Monday, October 6, 2014

No Green Graves in the Heart of Minneapolis -- YET!

Entrance of Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery
Minneapolis is not selling any empty plots. No chance of a green burial so close to home!

That's what I learned when my friend Ann Risch and I visited the oldest surviving burial ground in the city, a 15-minute bike ride from my home. Thousands of bodies have been removed from Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, leaving 7,000 empty plots owned by Minneapolis.

Pioneers and Soldiers opened in 1853 at Lake St. and Cedar Ave., the only Minnesota cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.  Founded by an abolitionist, it was one of the few unsegregated cemeteries of its time, the final resting place of African American businessmen, fire fighters, and Civil War veterans. For 25 years, it was the only Minneapolis cemetery that accepted bodies of those who died without money or family to bury them. Plots cost $1 dollar.

See all the green space
As the city's population boomed and its boundaries expanded, most of the burial plots were sold. In the early 20th century, with dwindling income from grave sales, the owners sent letters to descendants of people buried on the 20-acre site asking them to remove their relatives. Thousands of bodies were soon disinterred.

A civic campaign to save the cemetery from being turned into a public playground or sold to business interests for development succeeded. In 1927, the Minneapolis City Council voted to purchase the cemetery and implement improvements, including the current limestone and iron fence.

Could Minneapolis start offering those 7,000 empty plots for natural burial? What would be the requirements? No embalming, biodegradable caskets or shrouds, no concrete grave liners, and environmentally-friendly grave markers. Being a pioneer for green burials right in the city would be fitting for a cemetery that pioneered a desegregated burial ground over a century ago!

Tattered flag at Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery October 2014
Before calling to inquire about a plot, however, you might catch a summer open air concert or enjoy Cinema in the Cemetery. The final movie of 2014, "Thing from Another World," will be screened October 8 at dusk. Gates open at 5:30. Tickets are $8; kids under 12 free. Proceeds support the restoration of the stone and iron fence. You can Adopt-A-Picket for $30, contribute any amount toward a badly-needed new flag (I gave the caretaker $20), or take a historical tour of Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery through Continuing Education.

For more information, visit or contact the City of Minneapolis’ Division of Public Works at (612) 729-8484


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Final Footprint Eco-Caskets and Natural Burial

Lynn Redgrave's Ecoffin fair trade wicker casket
I first heard of Final Footprint four years ago, when newspapers reported that British actor Lynn Redgrave had chosen an Ecoffin fair trade certified wicker casket for her funeral. (See August 10, 2010 blog post.) I contacted the American Ecoffin distributor, Jane Hillhouse. Jane imports caskets and urns made of sustainable materials and has a vision of natural burial grounds all across the US, as has happened in her native England.

This April, Becky and I visited Jane Hillhouse at her home in Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco. Jane walked us into a large storage unit filled with merchandise and unwrapped an exquisite rattan, banana leaf, and bamboo casket. We helped her line the casket with organic cotton fabric. Back at her home, she showed us a woven wicker design and beautiful children's caskets.
Jane Hillhouse with rattan, banana leaf, bamboo casket

Adult and children's caskets from Final Footprints

Jane can fold down the back seats of her Prius and load
Jane loading a casket into
her Prius
an adult casket into it by herself, demonstrating that a family can easily transport their loved one to the cemetery rather than hire a mortician to perform this final act of love.
Jane Hillhouse helping find affordable caskets
for landslide victims in Washington state

As Becky and I were about to continue our drive to Napa, Jane's phone rang. It was a woman from the sheriff's department in Washington state's Snohomish county, hit several days earlier by a devastating mud slide. Many families needed to bury their dead, and some were looking for alternatives to costly funeral home caskets. Could Jane ship eco-coffins to Washington? Jane offered the families a discount on any casket in stock. (Final Footprint ships coffins all over the United States and Canada,)

Two months later we were with Jane at the Funeral Consumers Alliance national conference in Minneapolis. She had an eco-casket on display for the almost 100 North American funeral activists, including several members of the Minnesota Threshold Network. 
L to R: Minnesota State Rep. Carolyn Laine,
home funeral educator Jerrigrace Lyons of Final Passages,
Nancy Manahan, Jane Hillhouse, Becky Bohan
Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco-Garden hearse at the cemetery
On the last day of the FCA conference, Jane took her Final Footprint casket to Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco-Gardens in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota's first natural burial grounds.

