Friday, August 20, 2010

Lynn Redgrave’s Eco-coffin

Great Britain is way ahead of the United States, when it comes to green burial practices. Dotting the countryside from Devon to Yorkshire are 240 green cemeteries, free of toxic embalming fluids, metal coffins, and concrete vaults.

For twenty years The Natural Death Centre has educated British consumers about funeral choices outside the mainstream. NDC, which helped create the network of English woodland burial sites and runs the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, believes that “death lies at the heart of our humanity . . . and that if we so wish, we [can] face it on our own terms without the mediation of a doctor, priest or funeral director.”

The Natural Death Centre plans to investigate “new technologies to replace gas cremators, . . . to increase the dialogue between palliative care and the funeral industry, to assist our colleagues in other countries to achieve what the NDC has achieved, to hold the spiritual middle ground between fundamental religion and fundamental atheism and to continue to challenge the taboos surrounding death.” I love this vision for the future of the home funeral/green burial movement.

In the US, organizations like the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Green Burial Council are infusing a new ethic into the funeral industry, one rooted in transparency, accountability, and ecological responsibility.
A recent example of an eco-funeral was that of Oscar-nominated actress Lynn Redgrave, who requested a bamboo coffin made by the British Fair Trade company, Ecoffins. Bamboo, unlike regular wood, is highly sustainable; it regenerates rapidly after harvesting -- no replanting necessary. Ecoffins made from bamboo, willow, banana leaf, and pine are available in the US from Final Footprint, the company that provided Lynn Redgrave’s coffin, pictured above ($420 plus delivery).

In Minneapolis, there will be a free screening of an award-winning documentary film about the conscious death and inspiring home funeral of an environmental activist August 25 at Southdale Public Library at 7pm. At his request, Jack Heckelman’s plain pine coffin was built by his niece. For more details, visit the Minnesota Threshold Network blog.

Photo of Redgrave by Annabel Clark,

Friday, April 30, 2010

Honor the Earth in Life and Death

In honor of Earth day April 22, 2010, Twin Cities Naturally magazine asked me to write about green funerals. To give you a flavor, here's a clip from "Honor the Earth in Life and Death" with thanks to my wife for the best line in the piece. Spot it?

"Our generation has led the way in so many areas--civil rights, home births, holistic health care, and the environmental movement. Now we can expand our thinking from living green to leaving green."

To read the short article, click here.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cemeteries and Picnics

“Kids, look, there’s the cemetery where we would stop when I was a girl."

We would look out the backseat car window to the grassy graveyard where Mom was pointing.

"The trip to Rochester used to take so long that when the weather was nice, we would rest here and have a picnic.”

My mother said this every time my father drove us past the roadside cemetery on the two-hour drive to see our Rochester, Minnesota, relatives or visit the Mayo Clinic.

As little girl, I was horrified. Eating among the gravestones seemed like a creepy custom from another country and another century.

"Mom, how could you eat on top of all those dead people?!"

“Oh, it was lovely!” she would reply. “The cemetery was halfway between Madelia and Rochester, so sometimes Aunt Daisy and Uncle Louie would meet us here. We’d put a blanket on the grass, and after sandwiches and lemonade, Uncle Louie and Papa would smoke and take a nap. Later Mama and I would go back to Rochester for a few days' visit, and Papa would return home alone.”

My mother's fond recollections didn't mean much to me then, but as I got older, I found myself drawn to cemeteries. Not to picnic, as my mother did in the 1920s, but to walk and reflect. Cemeteries are havens for birds, flowers, big trees, and human history. They touch me deeply.

For fifteen years, I lived two blocks from a 50-acre historic cemetery in Napa, California. I often walked at Tulocay, marveling at the opulent Victorian mausoleums and grave markers, some over a century old. It was a soothing place to sort out life's challenges and see my problems from a larger perspective.

