In my growing up years, we didn’t talk about carbon footprints, diminishing rain forests, loss of wildlife habitat, and the destruction of boreal forests. We certainly didn’t talk about dying and death, nor our cultural propensity to send off loved ones in mahogany coffins placed snugly into plastic or concrete vaults. We didn’t talk about the behind-the-scenes violence done to bodies by physical manipulation and chemicals, all for the sake of making them look good.
Cremation was rare, and there was no thought given to the toxicity of the chemicals released into the atmosphere. The more money we spent, the greater show of our love; our efforts were – and to a great extent in the West, still are – designed to hide the reality of both the dying process and the outcome. Hospice care didn’t exist in the U.S. until the mid-1970′s. The job of the medical profession was and continues to be to keep a patient alive no matter the cost.
Today I would like to introduce you to Lee Webster, the director of the non-profit New Hampshire Funeral Resources, Education & Advocacy. Lee is a hospice volunteer and a passionate advocate for home funerals and green burials. From the time I was first introduced – I can only describe it as a lightening bolt of clarity – I knew that what she offers is the obvious next step for all of us who are committed to walking a pathway of intention to minimize our ecological footprint and at the same time, create and enrich habitat.
Hers is a rich and comprehensive compendium, drawing together the threads of ecology, family and community, human dignity, ritual, practicality, history, and common sense. Lee has – unwittingly or not – sent me spinning into the eco-spiritual dimensions of home funerals and green burial. My thoughts are mostly taking the form of “I wonder”.
Ecological healing calls to me. As I think on being “buried green”, I wonder, if we humans were to acknowledge our appropriate place within the earth community, as part of, participating in, and integral to it – and therefore of no more and no less ecological value than any other form – would we behave cooperatively and collaboratively with creation? Might we grow a vision of healing that is antithetical to our current sense of human primacy and entitlement? What if we were to share our green plans with our children and grandchildren, letting them know that “buried green” is becoming the new normal? Might we put new thoughts and behavioral patterns into more than a few hearts and vocations?
Ritual, community, friends and family call to me. More than simply wondering how we have arrived at the predominate funeral home/church directives, telling us how things must be done, I wonder about the honoring of our dead in ways that are more organic to the lives they have led. We are not obliged to hand over the bodies of our loved ones to funeral homes; the families are in charge! It’s not a common understanding.
Lee shared with me what has become a powerful metaphor. We were in a restaurant and had just ordered from the menu. She shared with me a comment from her mentor Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council. “If you were to go to a restaurant, you’d be given a menu, from which you would order your preference. It wouldn’t occur to you to order something that’s not on the menu. It’s the same thing when you arrive at a Funeral Home. You are given a menu, from which you make decisions. It doesn’t occur to you to order something else, because you don’t know what’s not on the menu.” I wonder what we would choose if we knew there existed something other. I wonder what we would choose if we understood that the family of the deceased is the ultimate authority.
I wonder how a commitment to dying at home and buried “green” might serve as the ultimate embrace of one’s sense of place. My husband Jim and I have often had this conversation: “I would like you to dig a big hole (not easy in the Granite State), drop me in it, and plant a tree over me.”
We’re both a little short on the details, but we know the commitment is right. If I knew that I would be buried (according to the legal criteria) on the property I have shared with all kinds of life forms, would I treat this earth portion (and by extension, every part of the planet) differently? Would I love it and honor it? Would I be thrilled beyond measure to imagine the deer, raccoons, moose, mice, daddy long legs, bear, and squirrels walking over me? To imagine the earthworms and billions of microbes within me? I know I would.
And, as I age, I wonder if I would welcome my homecoming? I can only say I hope I would. I hope that as age continues to come my way, as the possibility of illness lurks, that my deepening sense of place within the earth community will offset not only my fear of dying, but also the fears of my family, my community, and my medical support.
We will all die. My hope is that I do so according to what I say I believe. Ritual is important, and I will want that. But I want its sacramental significance to correspond to the particulars of who I was in my lifetime. And I know another thing. If I had to choose between some ethereal heavenly sense of homecoming and a literal earthly homecoming, I would choose to come home to the latter.