Nat­u­ral buri­als: the ul­ti­mate re­cy­cling

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Liza Field Liza Field is a con­ser­va­tion­ist, tree-planter and ethics teacher in South­west Vir­ginia. She wrote this for the Bay Jour­nal News Ser­vice (BayJour­

Where do we go af­ter dy­ing? The an­cient spir­i­tual ques­tion has also be­come a prac­ti­cal, eco­log­i­cal one to­day — and au­tumn is a ripe time to ask.

Where should our re­mains go in a world in­creas­ingly crowded by hu­man ef­fects? At­mos­phere, water, land: All are get­ting filled with the de­bris of our lives — waste, gases, chem­i­cals go­ing ev­ery­where they don’t be­long. And the hu­man body? Our earthly re­mains have be­come noth­ing less than un­der­ground time bombs for ground­wa­ter. Ca­dav­ers get pick­led in gal­lons of formalde­hyde fluid; we ba­si­cally turn them into can­cer-caus­ing toxic waste.

Most are then tucked into wood-fiber cas­kets, like­wise sat­u­rated in formalde­hyde, methyl and xy­lene. That’s why cas­ket man­u­fac­tur­ers are among the top-listed haz­ardous waste pro­duc­ers tracked by the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

The toxic mis­sile then gets en­cased in a metal or con­crete vault — the whole con­trap­tion com­pris­ing a two-ton land mine to lodge in the ground. Even­tual leak­age is all but cer­tain, turn­ing the de­parted into poi­son for the very com­mu­nity the per­son might have worked hard dur­ing life to ben­e­fit.

Even above ground, com­mer­cial grave­yards are gen­er­ally dead zones va­cant of habi­tat. Un­like the old ru­ral ceme­tery full of bird­song and trees, most com­mer­cial grave­yards are just chem­i­cally de­pen­dent lawns, sprout­ing no more signs of life than some plas­tic flow­ers.

Why is all of this toxic land use con­doned on a planet in­creas­ingly pinched for liv­ing habi­tat? That’s an­other mys­tery. The EPA, charged with reg­u­lat­ing haz­ardous waste from cra­dle to grave, strangely An­napo­lis’ Last­ing Trib­utes Fu­neral Home of­fers green buri­als in Best­gate ceme­tery. over­looks all of the formalde­hyde in grave­yards them­selves.

Cre­ma­tion may seem a health­ier op­tion, yet it is an en­ergy waste and car­bon emit­ter. Each “roast­ing” takes 75 min­utes of ul­tra-high tem­per­a­tures, rapidly burn­ing vast amounts of fuel, while shoot­ing green­house gases, mer­cury and other con­tam­i­nants into the air, land and water.

And it still leaves the “cre­mains” — in­clud­ing mer­cury and other metal tox­ins — which fam­i­lies of­ten sprin­kle in fa­vorite na­ture spots, in­clud­ing water bod­ies.

Agriev­ing buddy of mine dis­posed of her dad this way — mer­cury fill­ings and all — scat­ter­ing his ashes over a beloved lake whose water qual­ity he’d worked hard dur­ing life to pro­tect. She later re­gret­ted the de­ci­sion and was up­set that she’d been told noth­ing about the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts.

But the ques­tion re­mains: What should be done with our bod­ies once or­gans have been do­nated and the bulk re­mains?

Bless­edly, our bio­sphere has been solv- ing this puz­zle — and quite cheer­fully — through­out the eons.

Check out any au­tumn land­scape where the dead are al­lowed to de­com­pose: leaf lit­ter, rot­ting logs, old feath­ers, bones, acorn shells, dry weeds in a field.

All of this de­cay turns seam­lessly back into life — mi­crobes, mosses, top­soil, wild­flow­ers, grubs for birds, mush­rooms for bears, am­phib­ians, in­sects, the en­tire web of life.

Na­ture’s path is not cra­dle to grave. It’s what green de­signer William McDonough calls “cra­dle to cra­dle” — life into life. It’s how our bio­sphere it­self evolved and got us here, and it’s meant to con­tinue long af­ter we’re gone.

That’s why it’s heart­en­ing that the green burial move­ment is re­sus­ci­tat­ing more gra­cious and grate­ful ways of re­turn­ing our­selves to a world that gave us its life.

These lower-cost, low-im­pact, chem­i­cal-free buri­als skip the ab­surd formalde­hyde in­fu­sions — pre­serv­ing water qual­ity, wood­lands and mead­ows, and let­ting re­mains de­com­pose into na­tive plants, trees, hu­mus and wildlife habi­tat. Many such nat­u­ral ceme­ter­ies use their prof­its for land preser­va­tion and some, like Steel­man­town Ceme­tery in New Jer­sey, even of­fer hik­ing trails in their burial parks.

Nat­u­ral burial op­tions are still rel­a­tively few. But soar­ing de­mand for them is open­ing the flow to con­ser­va­tion move­ments across the United States, re­open­ing vi­tal cir­cuits from death back to life.

It’s an un­ex­pect­edly up­beat twist in our plot line of plan­e­tary de­cline — a hap­pier end­ing for any­one alive to con­sider as the cur­rent au­tumn is re­turn­ing life to life.


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