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Plant Yourself

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In early September, I conducted a random poll of Hudson Valley residents. It read: “What would you like to have done with your body at the time of your death?

A. Conventional burial (embalming, expensive casket, concrete vault)
B. Cremation with embalming
C. Cremation without embalming
D. Sea burial in a metal casket
E. Green burial (no embalming, pine/wicker/cardboard coffin or cloth
shroud, burial in a natural or private cemetery)

If your choice is not listed, it’s probably illegal.”

The survey results proved interesting, as some decided to have fun with it. One individual requested burial with “a granite sarcophagus, a gold-lapis-turquoise-coral death mask, and three levels of gold outer sheathing”; another requested a backyard pyre. One friend wanted to be cremated and pressed into vinyl LPs, preferably records that he played on, that would be owned by “smokin’ nubile babes.” Another person said, “Just drag me outside and put me under one of the rocks,” and another desired to have his bones picked clean by birds: “string me up in a forest canopy that is frequented by corvids,” following his preferred method of death—tickling. Another said, “I want to be set adrift in a flaming Viking longboat”; one said “the idea of being mummified Egyptian-style appeals to my crafty side.” Finally, one individual opted for “non-embalmed cremation, preferably for the process to heat a hospital or run a generator at the same time,” or “an organic, cloth-shroud burial or birch bark casket in a thriving tree-filled park that children play in, not a stone-and-sadness-filled graveyard that takes up common green space. Compost me!”
Many who chose between the five legal options felt strongly about one of the choices, but some had difficulty deciding between two of them.

Here’s how it summed up:
Five percent requested a conventional burial, three percent wanted cremation with embalming, 39 percent wanted cremation without embalming, seven percent preferred sea burial, and a plurality, 46 percent, desired a green burial. (Keep in mind that this is Hudson Valley, and the people I encounter on a daily basis are probably more progressive and environmentally conscious than, say, the good citizens of Booger Holler, Georgia.)

The industry
An in-depth analysis of the five options in my survey would take more than one magazine article. For the curious, there are several books on the market that reveal shocking information about the funeral industry and its methods. The 1963 bestseller, The American Way of Death (Simon and Shuster) by Jessica Mitford, is a scathing critique of the modern death care business. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003, W.W. Norton) by Mary Roach is morbid, fascinating, and hilarious at times. Indisputably the bible of any natural death care advocate is Grave Matters (2007, Scribner), by environmental journalist Mark Harris, which takes readers on a journey through the industry, beginning with the “tired, toxic send-off on offer at the local funeral parlor.” His detailed chapter on conventional preparation and embalming is enough to make you sick (many people are unaware that embalming is not required by law). Harris then presents chapters on more natural options: green cemeteries, sea burials, memorial “reef balls,” EXPL home funerals, and backyard burials.
Desiring more local information on what the majority of those polled are interested in, I turned to funeral directors themselves. I cracked open the Yellow Pages to discover a whopping 80+ funeral homes listed in the Hudson Valley and spent a week phoning mortuaries at random. Though some didn’t know much about green burials, others had kept abreast of, or at least knew something about, the topic. However, most rarely perform green services outside the Jewish or Muslim faiths, simply because it is not requested. (Within those faiths, embalming is generally shunned as unnatural and they often have their own private cemeteries or special sections within public cemeteries.)

I was perplexed. Nearly half the respondents to my survey desired a green burial, yet green burials are rarely performed. I surmised that the general populace believes that green burials are too complicated or non-existent. One person in my survey had said, “I’d love a green burial, but isn’t that illegal?” This made me wonder if the survey was too leading. If I had merely offered the two undetailed options of burial or cremation, most would probably have opted for cremation, not realizing that many people are first embalmed for viewing purposes prior to cremation, and thinking that “regular” burials are complicated, costly and, perhaps, environmentally unfriendly.

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