Friday, September 23, 2011

Natural Burial

Published in the Sun 9-18-2011

Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust

The following is a true story.

John remembers watching “Six Feet Under” with his lovely wife Kristi when one of the characters was buried in the woods in a wicker casket.  Kristi commented that she wanted to be buried that way; without embalming, just put in the ground in a beautiful place where her body could return to the cycle of nature.  John filed her request in the back corner of his mind, thinking that he would have at least four or five decades before he would have to act on it.  Unfortunately Kristi died tragically just a few years later.  Even in the emotional state of shock following Kristi’s death, her comments about such a natural and old fashioned type of burial came back to him.   John and both families agreed they wanted to honor her wishes.

John found a funeral director who was supportive of natural burials.  The funeral director informed John and the rest of Kristi’s family that there were very few cemeteries that would allow the kind of burial they wanted.  He mentioned Our Lady of the Rosary (OLOTR) in Georgetown, one of only two cemeteries in the state certified by the Green Burial Council.  It turned out that John and Kristi had visited there with a friend who had lost a baby, and Kristi had remarked how natural and serene it was.  So John and Kristi’s mom, Donna, and about ten other family members went to OLOTR to pick out a plot.  Donna wanted Kristi to be in a shady area on the edge of the cemetery.  While they were looking at plots near the walking trail, a dragonfly landed on a low branch.  Because Kristi had always loved dragonflies, Donna saw this as a sign that she had found the right location.

Kristi had requested that her body not be embalmed, and John agreed.  Embalming does not prevent decomposition; it temporarily inhibits the process by injecting the blood vessels and body cavities with formaldehyde, methanol, and other chemicals.  The curious reader can find detailed descriptions of embalming on the internet, but suffice it to say that if more people knew what kind of bodily violations are involved there would be far, far fewer of us embalmed.  One alternative to embalming is refrigeration until burial.  Another is to place the body in a leak-proof, odor-proof plastic bag, but the bag also interferes with the natural process of decay.  Because Kristi’s body would not be embalmed, the funeral director suggested that the burial not be delayed for more than three days.

The family picked out a beautiful pine casket, handmade with dovetailed joints and carved details.  The casket had no metal or plastic parts, and no paint or varnish.  The entire casket would gradually decay along with its occupant.  Most cemeteries require a fully enclosed concrete vault or grave liner to prevent the ground from settling as the casket decomposes.  Settling graves create a landscaping problem, and are more difficult to mow, but OLOTR is OK with this expected process.  They just add a little more dirt or mulch to keep the ground even.  Some families don’t even use caskets; they just wrap their loved one in a shroud.

Over 300 mourners attended Kristi’s burial service.  Each person laid a single flower on the pine casket.  Donna embraced her daughter’s casket one last time and then it was lowered into the ground.  Donna was surprised when the casket was lowered, because she had not seen this done at more traditional funerals, but she actually felt a sense of peace and closure from seeing Kristi in her final resting place, under a blanket of flowers.  A mountain laurel was planted at the head of Kristi’s grave, behind an iron cross.  OLOTR encourages live plants and wildflowers as adornments of their gravesites.  Artificial flowers are not permitted.

Kristi’s stepfather, Paul, told me that planning a funeral is like planning a wedding, but it has to be done in three days.  Before Kristi’s passing, their family was like most; nobody really wanted to talk about their own deaths.  But now he recommends that every family have a meeting, possibly around the dinner table, to discuss each person’s preferences about organ donation and burial, BEFORE emergency funeral arrangements must be made.  Since Kristi’s death, everyone in her family has made his or her wishes known.  Donna has decided that when her time comes, hopefully far in the future, she wants to be buried naturally, right beside her beloved daughter, Kristi.

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