Monday, October 10, 2011

Going Out Green: One Man's Adventure Planning His Own Burial

Book Review: Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Burial by Bob Butz (Spirituality and Health Books 2009)

This was an easy to read book about Natural Burial which is basically burial without the use of embalming with toxic formaldehyde, expensive metal caskets, and concrete vaults. Also the services of undertakers and funeral directors are limited or eliminated. Over the last decade or so the Green Burial movement has gradually picked up steam. Previously, in the few decades before that more and more people have opted for cremation which turns out to be only moderately less toxic than chemical and materials-rich burial. Butz approached the topic from the standpoint of an investigative writer and nature enthusiast. He read books, traveled to natural burial preserves, interviewed pertinent people, compiled information comparing the laws of different states, and pervaded the book with his own sense of practicality and common sense, as well as considerable humor.

Hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic embalming fluid, copper and bronze, hardwoods and exotic woods, steel, and reinforced concrete are buried every year. Cemeteries are also typically maintained as pure grassy areas by the use of herbicide-intensive landscaping.

Bodies decompose. They bloat and distend and stink just like roadkill. Embalming slows this down for a while – often just so people can see a re-touched corpse that was drained and re-filled with fluid and manipulated in many other ways – just so they can see it at the funeral ‘showing(s).’ This has only been standard procedure here in the US for about 150 years. Coffins and caskets only delay decomposition for a while. Eventually the soft parts will turn to fluid. Better to keep out the poisons and just let the body unite back with the soil and enrich the earth that enriched it – or perhaps through the ashes being shared with the earth. Embalming and caskets seem to be for the public ritual and industry that has sprung up around the event of death in our strange and ‘civilized?’ world. Natural burials and home funerals can be way cheaper, more intimate, more meaningful to relatives, and more in harmony with the natural way of things.

The author makes considerable criticism and fun of the $5000 ‘Ecopod’ casket that is totally biodegradable – but which must also be shipped 5000 miles across the Atlantic. He notes that a better choice might be a heavy-duty cardboard coffin offered for about $100. There are many other choices. There are also burial shrouds, often used by Jews and Muslims, and some can be expensive. I suppose if I end up being buried – why not just naked in a hole. It was good enough for the dogs and cats.

He mentions the story of Edward Abbey, a nature writer/poet/backcountry ranger who was buried in his beloved desert illegally by a group of his friends. Those of us who live out in the country can be buried in our own land and there are still rural cemeteries for those who wanna be there. I remember coming across a few headstones at a rural Buddhist temple in Kentucky but I am not sure if the bodies were there or perhaps just the ashes.

The author then sets out to visit a natural burial preserve in Ohio. He notes that there are very few of these ‘green burial preserves,’ the first being Ramsey Creek in South Carolina which opened in 1998. I remember reading about the one he mentions in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York about 4 years ago. He visits Foxfield Burial Preserve in north-central Ohio which opened in the summer of 2008. Each state has specific laws for private burial and a few even require one to utilize the services of an undertaker or funeral director to sign off on the death certificate.

For some reason the author wanted to dig a grave – which he eventually does in his back yard in the sandy soil of Michigan. I wager it would have taken him a bit longer in the heavy clays of southeastern Ohio. Most graves these days are dug with backhoes and are probably too deep to enrich the topsoil. I remember when I was in high school a few of my friends would dig graves when needed for extra cash – I almost got in on that. 

The author did note that very few people involved in the conventional funeral industry were willing to talk to him or show him around. His desire to observe an embalming was not indulged, likely he thinks due to the fact that he was writing a book about alternatives to embalming. The author notes quite obviously that the current conventional funeral industry is mostly about making money and is often assisted in this by the state laws.

