Welcome to the second of a two part guest post from one of our super-star graduates, the remarkable Sylvia Sienikehä Pearlman. Sylvia is a holistic therapist, Reiki Master, hospice volunteer and certified death doula. She is the owner and founder of Soulmilk Healing Arts Studio based on the east coast of the US in Maine and on Hornby Island, British Columbia. If you want to read the first part, click here.
And What Do You Do?
I’m an (eco-conscious) Death Doula (part 2)
Beaches are beautiful, but what I really love are long walks in the cemetery. I find them serene, mystical and relaxing. My walks took on a different feel when I came across these staggering stats and I found myself stunned at the amount of stuff down there.
According to the Green Burial Council, in US cemeteries alone, 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluid are buried every year along with 20 million board feet of hardwoods, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze and 60,000 tons of steel. Yes, that’s year. Every.
Add to that the mega carbon footprint stamped by the manufacture and transport of caskets and grave liners, the gallons of pesticides and weed killer used to maintain those manicured cemetery grounds and soil and groundwater contamination from embalming fluids and iron, lead, copper, zinc, and cobalt used in caskets and vaults.
It doesn’t take an extraordinarily brilliant brain to arrive at the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, conventional burial practices are ecologically problematic. Mark Harris’ 2008 book Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial is a good read for more info on this topic. Green Burial Council is also a great educational resource.
As a result of the (at last!) maturation of our society, there is an increasing interest in green funerals, natural burials and conservation cemeteries.
So… what can we do
There are so many creative and simple ways to mitigate the environmental impact and encourage sustainable death care. For those who want to be as ecofriendly in death as they’ve been in life, it’s easy to support green burial practices – just say NO to grave liners, concrete vaults and toxic chemicals. Opt for burial without embalming, in a biodegradable container or shroud. Choose indigenous rocks and native plants in place of headstones.
If you’re a DIY type of person, you can build your own casket with renewable, nontoxic materials — wicker, quick-to-replenish pine, salvaged barn wood or pallets if you’re super creative. Needle and thread more your thing? Sew your own burial shroud from organic cottons and silks. Clay? Throw your own urn on the wheel or support a local potter. Decorate a recycled cardboard coffin with loved ones.
And, if you’re not the DIY type, the good news is, there are many amazing artisans who’ve already taken the liberty of creating these pieces for you. Just google sustainable coffin or eco-friendly urns to get started. The options are vast and much more fun (fun in funeral?) than the somber trot through the casket showroom at the funeral home. I know those mahogany premium 20 gauge steel caskets that come with a full rubber gasket seal and double locking mechanism are to die for, but, really, is it necessary?
I find this question immensely helpful when buying anything. Not that it always works! I just said that it’s helpful.
There was a time not so long ago when we were not so removed from death, when we were more comfortable with mortality and cared for our dead at home; bathed them, dressed them, buried them on our land. As a culture, we’ve lost touch with this intimacy with death. We readily embrace birth, yet death remains an untouchable unknown for most of us; morbid, icky, outside of our comfort zone. Although it is an organic and natural process just as birth is.
As more people seek out friendlier death practices, we begin to see death holistically in a new (more flattering) light. With the death positive movement picking up speed, there is a shift, a reclaiming of death taking place within the industry, with alternative death care and the natural burial and funeral movement. Death Cafés, Salon Morts, and Death over Dinner events are bringing death into the open so we can talk frankly about Frank’s death and by doing so, collectively contribute to the redefinition of our cultural relationship with mortality.
Conventional death care practices still serve a role – they can be beautiful in their own right, yet, the beef is that there is a tendency to be removed — sanitized, designed to protect the living from contact and connection with the deceased, and besides that, are often unnecessarily expensive. The current average ballpark range spent on an all-frills, full service funeral runs between $7,000 to $10,000. With this, you’ll typically see embalming, the elaborate metal and lacquered casket, concrete burial vault and tombstone, cut flowers, wreaths, floral sprays, manicured grave site, hearse, service and all the details and handling of the body and death care left in the hands of others. Just keep asking, is it necessary?
A full service conventional funeral may be the right fit for some families, and while there are many funeral homes and directors who do incredible work and provide touching and beautiful services — there are many factors worth considering. The environmental implications being foremost. Embalming fluids for one, contain a toxic cocktail of chemicals, including formaldehyde, a carcinogen and methanol, neurotoxic to animals. That’s a cocktail I plan to avoid at my final dinner party.
Uplifting side note: There are now formaldehyde-free embalming fluids; biodegradable, nontoxic and essential oil based.
While we’re on the topic. How did embalming get so popular?
Embalming didn’t even make the scene until the Civil War. Prior to this, in the 19th century, we simply kept our bodies on ice in the family home, most often in the front parlor used for formal occasions, also called the ‘death room’ when the deceased were kept and friends and family paid their respects before burial.
Interesting side note: After WWI, there arose the influenza pandemic of 1918, which caused some 50 million deaths worldwide. With so many dying, there was need for a ‘death room’. Once conditions stabilized however, it was the Ladies Home Journal which suggested the use of the term ‘living room’ for the parlor as opposed to the ‘death room’.
