by Ellen C. Warren, photo by Nik Bastman
All Hallows E’en, the night to celebrate and honor the hallowed, the holy, those who have gone before us; our family, friends and fellow beings. Many cultures keep very close ties with their dead folks. Around this time they visit to party with the spirit, share some wine (tequila, beer, vodka, whatever the favorite drink of the deceased) among themselves and pour liberal doses into the earth right there at the gravesite.
Not so for most of us North Americans. Death does not so much engender pleasant feelings of sharing and camaraderie as fear and distance. Our mortality is a conversation best unexplored. According to a recent survey, most of us have great difficulty even talking with our spouses about life insurance!
It wasn’t always so. Until about a hundred years ago, most funerals took place in the home of the deceased. The body was tenderly washed, dressed and laid in a bed. Family and friends arrived to say their goodbyes and visit. Food was prepared and eaten. Children played. Life went on, even at the bedside of the one who had passed.
Contrast that scenario to today’s norm. In most cases the body of the deceased is whisked away from the home, hospital or nursing home as quickly as possible. Funeral arrangements are made, the body is embalmed, made-up to look “natural,” and a wake is held at the chosen funeral arlor.
No muss, no fuss. The professionals take over. Death is kept at a distance.
Interestingly, few people realize that there are alternatives to this. According to Jerri Lyons, director of Final Passages in Sebastopol, CA, “Most people in this country don’t know they have the legal right to care for their own loved ones when they die.” There is no law that says the deceased must be handed over to a funeral parlor or that only a licensed mortician may transport the body. Embalming is not required by law. (But is often a funeral home rule.) There’s not even a law that says a burial requires a casket.
A relatively new movement has sprung up in this country toward what are generally referred to as Natural Funerals and Burials. The impetus is varied. For some it’s the desire to play a greater role in caring for their loved ones and the healing that purportedly accompanies direct contact with the deceased. Others are drawn to the environmental assets of “green” burial which allows for the natural decomposition of a body untainted by the heavy chemicals used in embalming and without being surrounded by large amounts of metal and cement.
Cost can also be a factor. With today’s average funeral running toward $10,000, that figure can be cut to a fraction of the price when you eliminate the expensive casket and funeral parlor services.
In the Milwaukee area we have four cemeteries with “dedicated areas” for green/natural burial: Lincoln, Forest Home, Valhalla and Waukesha’s Prairie Home. The general requirements for natural burial are that the body be in a natural state (unembalmed) and the shroud, wood or woven coffin be constructed of biodegradeable materials. There may be other specifics required at the particular cemetery.
Two other natural burial sites exist in Wisconsin that are part of a growing focus on combining nature preserves with green cemeteries. The Circle Cemetery, part of the Circle Sanctuary near Barneveld, was granted a zoning permit for full body burials in the summer of 2010. Even more recently the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability in rural Verona has opened their Natural Path Sanctuary. Each of these cemeteries is part of a much larger acreage in a setting of forests and fields.
Personal accounts of people who have opted for natural/home funerals are the best testimonial to how well the choice may suit some. They also serve to vanquish some fears and answer some questions. For those interested in learning more about home funerals there are a number of websites (some listed following this article) to help you make the decision and offer insight into the how-to particulars. A slowly expanding number of nurturing consultants are also filling the niche to provide aid to the family.
Whether you choose to go the usual route with your funeral, or decide to return to nature naturally, what’s most important is that you know you have a choice. That’s something not many people know.
“The Surprising Satisfactions of a Home Funeral.” Max Alexander. March 2009 Smithsonian Magazine
Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, Verona WI • farleycenter.org
The Green Burial Council is an independent, tax-exempt, nonprofit organization working to encourage environmentally sustainable deathcare and the use of burial as a new means of protecting natural areas. • greenburialcouncil.com