The next section discusses the services of the “death midwife.” The author mentions two types of death midwife. One might assist the dying with the actual process of dying more or less like a priest or shaman. The other is one who assists the remaining family with the home burial. One may, of course, have a natural or green burial in combination with a typical funeral (sans the embalming) but perhaps more often one might choose a home funeral as well which certainly seems more natural and organic. The author interviews Rebekah Benner of Akron, Ohio – a death midwife who is also a UU minister that has trained and worked in hospice as well as several spiritual healing modalities and meditation. She goes through the typical questions that she would ask a family considering a home funeral – “Is this your will? Are the wishes in writing? Who has the power of attorney? Who will be involved?” Other questions might be about cleaning and moving the body. She also mentions that the funeral is both for the dead and the living – to try and honor the last wishes of the dead but also to help with healing and dealing with the grief and guilt of the living.

He also interviews death midwife Nora Cedarwind Young. She mentions that the washing of the dead body can be sort of ritualized into an act of love as she has seen people do. It can be a way to help both the dead and the living keep up a positive bond, at least theoretically. This can be done in the home among familiar surroundings and friends rather than among strangers in an ‘official’ death place.

“More than anything, a home funeral is about the healing that’s facilitated by the hands-on physical contact with our beloved dead.” Young says. “I’m still in touch with many of the people I’ve helped through this process, and I’m always humbled and amazed by the ones who have written or called or come up to me years later to tell me the experience was one of the most beautiful in their lives. It’s empowering [for the living] to be a part of those final actions.”

She also describes things like abdominal purging, and ways to set the eyelids shut (perhaps with coins but heavier stones work better) and set the jaw by putting a roll of toilet paper under it. She also mentions the use of dry ice (placed strategically in pieces in paper bags near major organs) to slow decomposition of the body.

Says Young,

“People always say these things are sure things in life. But whereas we talk about taxes all the time, we don’t talk about death. I believe people would be better off if they started having these conversations, and a home funeral is a place where that can happen.”

I noticed when walking one time with some yoga buddies of mine, all women, that when passing a funeral they seemed to want to get as far away from it as possible – possibly due to the superstitious mind. Perhaps some of us think that even to think about death confers bad luck.

The author also mentions Jerrigrace Lyons, who is credited with starting the modern death midwifery movement after carrying out the written wishes of a friend of hers who died. She offers workshops, kits, and books about conducting home funerals.

I also know of certain Tibetan Buddhist death rites (and kits of a sort) but most of this stuff is more ritualistic-oriented than body prep practicalities. I suppose I want my own home funeral to be with some of these practices and meditations but also mixed with the fun spirit of a wake – with games, drinking, and music.

The author discusses some of the laws of various states. In a few states only undertakers can sell caskets. In a few states one is required to hire the services of an undertaker. In Michigan a funeral director is required to sign the death certificate and supervise the handling of the body.

“In cases of non-traditional unions, Michigan is even more rigid and unfriendly with funeral law saying that next of kin – and only legal next of kin – can make arrangements for the deceased. A brother you haven’t talked to or seen in a couple of decades or a father who went to the store late one night for diapers and formula and never came back – they trump the funeral and burial wishes of a best friend or same-sex life partner.”

He then mentions paperwork required for green burial and home funeral in most states (44 of them) as relatively easy. Nora Cedarwind Young mentioned a list of six essentials:

1)      Will
2)      Living Will/Health Care Directive
3)      Durable Power of Attorney Health
4)      Durable Power of Attorney Finance
5)      Disposition of Body Form
6)      HIPPA (authorization forms, patient consent, privacy practices)

She recommends updating these yearly and keeping them in a safe place known to those closest to the person or people.

A final issue the author brings up is that many cemeteries are full or nearly full, especially urban cemeteries. This is so in places like New York City and London.

Finally there is a resource section of books, films, websites, orgs, materials, natural burial preserves, and info on home funerals and death midwives.

Although the author probably overdid it a bit on his own hunting experiences (possibly to display his solidarity with nature or whatever) it turned out to be a good book with tangible and practical information that can help those of us – and I predict there will be way more of us in the very near future – who wish to ‘go out green’ in one way or another.

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