Now my wife and I make our home in Minnesota and in Mexico. Our Minneapolis home is ten minutes from the posh 250-acre historic Lakewood Cemetery, where we can stroll for hours. In our home town of Madelia, my sister’s farm abuts the cemetery where our relatives are buried. When Becky and I stay at my sister’s, we often walk amidst the markers, recognizing names from our childhood.

Our Isla Mujeres, Mexico, condo is two blocks from the little local cemetery. White plaster grave-houses bear names, dates, and pictures of the deceased. There's even the tombstone of a famous pirate bearing the sobering inscription, "As you are now, so I once was. As I am now, so you will be."

At the beginning of November, Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. People wash and sweep their family’s grave-houses, decorate them with flowers, bring their loved ones’ favorite dishes, and eat the meal by the graves, as my mother's family did so long ago.

Rather than seeming quaint or creepy, this custom now feels admirable. Breaking bread among the graves is a way to normalize death, to nourish the connections between the living and our loved ones who have passed before us, and to enjoy the bounty of life in a beautiful and sacred setting.

Now that spring is almost upon us, Becky and I are thinking of having a little picnic with my mother. We'll bring her favorites: egg salad sandwiches, lemonade, and brownies. Skoal, Mom!


For a fascinating cultural history of cemeteries, from the first landscaped garden cemetery (Pere Lachaise in Paris), to the burial place of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau (Sleepy Hollow in Massachusetts), to today’s natural conservation cemeteries in Britain and America, click here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

5 Tips for Going Out Green

You recycle. You replace conventional light bulbs with energy-saving bulbs. You turn down the heat and avoid using air conditioning. You buy local, organic produce. You walk or bike, and you may even own a fuel-efficient car.

But have you considered the carbon footprint of your final act on earth? As in your funeral?

Conventional funeral practices are not usually “green.” Embalming fluids, hardwood and metal caskets, concrete vaults, and the gasoline, pesticides, and herbicides required to maintain a traditional cemetery are not environmentally-friendly. In addition to being better for the environment, green funerals usually cost much less than “traditional” funerals.

Green cemeteries have opened in the UK and Europe, with the US starting to follow suit. Click here for a list. If you live far one of the few natural burial grounds in this country, you still can minimize the environmental impact of your final leave-taking if you follow these tips.

1. AVOID EMBALMING. Let your body return to the earth naturally, without toxic chemicals.

2. AVOID METAL OR HARDWOOD CASKETS. Cooperate, instead of interfering with, the natural process of decomposition. Choose a pine, bamboo, jute, or cardboard casket, or simply have a shroud.

3. AVOID concrete gave liners (vaults). They’re not required by law. They are simply standard practice in conventional cemeteries.

4. If there is no conservation cemetery nearby, ask your local cemeteries about a natural burial area. Many are designating space to meet the growing demand for green burials.

5. If natural burial is not feasible, choose cremation. Although burning requires fossil fuels and may release mercury and other toxic chemicals into the environment, cremation is much greener than conventional embalming and burial practices.

You can also investigate a new technology: Resomation. This is an alkaline hydrolysis process that takes about the same time as cremation but uses less energy, produces less CO2, and avoids putting mercury and other contaminants into the atmosphere. It returns the body to its organic components, leaving only a white ash and nutrient-rich water, which could fertilize a memorial tree. Resomation is currently offered in only a few places in North America, including the Mayo Medical School's body-donor program in Minnesota.

No matter which way you want to go, those who will make decisions for you should know your final wishes. Put your instructions in writing. Discuss them with your family and friends. A funeral directive can be part of your Health Care Directive, which we all should have. There are free downloadable forms on line. One that we like, “Five Wishes,” is comprehensive and walks step by step through excellent questions. It’s available here.

So the next time you take out the newspapers and cans, imagine how you want to conduct your final act of recycling. Act now so that, when the time comes, you can Go Out Green.

For more information about green burial, see the New York Times article “Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative,” read Grave Matters by Mark Harris, or read Going Out Green by Bob Butz.