Back to embalming. During the Civil war, many men died. With the railroads refusing to transport decomposing (read: smelly) corpses of fallen Union soldiers, the need arose for a way to preserve their bodies so they could be returned home for a proper funeral.
In comes Dr. Thomas Holmes, the ‘Father of American Embalming’, a coroner’s physician in New York who invented an arsenic-based embalming solution based on mid-19th century methods developed by the French. In 1861, then serving as a captain in the Union Army Medical Corps, armed with his secret sauce and patented fluid pump, Holmes went to president at the time Abraham Lincoln and offered to embalm the body of Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, the first military casualty of the civil war and close friend of Lincoln.
As a result of a job well done and much praise for the Colonel’s lifelike appearance, Lincoln commissioned Holmes to train embalming surgeons or “field embalmers”, who would set up tents near the battlefield, or take over sheds and barns, offering their services to families whose sons were lost to the war.
Lincoln, not surprisingly given his support of the method, was embalmed after his death in 1865, a request made by Mary, his wife. (Interesting side note: Ironically, and perhaps tellingly, Thomas Holmes himself requested that his own body not be embalmed when he died.) The funeral train carrying Lincoln’s body from Washington D.C., to Springfield, Illinois, stopped for public viewing along the way so the public could pay their respects. During this time his body was viewed by hundreds of thousands and arrived in Springfield still well preserved. Embalming slowly gained legitimacy after this and modern embalming as we know it continues to this day.
The environmental implications of most conventional funeral practices are not entirely shocking. This next one might be surprising.
The dark side of cut flowers
You’d never guess that flowers; lovely, fragrant, faultless flowers, could possibly have a dark side. Yet they do. I hate to be the one to spoil your unsoiled opinion of these perfumed earth cherubs, yet, since becoming aware of this myself, spoil I must.
Most cut flowers sold in the US; wreaths, bouquets and sprays — unless labeled organic or known to be so, are laden with chemicals and pesticides, including DDT which has been banned in North America. These bad boys of the floral kingdom are grown overseas in flower farms and industrial scale hothouses. Many of which have been implicated in groundwater contamination and bird die-offs by the dumping of pesticide residues directly into waterways. Employees are poorly paid and in most cases work without adequate protection.
What to do? There’s no reason to go flowerless. Nationally known organic florists have established fair trade and fair earth practices. Cut them from your own garden, check your local farmers market for pesticide-free, organic flowers in season. Ask your local florist for flowers that are certified organic or sustainably grown or look for VeriFlora Certified Sustainably Grown and USDA National Organic Certification labels. Bio-dynamically grown flowers, while not USDA regulated, are still pesticide and chemical free.
Cremation, how green is it — And what about mercury?
While it’s true that cremation is not as environmentally destructive as full-service burial, it’s not perfect either. Cremation chambers (retorts) must maintain high temperatures between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit for between 45 and 90 minutes. This requires the burning of fossil fuels and therefore the release of greenhouse gases; carbon dioxide emissions and the vaporization of dioxins, furans and mercury.
Crematoria emissions. Everyone’s favorite topic.
The Cremation Association of North America, has said that the “design and operation of typical North American crematories provides significantly better emissions than regulations required, and exceeds expectations with the older operating systems.”
Truth? We’ll see. I’m sure that newer cremation facilities use less energy compared to the older ones. How significant the difference, only our atmosphere knows for sure, especially with one-third of Americans now choosing cremation over traditional burial.
Let’s talk mercury. We’re all aware at this point that mercury is highly toxic. We don’t let our kids break thermometers and roll the silver beads around in their hands anymore. I’ve heard of schools that have been evacuated with hazmat teams called in for a broken thermometer. Vaporized mercury is just as hazardous. It converts to methylmercury, a highly toxic compound which has been linked to autism and developmental disorders, and we risk the contamination of our water supply — and the fish that swim within it.
Yet, with all this known, dental fillings are still alive and well in our dentist offices, and we literally stuff our teeth with it. Humans. I will never understand us.
So, this being said, if cremation still fires you up, take your burning questions to the crematory. Ask about the fuel efficiency of the retort and the use of filters which lower the amount of pollutants and carbon dioxide released. Ask if they recycle pacemakers, medical implants and prosthetic limbs. Choose a no to low impact container or consider making a contribution to a carbon fund. Alkaline hydrolysis aka bio-cremation is an alternative option.
Future of death care and other ways to go
All of us should have access to meaningful, ecologically beneficial death care. With nearly 2 million people buried every year, the funeral industry is a booming multibillion dollar-a-year industry. It’s up to us what we want it to look like. Let’s make it beautiful, dignified and ours.
In addition to the death positive practices already mentioned, there are a number of alternative disposition options that are green, greener and greenest; like alkaline hydrolysis, promession, sky burial, memorial reefs, the mushroom burial suit (remember – from the dinner party?) and body composting via the Urban Death Project. To learn more, google them or corner me at a dinner party.