theres a right way and a wrong way to be dead

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Dear Uma:

Thanks for forwarding Jimmy Carter’s article on why he left his church after 60 years: Losing My Religion for Equality.

It is heartening to know men of his stature and influence are making statements about the toxic effects of the worldwide inequality of women. And more kudos to Nelson Mandela for bringing together the Elders; is there no

end to his wisdom and insight?

When I think of religion, one of the things I think of along with patriarchal power, greed, shame, and guilt, is death, so along those lines what do you think of the growing interest in green burials? “Green is the new dead,” is one

of the many marketing slogans gathering around this movement as many people, mostly Californians, re-think the problem of what they leave behind when they shuffle off this mortal coil.

There is good documentation to show that with traditional burial methods we continue, even in death, to pollute soil and groundwater. First, embalming uses noxious chemicals to preserve the body and then it is placed in the

impenetrable bunkers that are the latest trend in caskets and won’t be biodegrading until the Rapture. Cremation is greener than burial but incineration does use energy and produces some air pollutants.

Finally, cemeteries are usually high-maintenance parks full of pesticide-laden lawns kept trim by gasoline-powered mowers, rather like golf courses, and with the same social restrictions.

William Gladstone once remarked, “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their

loyalty to high ideals.”

The Watson Lake cemetery is egalitarian, I am happy to say, with all the dead together in a spot allowed to run wild with indigenous growth and marked with so many orderly rows of white crosses that many a tourist has inquired as to which plague visited the town.

The increasing number of natural burial grounds across North America is said to be reflective of the emerging awareness of how our lifestyle has affected our environment and expresses a commitment to sustainability in the most personal manner. Deathstyle?

The options are many, making it difficult for those consumers who have enough trouble picking paper or plastic, and the list is growing. There is the Parsee concept of sticking the dead high up off the earth for the birds of the air to feast on. A similar notion is to leave the dead between the high-tide mark and low-tide mark on a beach well-visited by crustaceans and birds and, one would hope, seldom visited by people.

Both these means of disposal are ancient ones, making a comeback in the New Age and don’t seem to consider what fare is being offered the birds and the beasts: modern cadavers are surely not an organic meal, being polluted with stuff like Windex, McDonald’s and Celine Dion.

The coral reef idea is popular; it offers people a chance to become a post-mortem part of ecological restoration by having their cremated remains incorporated into artificial coral reefs used to restore fish habitat. The still-popular ritual of grave visitations would be difficult here, though, unless one were a scuba diver.

A woman in Sweden is perfecting a process that uses liquid nitrogen to reduce the body to dust, avoiding incinerator pollution and leading to an endless variety of possibilities for a final resting place.

“Let’s mix Mummy with pot and smoke her.”

“Toss a bit of Grandpa into the soup, honey; give it some substance.”

To the widow of your ex-husband, “Please, give me just a pinch of George dust for my kitty litter box.”

The dust could add a whole new flavour to funeral meats.

With an entrepreneurial spirit and a whack of cash, it is even possible to create your own family plot in the back 40. Like all family enterprises however, this one could have its drawbacks, depending on who was in charge of the dress code for the dead. If I was to be buried, I would like to make it as environmentally appropriate as possible, which suggests a burlap sack instead of a coffin.

I can see my mother leaving strict instructions: every family member buried in the family plot would have to go there in her version of a tasteful coffin; shrouds, sacks, or winding sheets would be banned. This requirement

would definitely leave me up a tree for the birds or on the beach for the crustaceans.

Though not yet widely used, there are natural burial sites and conservation burial grounds already in existence. The first claim eco-friendly cemeteries, which ban toxic embalming, vaults and landscape-inappropriate monuments: no mummies, 12-foot angels or mini-mansions allowed. It also requires biological evaluation of the site, and habitat restoration with native plants, a restriction which I would imagine leaves places like Anza-

Barrego safe from interred remains but for the few who might yearn for sand and lizards.

The second helps land trusts and other groups to further their stewardship mission, consecrating the land and offering another barrier to development. Even in death, dirt-worshipping tree huggers can continue to harass the

miners and the loggers.

With the death-care (nice euphemism) industry raking in $25 billion a year it is no wonder that some enterprising folk are working hard at using the new green consciousness to try to get their pail under this cash cow by taking

the concept out of the present realm of cottage industry.

There are some serious lobbyists under the name of the Green Council who are working to legitimize green burials with new certification standards.

Kim Sorvig, a landscape artist at the University of New Mexico, who serves as an adviser to this council, says, “There’s a cultural barrier to green burial in mainstream culture. We have a detachment or denial about people

dying.”

Well yeah, I think it is safe to say we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about death and dying until it is absolutely necessary, or one is a teenager with severe acne.

There are occasions when I do think of death, like when I came across an ad that suggested, “Send a caring gift of ham in times of bereavement.” I am quite comfortable with the idea of dying; it’s the staying dead that gives me the heebie jeebies, and sends my mind skittering off in search of happier thoughts. The notion of a “caring ham” cheers me up considerably.

Anyway, Kim thinks we are depriving ourselves of important spiritual and psychological connections by this refusal to dwell on our exit from existence and the good we could be doing as we gently decay, going on to say:
“Green burial offers great potential for engaging people now, helping them connect with the cycle of birth and death as part of human ecology — it’s a very meaningful use of the earth.”

No argument there, and no end to the new marketing that will be popping up as this idea gains popularity in the climate change of public opinion.

There’s an established cottage industry in coffins — the kind one builds oneself or has custom-built by a coffin maker, which is then used as a table or a bookshelf while engaged in becoming comfortable with the death part of the circle of life. It is rumoured that some people even sleep in theirs, becoming downright cosy with the grim reaper.

Knowing how those in Southern California lead the way in social change, I expect any day now to hear of a drive-through burial service; perhaps called “Jump in the Box?”

Love,

Heather

Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.