Death, Sex, & Taxes

Okay, so this post has nothing to do with sex and taxes, but it caught your eye, didn’t it?

And if you’ve clicked through to this page, it might do you some good to read it all the way through despite it dealing with the subject of death.

The prospect of death has been one of my life-long fears, a fear I will hopefully be confronting head on in my upcoming Jill Purce workshop which starts this Saturday.  It’s the reason Bruce & I have  journeyed all this way to London – to spend a week with Jill Purce in an intensive healing voice workshop which will focus on purging fears, anxieties, phobias and the like using the Tibetan spiritual practice called Chod.    I don’t really know what this all means or how exactly we’re going to accomplish this, but I’m open to the experience.  And I’m sure to write about it once we’re done.

But back to the reason for this post.  My travels over the last six weeks has allowed me to meet with dozens of friends around the country.  It’s been great catching up – on  love, marriage, divorce, kids, parents, jobs, and, well, life itself.   Many of us are at that age of dealing with aged parents and facing the inevitable loss that will come;  we’re of that age where as a parent, one needs to think about their children’s future should something happen to us;  we’re at that age to think about grown-up things such as the need for wills, estate plans, and our post-mortem wishes.

Which brings me to the subject of eco burials.    If in life, we aim to be environmentally conscious, why not also in death?   How many of us have actually given thought as to what we’d like to happen upon our deaths?  How many have actually written it down and/or let other family members know our wishes?      How many of us know what our options are?

I came across the following article about eco-burials a few weeks ago in Eucalyptus Magazine, a free Bay Area publication and it gave me pause for thought.   Bruce and I have spent some time thinking about our post-mortem wishes, but I hadn’t come across some of the more recent options that are available to us.

Green burials – the thoughtful way to return your body to the earth.  It appeals to me and it’s catching on, both in the United States and in New Zealand (and I’m sure in other countries as well).    Have a read through this article and let me know what you think.    As we celebrate our lives, so should we celebrate our deaths.   Shroud decorating parties, anyone?


From Eucalyptus Magazine, September, 2011:

Death is a subject that most Americans don’t like to talk about, read about, or even think about. We plan for weddings, births, and retirement, yet few among us plan for our own death. But when someone dies, it’s not just his or her loved ones who suffer the loss. Death takes an environmental toll on Mother Earth, too.

According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), more than 60 percent of Americans choose to be buried in a casket in a cemetery (or their loved ones select that option for them). But the environmental cost of a traditional burial, including the metal and concrete production required for caskets, vaults, grave liners, and tombstones, is substantial. The damage is exacerbated if the deceased is embalmed, a process that uses toxic chemicals including formaldehyde to temporarily preserve the body. After an embalmed body is buried and begins to decompose, the embalming fluid leaches into the ground, contaminating soil and groundwater.

Joe Sehee, executive director of the New Mexico-based Green Burial Council, a nonprofit advisory group that promotes sustainability in the death care industry, points out that nearly 1 million tons of metal are buried in caskets in the United States. We bury enough metal each year to rebuild the Golden Gate Bridge, and enough concrete to build a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.

Sehee says that with increasing awareness of the environmental cost of traditional burials, “green burials” have become more popular. “We continue to get more hits on our Web site and more inquiries,” Sehee says. “People find a great deal of solace in not only being environmentally sound, but also in returning to earth and feeling that their death is somehow connected to their life.”

Typically, a green burial service involves burying a body without the use of embalming chemicals, metal, or cement. The body may be buried in a biodegradable casket or no casket at all. Instead of taking up space in a landscaped cemetery, the body might be interred in a “green cemetery”—a nature preserve of nearly untouched land. Green cemeteries, also called natural burial grounds, eliminate the environmental costs of lawn and landscape care, including irrigation, as well as upkeep to graves and headstones.

There are currently 22 cemeteries with natural burial grounds certified by the Green Burial Council. One of them is Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley, a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Its 32-acre green cemetery looks exactly like the hilly grasslands and mixed forests of the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area. There are no large gravestones, vaults, plastic flowers, waving flags, or mowed lawns. Embalmed bodies are not permitted. Natural rocks, wildflowers, or trees serve as grave markers, and each burial site is recorded for posterity with Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates.

Fernwood’s manager, Kathy Curry, says she gets calls from people who have read about green burials or heard about them on television, but the practice is still not widely known. She describes her business as “an educational process.”   “I think a lot of people don’t know that it is possible,” says Curry. “Often it’s just a matter of letting people know that [green burial] is an option and what it means. Then they’re interested.”

