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O death, where is thy ecological concern?

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Survey Environment Seniors

The environment is an end-of-life issue: Caring for creation shouldn’t stop when we die.

By Joe Sehee, executive director of the Green Burial Council (www.greenburialcouncil.org), an organization “working to make burial more meaningful, simple, and sustainable.” Sehee is a former Jesuit lay minister and spiritual director and a senior fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program.

[Please take the survey that follows this essay.]

Last year, I was contacted by a woman named Jean who was seeking to arrange a “green burial” for her mother who was nearing her last days in hospice. In my role heading up the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization working to encourage environmentally sustainable end-of-life rituals, I’ve helped hundreds of people seeking out a funeral service with a minimal impact on the body and the environment. This was the first time, however, I’d aided someone whose affiliation as a Catholic seemed as strong as that of being ecologically conscious.

“My mother cared deeply about the planet,” Jean told me. “But she really cared about her faith, too.”

Knowing that being eco-conscious and Catholic were not incompatible, I set out to find a cemetery that would accommodate Jean and her mother. The first call I made was to a Catholic burial ground not far from their home. The person I spoke with at the cemetery balked at the notion of allowing anyone interred in “just a shroud,” as Jean’s mother wanted, rather than be placed in a casket. When I reminded him that Jesus was laid to rest in “just a shroud,” he told me, “Maybe so, but we’re just not comfortable with that.”

While this man was speaking only as a cemetery operator, he could have just as easily been representing the majority of American Catholics who, like most Americans over the past century and a half, have become alienated from a way of caring for the dead that the rest of world has always found appropriate, practical and comforting. But, thankfully, because of the burgeoning green burial movement in this country, growing numbers of us are getting reacquainted with the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” customs of our ancestors to better serve God’s people and planet.

Green burial allows returning to the earth in a manner that interacts with, rather than impedes, the natural process of decay and regeneration. A family forgoes embalming their loved one’s body with toxic chemicals, and avoids non-biodegradable metal caskets and burial vaults. Instead, a decedent, often washed by family members, is wrapped in a shroud or placed in a simple wood casket before being lowered into the ground. Some families even chose to help dig the grave rather than rely on heavy, energy-intensive equipment.

 While it can take place anywhere within a conventional cemetery (no state laws prohibit green burial even though most cemetery policies do), this kind of interment can also become a mechanism for creating sacred space within protected natural areas that enables us to experience life and death not as separate but as highly entwined. It’s also the antithesis of what we’ve been doing in this country for a long, long time.

The genesis of the American way of death goes back to the U.S. Civil War, when enterprising individuals discovered a market for the disinterment from battlefields of deceased Union Army officers. Their bodies were embalmed with arsenic and transported back home for burial. Though the war ended, the practice of embalming did not, due in part to the fact that the chemical companies, which manufactured embalming fluid, also founded the nation’s first mortuary schools.

The cross-country funeral of President Lincoln, which took several weeks to complete, is often credited with putting embalming and the modern casket on the map, as well as the notion that delaying the time between death and burial was not only decent but perhaps preferable.

During this same era, burial vaults were developed in England for the express purpose of deterring grave robbing. We began using them in the United States in the early part of the 20th century to prevent graves from settling, which increasingly became a problem as caskets grew larger.

As vaults became more ubiquitous, so does the use of equipment needed to haul them around burial grounds. A Catholic cemetery operator once told me that it seemed less than decent to think of heavy machinery “running over loved ones,” and potentially crushing their graves. I reminded him the heavy equipment that might do this is primarily used to move vaults, a risk that could be eliminated if vaults were too.

Vaults, along with the use of heavy caskets and the practice of embalming, were all sold to the American public because of the role played in “protecting” a body. This way of caring for our dead that we regard as “traditional,” is rarely seen outside of this country. And we’ve been paying quite a price for it.

Not only does an American pay on average nearly $10,000 for the typical funeral and burial, but the environmental impacts are also substantial. The Green Burial Council concerns include the protection of worker health, the conservation of natural resources, the reduction of carbon emissions, and the preservation/restoration of habitat.

Most embalming fluids contain any number of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde that have led to higher incidences of diseases like nasal cancer and leukemia among funeral workers. The 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in burial vaults, along with the nearly one million tons of metal that go into caskets each year in the US come with a great deal of embodied energy, which contributes to climate change. Conventional cemeteries, because of their often highly manicured lawns, also require a tremendous amount of natural (and unnatural) resources like water, gasoline, pesticides, and fertilizer.

Preventing people from being able to get in synch with the process of decay and regeneration has come with a hefty emotional and spiritual price tag too, which has led many of us to become alienated from our mortality. For Catholics, it flies in the face of some of the Church’s great spiritual teachers going all the way back to early Christian monastics—our desert mothers and fathers—who taught us that death is something we can befriend, particularly with the help of nature.

Green burial invites us to get up close and personal with our end-of-life rituals, which good ritual almost always requires us to do. Rather than handing over responsibilities to others, families can get involved with everything from body preparation to grave decorating, and almost anything else they deem important for honoring the dead, healing the living, and inviting in the divine. It also doesn’t take away options many families have found comfort in, such as public visitations or open-casket funerals, and even cremation. The end result is often a great deal of solace.

Several years ago, I presided over a graveside funeral at a green cemetery for a 3-year-old girl. Two of the girl’s grandparents were first generation Irish Catholics, and one of them told me how each week she visits the grave of her granddaughter, which rests underneath a small tree on the edge of a meadow. She recently remarked how the experience compared to visiting her mother’s burial plot back in Kilkenny.

“Death used to feel like a form of punishment with all those tombstones,” the woman told me. “But I don’t feel any of that here. I feel comfortable talking to my ‘little angel,’ and, Joe, I may not know a lot of things, but I do know she’s an angel.”

Catholic cemeteries have been slow to come on board the green burial movement, but the Green Burial Council has approved providers in more than 40 states, including a burial ground at a retreat center run by Trappist monks and two diocesan cemeteries.

One of them, Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Detroit, started a green burial section three years ago and buried Jean’s mother. Father Charles Morris, a diocesan priest and environmental activist since the 70s, was happy to allow for her mother to be buried in a shroud made from muslin rather than require a casket. He let Jean and her sisters lower their mother’s body into the ground on ropes rather than use a mechanical device. And he encouraged the family to shovel dirt onto the grave rather than let the back hoe do all the work. At the conclusion of the service, Morris blessed Jean’s mother and the ground with holy water from the river Jordan. As he did, a hawk flew across the sky. Morris, Jean, and her sisters all smiled.

Burial practices should not be industrialized, but in this country they are. What the growing number of eco-conscious American Catholics can bring about, is a kind of conversion that makes it economically viable for them to accommodate families who want to live—and die—with a lighter hand on the land.

By embracing green burial, the church can allow for a more authentically Catholic practice of caring for our dead: one rooted in a long-held spiritual tradition as well as a newer call to be good stewards of our earth. It will take Catholic cemeteries to get on board and individual Catholics to demand it, but if enough American Catholics want to make “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” once again mean something, it most certainly will.