundations aside, the issue of what is an appropriate permanent marker is one that needs further discussion. For example, some cultures such as some Hispanic groups have traditionally decorated the graves with photos and other mementos. These decorations, while not in keeping with a wild aesthetic, probably do little to harm the local ecological community-while increasing the client-pool and cultural diversity of the project. Long term (over 100 years), it is unlikely that families will continue to keep us such displays. Might it be desirable in some situations to have a section of a conservation burial ground that allows more exuberant decoration-within limits?

BTW, the sweeiping off of the rock on TV was a "set up" shot of a cremation scattering space-they put leaves on it for me to sweep off. Most of our markers are well above the surface to allow for critters under the rock. We also have a back up system with fixed reference markers entered into a GIS model and in a spread-sheet, with co-ordinates that enable us to quickly find even unmarked graves (some people do not want stones) with nothing more than a tape measure and compass. This requires far fewer markers,which can also be benches, the back corner of the chapel, etc.

Anonymous said...

You can argue that conservation ecology through green burial could become nihilistic, but I think this is as limited a spiritual view as confining green burial solely to ecology and the limited action of land conservation. As we evolve, in time, I believe humans will take a more expansive if not practical view of their connection with Mother Earth. Can you say sustainable? This word will eventually replace the warn-out and over-used word: green.

But I digress. Take Pantheism, a belief system (shared by Einstein, Hawkins, and many brilliant minds) that eschews the belief in A God for the belief that God is manifested in ALL things, especially nature. Quantum physics, the string theory, and physics in general can align with this system. This is the "religion" of people who claim to be spiritual, but not religious. Nature is their church, temple, mosque, and becoming one with nature, without marker, memorial or obelisk is not an act of nihilism or environmental preservation, but a spiritual path that doesn't require a pyramid to validate their life, or their death.

Just as in Huxley's imaginative book, a future society could rationally and culturally come to the practical idea that very few of us visit a grave site or monument beyond two generations. Of course, if we were buried in a commercial orchard, our relatives could return to harvest "our fruit", in a commercial forest to harvest "our wood". This may actually be an imperative. What if the only people in 3008 who could have a green burial were those whose families purchased a plot by the mid-21st century that could be re-used (and therefor recycled) once the tree died, making room for another relative. Could happen.

I repeatedly look back on the Arts & Crafts movement, that recognized with horror the mechanization of the industrial revolution (and brought forth embalming for the masses) but tried to reverse the trend; it's covenants were economy, utility and beauty. Utility can be economical, beautiful and yes, spiritual.

Mirawyn said...

I don't want my final legacy on this earth to be characterized by conspicuous consumption and an abuse by the environment, so I was thrilled to discover natural burial options a few days ago. It is in keeping with my Christian beliefs, that our bodies are temporary, but still important; that our bodies were made to return to the earth ("For you are dust, and you will return to dust." Gen 3:19); and that the earth is not ours to abuse, but to oversee and care for.

However, I'm an intermittent and casual genealogist, and I know I find it fascinating to peruse the gravestones of family members I never knew. I want my family to have that same opportunity to reflect on the past.

I think a natural stone marker, like the ones others have discussed, is a low-impact yet meaningful and long-lasting way to mark a final resting place. And planting a native tree, bush, or other plant is an excellent way to improve the surroundings and make a meaningful environmental contribution.

Thanks for all the work y'all have done to promote natural burial; I'm in my late thirties, so I'm glad to have found out while I still (probably) have time to do the research and planning that will make things easier for my family whenever I die!

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