The owner Tony Weber gave FCA attendees a tour of Prairie Oaks, including a recent natural grave, with no embalming, no metal or hardwood casket, no concrete grave liner, and no imported granite headstone. Just a body lying gently in the earth in a biodegradable shroud or an eco-casket like one of Jane Hillhouse's, beneath an oak tree, providing bio-nourishment to the forest and prairie. The location can be marked with a tree or a stone that's native to the area or with GPS coordinates.
Recent green grave at Prairie Oaks

For me, green is the way to go.

More information about green burials is at:

Final Footprints Eco-Caskets and Natural Burial:

Prairie Oaks Eco Memorial Gardens,, is featured in the February 2014 issue of Natural Awakenings Magazine. It includes a graphic illustrating the main differences between a conventional burial and a green burial:
Minnesota Threshold Network,
Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota:

Nancy Manahan
Minnesota Threshold Network member

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ancient Family Tombstones in Malibu

The Victorious Youth
A group of school children blush as they enter the private room of The Victorious Youth, a rare bronze life-sized statue of a naked athlete crowning himself with an olive wreath. The 10-year olds elbow each other, trying not to stare at the fully-depicted genitals. Their teacher patiently points out ALL aspects of the statue.

The Victorious Youth is one of the most stunning Greek, Roman, and Etruscan works at the sumptuous Getty Villa in Malibu, CA. Situated on 64 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the museum is a re-creation of a first-century Roman country house that was buried when Vesuvious erupted.

Getty villa peristyle with shaded walkways and pool
As we wait for the museum to open at 10am, Becky and I explore the outdoor amphitheater, herb and fruit tree garden, and the peristyle (a colonnade in a building around an internal open-air court and garden). Fish swim in the long shallow pool where Roman children would have splashed on a hot day in the original Villa dei Papiri.

1st century mummy of Herakleides
Since Becky loves all things ancient, she is in heaven. But the most fascinating pieces for me relate to death, for example, the rare first century Roman-Egyptian mummy of Herakleides. The young man's name is inscribed over his toes, the painted wooden covering of his corpse a beautiful portrait showing luminous eyes, aristocratic nose, and neatly-trimmed beard. CT scans show he was about 20 years old when he died.

Even more unusual are the tombstones depicting the deceased interacting with their families, something we've never seen before in any cemetery or museum in any country. One shows an older couple talking to their son. The father seems to be making a point, perhaps giving some final advice to his heir. But the young man is not looking at his father. He and his mother gaze into each other's eyes, their hands joined.

Another tombstone, made in Athens in 400 BCE, depicts a man with his battle shield and helmet, perhaps indicating that he died in battle. He seems to be shaking his wife's hand. According to the names on the headstone, this is Philoxenos and Philoumene, their final farewell etched in perpetuity.

As more people today are choosing green burials, which require no headstones, perhaps contemporary cemeteries could recoup that lost business by reviving the ancient practice of carving enduring family portraits in marble!

Nancy Manahan

Friday, September 21, 2012

Green Funerals 101

The publication of our book Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully, has opened the world of green funerals to us. Although our book doesn’t advocate for green funerals, it depicts our sister-in-law's home death, the decision not to embalm, a family-arranged cremation, and a family-directed wake and funeral.

A green funeral is one in which no embalming takes place and a body is buried without any toxic material being introduced to the earth, such as that found in standard metal and hardwood coffins, concrete burial vaults, and marble headstones. A whole movement has sprung up in the past decade that advocates an environmentally friendly way of handling people’s remains.

Becky and I have become more and more interested in eco-burial for ourselves, although at this point she would prefer some type of cremation—for herself and for me. Luckily, an alternative to clame-based fossil-fuel intensive cremation now is available in Minnesota.

