Monday, March 26, 2012

My Big Fat Green Funeral

At the end of your life, what will be your final act? How do you want to be remembered?

So help me, God, do not bury me in a casket from Costco. I don’t even want a casket. I wish to be buried at sea. Splish, splash, I’ll be taking an eternal bath.

In Cuba, they practice another technique, whereby graveyard space is reduced, reused, and recycled. The unembalmed body is placed inside an aboveground vault that is tightly sealed -- but not too tightly, because eventually it will be reopened.

When a new body moves into the vault, the old, decomposed remains are stored in a box in the corner. That way, the entire family’s remains are kept together.

That system sounds pretty eco-friendly to me. But the funeral industry in this country would not appreciate it, because its profits would dramatically decrease.

Natural burials tend to cost much less than modern, materials-intensive burials. A typical, modern funeral will run a family about $10,000. By comparison, at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Gainesville, the rate for burial is $2000.

A green or natural funeral should be the right of every individual. After all, every other living thing that dies away from human contact has a natural burial. Dead whales sink, dead trees fall, and living decomposers recycle them. That’s the circle of life. The decomposers get us, too, but we tend to slow down the process with formaldehyde.

You don’t have to be embalmed. You don’t have to purchase a casket. You don’t have to use a funeral home.

Religion dictates how a deceased human body must be handled, and these traditions must be respected. Interestingly, they tend to be much greener than industrialized methods. Traditionally, Jews and Muslims practice quick burials, thereby avoiding the need for unnatural preservation. They also tend to dispense with caskets. It’s just a body, wrapped in a shroud, put into a hole in the ground. Simple and pure.

Viewers of the HBO series Six Feet Under will recall the natural burial of Nate. Despite running a funeral home, Nate preferred to go low-tech. His final resting place was underneath a tree.

But how natural is natural? The Green Burial Council website ( defines it as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that furthers legitimate ecological aims such as the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.”

The council offers a free online burial planner. This document complements a living will, which itself is a good idea.

Cremation, which conserves space, falls into the questionable category. The process is energy-intensive and produces large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps levels of pollution will be reduced in the future with better practices.

A new form of low-energy, liquid cremation pioneered in Europe was brought to the U.S. this past year by the Anderson-McQueen Family Tribute Center in St. Petersburg. Called resomation, the process uses a large boiler and additives to separate liquids from solids. The fact that it uses large amounts of water, however, could be considered wasteful.

For people choosing cremation, you can go low-tech and scatter the ashes by hand, or you can go high-tech and travel to almost any place on earth (and in the future, surely outer space). For those who prefer inner space, or the ocean, one of the most spectacular choices exists right here in Miami. Located just outside state waters, roughly three miles off Key Biscayne, is the Neptune Society’s Memorial Reef.

Memorial Reef is the world’s largest artificial reef, and an underwater cemetery. It has giant lions and pearly gates and benches for fish. Cremated remains are mixed in concrete and attached to the existing structure. Eventually it will cover 16 acres and house the remains of more than 100,000 people. This diving site is open to the public.

A company with a similar concept is Eternal Reefs, based in Georgia. The company’s main business is manufacturing reef structures, so concrete reef balls with cremated remains are placed in various artificial reef locations.

Even if you opt for a modern burial, try to minimize your impact on the earth. Request green options, and pick a cemetery that has been certified or that offers green practices. Choose an urn or casket that is relatively biodegradable, or make your own. To offset the impact of a burial, purchase some trees and make a donation to a conservation organization.

A natural funeral is an American tradition. Before the Civil War, when Americans were not embalmed, home viewings of the dead and do-it-yourself burials were common.

Don’t wait to make this choice. Write down today what you want to happen at your funeral, because, if you don’t, tomorrow you might be forced into a casket from Costco.


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