Sehee says that aging Baby Boomers are the demographic most interested in green burials. “They gave birth to Earth Day,” he says. “Baby Boomers want to participate more fully in their end-of-life rituals in a manner that is compatible with their values.”

The idea of green burial is not particularly new, nor is it particularly American. In Europe, more than 140 green cemeteries exist. The United States has only 15.   “There’s    definitely an increase in awareness of people wanting to do a green burial,” says Jerrigrace Lyons, executive director of Final Passages in Sebastopol, an organization that provides education and instruction for people interested in family-directed, home funerals. “We’ve had a lot of people wanting to choose that option.”For example, when Sebastopol resident Roberta Ryan lost her husband, Steve Rodin, she chose to give him a green burial. Rodin had been a landscaper for 30 years.

“He was a man of the earth,” says Ryan. “He had always been connected to plants and the earth and really understood the cycles of life.” She felt that a green burial was what he would have wanted because “he lived a green life. It was very much a part of his value system.”    Rodin was buried at Sebastopol Memorial Lawn Cemetery in an old-fashioned pine box with rope handles. Ryan pre-purchased a site right next to her husband and wants the same simple treatment when she dies.

There are other sustainable options for negotiating our departure from this mortal coil. In 2009, nearly 37 percent of Americans who died were cremated, up from 25 percent just 10 years before. In Canada, that number was more than 68 percent in 2009. Still, many eco-conscious consumers are wary of cremation because the incineration process requires fossil fuels (typically natural gas) and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In response to this criticism, the cremation industry has made efforts to decrease its carbon footprint. Some recent changes include using chimney filters to reduce emissions, employing solar energy to power furnaces, and utilizing the most fuel-efficient cremation containers.

Some cremation companies are opting for more high-tech solutions. Smart Cremations in Redwood, Washington, utilizes computer software that reduces cremation emissions by 30 percent, according to the company’s senior vice-president Jill Larson. The software is designed to make the burning process cleaner and more efficient.  “The fuel energy from the body and container are maximized, which in turn reduces the cycle time and therefore fuel consumption,” Larson says, adding that scattering someone’s ashes is “neutral” on the environment, meaning that it is neither good nor bad for the earth. “Cremation is growing by leaps and bounds,” Larson says.

The number of Americans who choose cremation over burial is expected to reach 51 percent by 2025, according to the NFDA.  For the family of the deceased, opting for either a green burial or cremation can save a substantial amount of money. The NFDA states that a traditional burial costs an average of $10,000 ($6,500 in funeral costs and $3,500 in cemetery costs), whereas according to Larson, a cremation costs about $1,300. “We’re talking almost a tenth of the price,” she says.

Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council agrees. “A green burial is a lot cheaper than a traditional burial. There are cost savings since embalming and burial vaults are not required. And eco-friendly caskets tend to be less expensive than conventional ones.”

A traditional casket costs between $2,000 and $10,000, depending on its materials. Biodegradable caskets are usually made out of inexpensive materials like rattan, wicker, or even cardboard. One Bay Area company, Colma Cremation and Funeral Services, sells caskets made of willow, seagrass, or bamboo for less than $1,500. Funeral Director Joseph Stinson says, “When given the choice, [people] will go for natural as opposed to artificial.”

Wrapping the body of the deceased in a shroud may be the most inexpensive option. Kinkaraco Green Burial Products, based in San Francisco, sells biodegradable shrouds priced at $399 and up, which can be used either with or without a casket. Available in a variety of fabrics including linen, hand-woven wool, and silk dupioni, the shrouds come with a handle and strap system that allows the body to be lowered for burial.

Kinkaraco’s founder, Esmerelda Kent, says that shrouds have been used for centuries by people of many religions. Burial in a shroud, she says, “is a practice devoid of unhealthy chemicals, glues, toxins, or violating invasive procedures, which allows only organic matter into the earth without metals or any synthetic fibers.”

That idea of organic decomposition appeals to Corrina McFarlane, an eco-conscious, 54-year-old Santa Cruz resident. McFarlane has decided that when it is her time to go, she wants a green burial. Specifically, she wants to be buried in either a tubular-shaped coffin made from a willow tree or in a shroud made of organic cotton. She sees her future green burial as “a continuum that’s in line with my life choices.”

“If you’re a person who has been ‘lit up’ by all of the concepts surrounding sustainability and leaving as light a footprint as possible, then you are not breaking faith with the choices you’ve made in your life,” McFarlane says.


For resources in New Zealand,  see  Natural Burials NZ and this article on NZ eco funerals.