One of the best, most comprehensive articles I’ve read on environmentally-friendly funerals was a 2008 piece in Cincinnati CityBeat. It included interviews with mourners, ministers, and funeral directors. The journalist even considers the circumstances of gay and lesbian couples, something I haven’t seen in other reports on green funerals.

I’ve quoted two paragraphs below to give a taste. The second paragraph echoes my brother Bill Manahan's foreword in Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond.

“Die the Way You Live: Befriending Death and Planning for the Inevitable” by Stephen Carter-Novotni

When local chiropractor Pamela Tickel´s husband Will passed away in 2006, she was convinced that he should be laid to rest in a way that honored their commitment to the environment and a natural lifestyle. Will, also a chiropractor, was buried without embalming or a vault at Ramsey Creek preserve in South Carolina, one of just a handful of green burial grounds in the U.S.

“When we had a home birth 25 years ago, people thought we were crazy, and now people are very accepting and interested,” Pamela says, explaining that even though green burial is foreign to most, her paradigm has shifted and contemporary burial practices seem odd to her now.


Reduce Carbon Footprint with “Flameless Cremation”

Minnesota is leading the way in “green cremation,” a flameless process of reducing a body to its basic elements using alkaline hydrolysis. The Mayo Clinic Medical School has been using hydrolysis in its body donor program for several years, but last month, the first commercial unit in the US was opened in Stillwater, MN.

For a Minneapolis Star Tribune article, see

For a KARE-11 TV story, see

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Radio show on on home funeral, green burials, and the new MN law

For a free download of the KFAI radio show Becky and I did with MN State Representative Carolyn Laine on home funeral, green burials, and the new law that gives Minnesotans more choices for caring for our own dead, go to . This Health Notes show, hosted by Kinshasha Kambui, was rebroadcast last week with a live update from Rep. Laine. The link will be active until May 17, 2011.


An Ancient Green Cemetery

As Becky and I approach Kerameikos, we know it is different from the other archeological sites we had visited in Greece. It is the land that received many thousands of bodies for over 1500 years, the most important cemetery of ancient Athens. The earliest tombs date from the Early Bronze Age (2700-2000 BCE). Athenians continued burying their dead there until approximately the 6th century CE (Current Era).

On display in a small museum at the entrance are prehistoric grave offerings, tall urns that held ashes of the deceased, and archaic tombstones inscribed with expressions of grief over the loss of loved ones. One ornate chest is labeled ossuary, used where burial space was scarce. A body is buried in a temporary grave, and after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in the chest, making it is possible to store the remains of many people in a single tomb.

At the far end of one room stands a graceful life-sized statue of Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris (arrogance before the gods). Becky and I marvel again at the powerful Godesses and human females depicted in ancient Greek art as well as the sculptors' skill in chiseling such realistic draped clothing.

The most interesting sign was about the Plague that struck in 430 BCE, killing thousands of Athenians. Physicians had no idea how to treat their patients and died themselves in large numbers. Each morning, the bodies were picked up, often near public fountains where the victims had tried to quench their terrible thirst. In violation of Athenian burial law, the corpses were dumped into a mass grave in Keramikos.

Outside the museum, sun-drenched and tree-shaded paths wind through ancient gavesites and the foundations of buildings and walls. (The Acropolis with its magnificent temple to Athena, is visible in the background.) Although we don't see any families lounging on the grass, my mother would have recognized this as a "fine and private place" for a picnic. Proponents of natural cemeteries can applaud Athens for maintaining this prime real estate as a public green space. Of course, Kerameikos was also green in the environmental sense: no embalming fluids, metal caskets, or concrete burial vaults went into the earth here. The cemetery, however, was full of marble tombstones, which contemporary green burial grounds do not include.

Once again, I'm reminded of "time's winged chariot hurrying near." Whether we succumb to hubris or live humbly, remorseless Nemisis pushes us toward the grave. May we drink deeply from the fountain and love our dear ones while we can.