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Greening the Grave
Alex Steffen, 12 Jan 04

If you're squeemish about mortality, skip this post.

"The dead are not a minority," John Cheever wrote in a different time. Different because many demographers say that the dead are, now, in fact a minority -- that there are now (or will very soon be) more people alive than have ever lived since Man first walked upright.

This population explosion challenges many of our ideas about the world. Take, for instance, our funeral practices. With billions of us slowly making our way to the grave, our choice of final resting place begin to have real ecological impacts.

But the choices are expanding.

The first question is what happens to our bodies themselves. Many cultures, of course, prefer cremation, which is the most ecologically-sound option. Others prefer burial. In many of the poorest parts of the world, there are simply no options for burial -- you find a piece of ground, hopefully hallowed in some way, dig a hole and begin mourning. But in much of the world, all sorts of preservative methods are used, draining the blood and replacing it with formaldehyde and so forth. Consumer groups say embalming is unneccessary and unsustainable, and natural funeral techniques and ecologically sustainable coffins are increasingly common.

The second question is how we are memorialized. Convention cemetaries are not particularly green. But again, another option is emerging. As the NYT reports, people are increasingly opting for "green burial," in which natural areas are preserved or created through their use as a burial ground:

"Cemeteries need to become more than cemeteries," said Dr. Billy Campbell, a physician in Westminster and a longtime environmentalist who opened Ramsey Creek, a private, for-profit company. "We want to redefine how we use this space. We're trying to create something that people don't think of as 'The Blair Witch Project' creepy. Ramsey Creek is a great place to go for a hike, do some bird watching, even hold a wedding."

It's a cool idea, one which should spread. One can imagine, instead of "vast seas of grass and granite," the dead becoming a major force in habitat preservation and ecological restoration. That'd be a worthy memorial to leave behind.

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Our current "customary" practices are rather recently derived -- I prefer something a bit older, that is more in line with what you have presented here.

Consider the practices of the Benedictine Order, in particular Cistercians and Trappists (the more strictly cloisered branches of the Benedictine family). Traditionally, a monk is buried in the robe that he wore when he made his solemn profession, with his own pillow under his head. Here's a description ( that one visitor to New Clairvaux Abbey in Vina, California put together:

This official habit of the order will be the nightshirt of their longest night. The cowled body is laid on a bier, a wooden bed-like half coffin which has poles attached. He is carried to a part of the church where candles are placed nearby and a vigil begins. His brothers take turns sitting with him in twos and reciting the Psalter continuously til the funeral. They say there is no celebration in a monastery like a funeral. The brother has won the race, kept the faith and can confidently move toward God. They believe the chant used by African bearers as they carry the body to its rest - "The grave is the gate of heaven." After a mass which probably rings with alleluias, the bier is born to a grave his brothers have dug. A friend writes of All Saints Day and All Souls "how I will miss Vina on those days. How many of the monks I have helped dig the grave for and lowered their remains into it! I hope you can attend the blessing of the graves." One man is down in the grave to receive and position the body as others lower it in by simple straps passed under it. The image of that living man in the grave to receive his brother's body has an overwhelming effect on me. No fear, no squeamishness, hands reaching up to guide the body in utter acceptance and love. In fact once all the graves are full, the graves are recycled and the previous occupant's bones have become the new man's pillow. The ample hood of the cowl is pulled down over the face and it is covered with a cloth. No doubt the helping brother is hoisted out by the living and the officiant, usually the Abbot, sprinkles the first bit of earth on the body in the form of a cross. "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

The Trappists of New Mellray Abbey make simple, more reasonably priced plain wooden caskets ( made from trees in their own forest (which they have been tending for about 150 years). Other links about them and the Cistercian tradition on death and dying are and

Posted by: Claude Muncey on 12 Jan 04

I think it's a good idea. Frankly, the odds of putting one's feet where nobody has been buried have been decreasing exponentially for quite some time, and we need places to plant trees. Good mix.

Posted by: Taran on 12 Jan 04

Given the above & the end of the article - "green burial sites" -I'm very surprised that "cremation is the best eco option..."

The amount of fuel required to burn a human body & the resulting air-pollution obviously make burial a much better eco choice, not to mention recycling of nutrients etc. and as for lack of space -either bury with others (like the monks above) or go with the green burial old graveyard is a wonderfil place for contemplation in the company of spirits departed & to ponder intimations of mortality....

Posted by: Will Knocker on 13 Jan 04



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