2006.05.24 A green burial in your future?

Written by David Green.


There’s nothing like a counter full of dirty dishes that makes you start to think about death. Working through the glasses to the bowls to the silverware, everything starts to become clearer, more defined, less puzzling.

I’m not talking about metaphysics-in-a -sink. I have more pressing demands than to worry about than the afterlife. I’m just talking about column writing.

My wife proclaimed years ago that she needs to wash dishes in order to come up with something to write about. If only she were a daily columnist. Not really, because I need my turn, too. For months Colleen and I have been on the same schedule, with By the Way and Midnight Musings appearing in the same issue of the paper. We’re finally on alternating weeks and consequently, I had the dishes all to myself this morning.

I was still a little agitated through the glasses and into the bowls, but things became a little clearer after I finished the annoying water bottles and moved on to the silverware. By the time I reached the plates, I had the opening sentence.

The topic running through my head wasn’t exactly death but rather burial. In my small-town existence, I thought a person was either embalmed and buried or burned and blown, or whatever a family chooses to do with ashes.

Then I read about the green burial.

As of last August, there were four green cemeteries in the United States. The one I read about, Fernwood, is located in Marin County, Calif. Instead of the usual metal casket inside a concrete burial vault, the body is placed in a wooden casket unembalmed or even in a simple burial shroud. Forget the formaldehyde and mercuric chloride, the concrete and steel.

I’m one of those weirdoes who thinks this all sounds very reasonable. Draining the blood and filling with embalming fluid seems like such a barbaric practice. Put the body in the ground and let it fertilize the trees above. Use a rock for a headstone.

The article I read recounts a lunch discussion between Fernwood owner Tyler Cassity and Ron Hast, one of the most famous names in the funeral industry. Hast invented the Casket Airtray for transporting bodies in style by airplane. Cassity leases a Volvo S.U.V. for a hearse and even a silver and blue Prius—a move that infuriates Hast who insists on the traditional black Cadillac.

At lunch that day, the two men found agreement in something new from Australia: burial in a crouched position. Cassity envisioned a beautiful ceremony, almost like planting a seed, and he soon commissioned papier-mâché burial shrouds. With a crouch, he noted, land use goes down and there’s room for more residents.

The goal is to get away from the notion of death. Make cemeteries all about life.

“What do you think about manure?” Cassity asked Hast, because he was planning to have grazing sheep.

CASSITY IS full of innovative ideas. His plan to offer DNA samples of the dead, illuminated in a globe, found only three takers. He’s done better with LifeStories, described as an A&E-style video biography of the deceased shown at the memorial story and available for perpetuity at Forever Web on the internet.

Cassity has approved Wiccan and Goth funerals and a monument in the shape of a gigantic prehistoric rat. Still in the development stage is a scheme to guide visitors to a grave by a G.P.S.-equipped laptop. When the computer reaches the right spot, LifeStory begins playing.

The president of the National Funeral Directors Association is not sold on these developments. Green burial, for example, is fine for California, but not for someplace normal where fields of tombstones are appreciated.

Besides, says a Swedish biologist, green isn’t all that simple. Bodies aren’t torn apart by animals as in centuries past, and a human is too big to mulch. Instead, it rots. There’s a town in Sweden that’s freeze-drying bodies and then shattering them into a hygienic powder for compost.

That’s an entirely different concept to consider. It’s going to take some more dirty dishes to work through that one.

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