Opinion: Six Feet Under, Saving the World - Buried Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Larry Lamsa.

One day I will die, and when I do, I want to go in a hole in the ground, wrapped in a shroud, but otherwise, as naked as I entered this world, without being embalmed and buried. Maybe my remaining family will plant a tree over me. I’d be okay with that.

But I worry that this fate is not what awaits my body when I pass. So far, of all the funerals I’ve been to in my life, the deceased always appear in a strange doll like state. By using their paste, glue, and make up, morticians manage to manipulate bodies into something that feels distant and almost frightening to touch.

Of all the people I have seen buried, my grandmother was the only one who really looked like herself. And while I have gotten a laugh out of thinking that maybe my family and I have all been fooled by the appearance of my Great Aunt, who we joked was secretly hiding behind a fern in the corner, the reality is, she is dead. However, her body did not appear this way, thanks to an industry that morphed her visage into something alien and cold.

In the case of my Grand Aunt, it was no longer blood that sat in her veins, but embalming fluid. Her skin, which held a scent for my entire life of wool sweaters and coffee, was replaced by cheap funeral home perfume and a subtle stink (that I can only assume is death). And it gets worse.

Every funeral I’ve been to ends the same. A beautiful stained wood box is lowered into the ground with a perfectly preserved body imitating sleep inside. Now, am I supposed to be the weird one when all I want is to just BE a dead body in the ground? What is wrong with thinking that these traditions are totally bogus?

Funny enough, the only people on my side seem to be the scientists and comedians.

George Carlin, who I would argue was more than just a comedian, has gone on a couple rants in regards to death. Below is a rant mainly about golf courses, but stick with it until the end and you’ll see what I mean.

Carlin has a great point here (and not just about the golf courses). Cemeteries do take up a lot of space. In fact, in gathering research for this piece, I tried to figure out just how much of the earth’s surface is covered in cemeteries. Just so you know, this figure is pretty much incalculable since there are so many cemeteries that are not registered online, and you also have to consider the fact that cemeteries in many countries are under different rules and regulations. But in looking through the daunting number of entries on the Wikipedia page, and how each entry had nested list after nested list, I am haunted by just how many of these marble forests now litter the earth’s surface.

Then this dawned on me: the only reason we need cemeteries and thick caskets is to prevent the preserved body from leaking toxins into the ground. The way we treat most bodies posthumously, at least in this country, is so terrible, that we need to have special places where we can keep them in subterranean boxes so they can’t harm the environment. Is there an explanation for this that doesn’t come down to the bottom-line of “tradition”?

But here I am mulling over pseudo-science and second-hand information. So I thought it best to speak to an authority on the issue.

Joe Sehee, founder and Program Director at the Green Burial Council, gave me some perspective on the subject in a phone conversation.

“From an environmental stand point, traditional funerals have their own issues. Obviously formaldehyde in the prep room and in the factories where caskets are made causes cancer,” says Sehee. “We advocate using land. It not only can destroy habitat if not done properly but keeping up cemeteries can be quite energy and resource intensive. A great deal of mowing, watering, pesticides, fertilizers, and so on.”

While Sehee was unable to provide me any hard figures as to the carbon footprint of most cemeteries, what he says makes sense. A cemetery can really only ever be a cemetery, which doesn’t make these places green havens. In fact, Sehee went on to explain that “greenwashing”, a practice of advertising an ecologically unfriendly practice or product as “green”, is a serious problem in the field today.

There are other prospective technologies on the horizon in terms of a making your death a green one. Jae Rhim Lee is the founder and Director of the Infinity Burial Project. The Project is responsible for research pertaining to the decomposition of human bodies, and how to best expedite that process while also being kind to the Earth. That is why she created a mushroom suit and gave a TED Talk about it.

Becoming fungus not as fun as it sounds? How about a tree? Surely becoming a tree is the most green you can be. Margaux Ruyant, a French designer, certainly thinks so, which is how she came up with Poetree.

Poetree is special urn where ashes of a recently created body are added to soil and a tree is then planted to grow using the nutrients therein. Due to the time and energy it takes to grow a tree, this urn naturally brings attention to your recently departed loved one, and you get the chance to grieve while also supporting life. Really, this seems like the most green you can be, but can trees really grow from ash?

Sehee also expresses skepticism at these green alternatives. Growing anything from ashes is difficult as they tend to be somewhat toxic to plant life. And in regards to Jae Rhim Lee’s mushroom suits, he doesn’t think that an aid in decomposition is really necessary.

“I don’t know how necessary it is. We require the use of excavation techniques that do help bring nutrients from the body to the surface rather than going to the water table. That can be done simply throwing in twigs to create micro channels,” Sehee explains. “I mean it doesn’t have to be any more sophisticated than that. I think we can over think this.”

Now while these aforementioned alternatives of fungus and trees have yet to demonstrate their effectiveness, they do capture a spirit that is very proactive. They aim to DO something with the body in an effort to serve the ecosystem they are laid to rest in.

However, I can’t help but come back to another comedian I admire, Louis C.K.

In his one hour comedy special Live at the Beacon Theatre, Louis offers some advice for what might be a great use for dead bodies.

Now, I’m not advocating the desecration of human remains, but CK brings up a great point about the deceased: “You don’t matter anymore.”

On some level, that’s true. When we die, as far as I know, we are no longer able to appreciate if our goals, hopes, or ambitions come to fruition. And further, asking that people make those things happen for us is really just putting forth a guilt trip by demanding they perform these errands — something that I personally would rather not bestow on my loved ones.

The more and more I investigated the subject of going green in death, the further it made sense to me. I had assumed that the reason green burials have not caught on must be because of religious traditions.

Well, I was wrong there too.

“You have to remember, when it comes to religious customs, that green burial is what most western religious traditions have embraced for a long time. Jesus was laid to rest in a shroud. Jewish burial here in the US consists of the simple pine box and simple burial. In Israel, shrouds are used, and in Muslim burial there is a ban on embalming. But we haven’t found any pushback,” Sehee tells BTR. “In fact, those religious groups have liked us because we allow people to participate more fully in the rituals themselves. We’re helping restore those traditions.”

Based on this, is it fair to say that American burial practices are therefore somewhat discriminatory? If various religions ban procedures like embalming, which is most widely available in this country, is an industry completely insensitive to what end-of-life rituals ought to be? Perhaps American customs are not quite as intentionally malicious as all that. But that doesn’t mean this industry hasn’t been difficult for funeral alternatives, in particular, the Green Burial Council.

The GBC has had to deal with a fair share of industry pushback. To be blunt, the business of laying the dead to rest is a fairly lucrative one, considering the cost of materials, embalming, caskets, burial plots or vaults, depending on the size, and capacity of the cemetery that is chosen. The GBC aims to just have people laid into the ground with a simple shroud and minimal preparation. Calculating the amount of money saved is rough, but it’s certainly something to consider.

“We did not set out to be an industry disruptor; we set out to get the industry to embrace a new ethic for a new era and to provide different options that hadn’t been provided anywhere. We’re still using 19th Century technology to a great extent in this field,” explains Sehee.

I suppose that my reservations about having my body manipulated after I die are legitimate. It’s unfortunate, to me, that for most people, options like this are buried by an industry that simply views your deceased body as a commodity to derive profits.

The best advice I can offer you, is to start making plans early and loudly. Sure, talking to your loved ones about what you want when you kick the bucket can be awkward, even morbid, but it’s necessary. I’m 26, and I’ve made my preferences known. So now that that’s established, I can focus on making my life as green as my inevitable death. That, or I can start saving to have a celebrity make a surprise appearance at my hole in the ground.