In the past three years, I have gone through a death initiation. It began in August 2015, when my husband suddenly started having a seizure in our bed. As I frantically called 911 and attempted to give him CPR at the same time, I was already losing him, and by the time paramedics arrived at our home, he was gone. He was only forty years old. In my deep grief, I did not have the time or energy to research green burial possibilities. I knew that he wanted to be cremated, so that’s what I did, using the traditional method that was offered to me by the funeral home (and no other alternative was ever brought up in my conversation with them). I only discovered after the fact that traditional cremation is not technically a “green” way to process a dead body, and I now must be very careful with how I handle and spread his ashes, making sure to not put any directly in the ground, due to the chemical composite of his cremains.
On New Year’s Day 2018, my mother passed away after a short battle with a blood infection. She and my father had been best friends and soul mates since they met when she was seventeen and he eighteen. Sixty years later, as my mother lay dying, my father told me that he could not bear life without her. As a widow, I tried to tell him that there can be life after losing your true love, but I could see in his eyes that he could not really hear me. Two days later, as I came to pick up my father to take him to the funeral home to make arrangements for my mother, I found him dead on his bedroom floor. The coroner said he’d died from a “textbook broken heart.” Life without my mother was too much for his heart to bear, and his body just shut down.
So suddenly I was both a widow and an orphan. As an only child with no other close family, I was also faced with the task of planning both of my parents’ burials. Neither of them had expressed any desire about what they wanted to happen to their bodies when they passed away. When my mother was dying, I asked her what she wanted, and in her opiate-induced haze she said, “Put me under a tree so I can help it grow.” This is a very simple and sweet description of a green burial, so that’s the path I chose in planning their burial and the accompany ceremony.
Oh, how I wish our new book Elizabeth Fournier’s The Green Burial Guidebook had been in print during this difficult time. I was too overwhelmed and grief-stricken to do much research on my own, and thankfully some very dear friends took on the task of calling funeral homes and looking online to see just how green burial works. We quickly discovered that not every funeral home knows what green burial is, let alone how to make sure a body is properly prepared for one. For example, there cannot be any chemicals pumped into the body to “preserve” it, as these are toxins that will poison any ground the body is buried in. Also, the coffin or burial container must be made of untreated wood or wicker, with no metal pieces, so it can biodegrade naturally. We found all this information piecemeal, through internet searches and conversations with people. If we had Elizabeth’s book, we would have been prepared to walk into any funeral home in America or Canada and ask for exactly what we wanted, with a realistic sense of what it all should cost.
About three weeks and many thousands of dollars later, my parents had two brand-new wooden coffins built for them, and we had found a beautiful green burial plot under two trees at the Davis Cemetery in Northern California. With no other close family to attend, I chose to invite people I felt close to who also loved my parents. My father was quite well known in his community, so I knew there would be many memorial services for the general public to attend. It was important to me to have this ceremony be just for myself and my loved ones.
We buried my parents on top of each other in one grave — which I learned is quite common. We covered their caskets in fresh rosemary and blooming pink sage. The groundskeeper of the cemetery said she wouldn’t be surprised if a rosemary bush grew from their burial plot, which sounds like a perfect grave marker to me. After we lowered their bodies into the ground, we had a procession through the nature preserve that the Davis Cemetery lovingly cares for, on the back of their property. We rang bells to welcome my parents to the afterlife as wild hares and turkeys scampered around us. It was lovely and beautiful and perfect.
Now that I have gone through the process of planning and implementing a green burial for my loved ones, I know how important it is to provide clear, written instructions for what I would like done with my own body in death. I plan to tuck a copy of The Green Burial Guidebook in with that paperwork, so my loved ones will feel prepared with all the tools they need to go through this green burial process with as much comfort and ease as possible.
Elizabeth Fournier’s The Green Burial Guidebook includes some excellent questions that can help you envision and create a meaningful green burial ceremonial plan for yourself. I am happy to share that excerpt with you.
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We all know that we need to plan ahead for our own death and for the deaths of our loved ones. But these are hard things to consider, and hard conversations to have, and we often put them off. A recent survey by the Conversation Project confirms what I’ve encountered myself: “While more than nine in ten Americans think it’s important to talk about their own and their loved ones’ wishes for end-of-life care, less than three in ten have actually held these sorts of discussions.”
Don’t be part of the 70 percent. Consider what you want, or what others want, for end-of-life care and burial arrangements, and discuss these with your family and friends. Share your preferences and your motivations for choosing them. To help others take care of you in the way you want when you’re gone, clearly blueprint your final wishes. Write down how you want your body handled, how you would like to be celebrated, and the type of disposition you prefer. The advance directives part of your will is a good place to designate a person to carry out your wishes.
What Is Your Vision?
Consider every aspect of green burials and home funerals, and keep a list of what’s important to you. After your death, how do you want your body handled? Would you want it washed, dressed, and handled with grand kindness by a loved one? Would you like to assign “cadaver custodians” to wrap your body in a shroud, perhaps from a lovely tapestry that has hung on your wall for years? Would you prefer being placed in an organic cocoon made of banana leaves or thatched straw? Would you want your favorite music playing during these preparations?
Would you feel comforted to know your freshly clean body will be escorted by people you know and trust to a natural burial ground, a gorgeous, green pasture of flowers and trees? What sort of grave would you prefer, and how would you want to be placed in it: by certain people or in certain ways that reflect the refinement and care you desire? Are there aspects of the ceremony you’d like to specify? In what way do you want to be returned to the earth, so that in death you nourish the land and the loved ones you’ve left behind?
What would feel natural as friends come to visit your resting space? Would you want a tree to mark your grave, or would you prefer grasslands to cover you, with no marker at all? As the roots of these gifts of nature stretch down through the soil into your body, do you like the idea that you will rise up and live again to experience the phenomenon of living in the glory of the world? Does it make you smile to think of your visitors marveling at the fruitfulness of your body and praising you for the richness you have added to the planet?
It’s as important to think of spiritual questions as practical ones. For help with both, you can also seek out a funeral home that offers or will help plan a green funeral or burial. All funeral homes are legally obligated to help you plan and execute a natural burial, so see what your local funeral director knows about green funeral options. If you talk to someone who just stares blankly back at you, keep looking. Some funeral homes have already adopted green practices in their preparation and burial techniques, making it much easier for you to plan a green burial. Plus, certified green funeral homes are becoming more prevalent. Visit the Green Burial Council, which certifies green funeral homes and maintains a list of providers on their website. You may find great options in your area.
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Tristy Taylor is an artist, interfaith minister, radio host, and associate publicist for New World Library. She has been documenting her death initiation and grief journey in writing and photos on her blog, CreateWithSpirit.com, and on her Instagram account.
Elizabeth Fournier, affectionately called “the Green Reaper,” is the author of The Green Burial Guidebook: Everything You Need to Plan an Affordable, Environmentally Friendly Burial. She is owner and operator of Cornerstone Funeral Services, outside Portland, Oregon. She serves on the advisory board of the Green Burial Council, which sets the standard for green burial in North America. She lives on a farm with her husband, daughter, and many goats. Find out more about her work at www.thegreenreaper.org.
The excerpt is from the book The Green Burial Guidebook. Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Fournier. Photo of green burial is by Jessica Judd.