A Burial I Can Live With

 

Today, I attended my first “green burial.”

That’s not strictly true. Actually, my trusty backhoe and I have officiated at countless green burials over the past thirty-odd years. Each of them has been a solemn occasion, with a decorative spray of seasonal flowers, and a short prayer. But, without exception, each of the green burials I’ve directed has had as the client a creature with four legs, and an all-over coat of some sort of wool, or fur, or hair.

The sad occasion of today’s green burial was the death of my stepson, Sam.

After much consultation with each other, Sam’s family decided that green burial would be something that Sam’s spirit would approve. He trod lightly on the earth, cared deeply for its creatures and its resources, and believed in the natural cycles. Being returned to the earth in a state in which he could be absorbed back into the earth would have suited him “down to the ground,” as it were.

Although I think laws differ from state to state, in Pennsylvania, if you’re able to accomplish the whole process from expiration to interment within twenty-four hours, you can do the whole thing yourself, without a funeral director. Even if you have a funeral director, you can still do parts of it yourself–you can make the coffin, or make the shroud, you can perform the service, lower the casket, fill in the grave. The rules of ritual are very relaxed. The rules of process are not–there’s no embalming, no artificial anything, no metal in the casket, only cotton, linen or hemp if you use a shroud, and so on. And I highly recommend a certified “green burial park” rather than the corner of an ordinary cemetery where they say they do “green burials,” for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.

Regardless of what you do, unless you do the whole thing yourself, it can still be quite expensive. Green funerals/burials are not a way to save money, and this post isn’t about the exorbitant and many would say excessive and unreasonable charges incurred from the funeral director. It’s about an alternative way of doing things, and about Sam and his family, and about finding peace.

Because of the challenging nature of Sam’s death, we couldn’t do the “24 hour” thing. (I might have been up for that under different circumstances), and because several days needed to elapse between his death and his burial we worked with a funeral director who knows the ropes and who also specializes in green burials.

A few months ago, Sam’s family bought a plot in what I believe is the area’s only certified green burial park so far, Penn Forest Natural Burial Park, about 50 miles from us on the other side of Pittsburgh.

And today, fourteen of Sam’s family members and closest friends met beneath a fruit-laden pear tree, where several folding chairs had been set up, and laid him to rest. Sam’s friends and family carried him, in a simple pine box with rope handles, from the hearse to the graveside. A large spray of wildflowers adorned his casket. A dear family friend spoke a few words and said a few prayers, and everyone in attendance told a few “Sam” stories. There were a few tears, and much, much laughter. (The winning story probably came from someone who’s known Sam over thirty years, and who remembered Sam, on one of his few forays into the corporate world, deciding that if he was going to fit in, he’d need a briefcase. But not just any briefcase. Sam hied himself off to the Goodwill, and returned to work the next morning wielding a shocking pink “Barbie briefcase” which he carried to and from work for years. The same storyteller, a respected author of numerous books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion, also described Sam as the most “naturally gifted writer” he’s ever known. He’s right about that).

After we told our stories, it was time to lower Sam into the grave. His friends and family did that, too. And then we each took a shovel full of dirt and started to fill in the hole.

All the while, we were in a beautiful natural forest and meadow setting, with life all around us in the form of birds and wildlife, and with the sounds of the sheep, the goats, the chickens and the donkey who live on the small farm within the boundaries of the burial park echoing around us. It was unlike any cemetery I’ve ever been in. What we did today, we could have done, in just the same way, in the eighteenth century. There was no machinery. No heavy equipment. No mechanical aids to get the coffin from one place to the other. Lines from one of my favorite poems started running through my head. It was, actually, lovely.

An experience I had been dreading turned out to be gentle, salvific, and healing. Peace, at last.

It’s given me an alternative I hadn’t considered before now. But I might, and I thought perhaps some of you might like to think about it as well.

THE EPITAPH 
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth 
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth, 
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own. 

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere, 
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send: 
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear, 
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend. 

No farther seek his merits to disclose, 
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose) 
The bosom of his Father and his God. 

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  1. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    Eternal rest grant unto him o Lord. Let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul rest in peace. Amen.

    Thank you for sharing this with us, again.

    • #1
  2. JudithannCampbell Inactive
    JudithannCampbell
    @JudithannCampbell

    Thank you for sharing this with us, She, still praying.

    • #2
  3. Nanda Pajama-Tantrum Member
    Nanda Pajama-Tantrum
    @

    Saints of God, come to his aid! Hasten to meet him, angels of the Lord!

    Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.

    May Christ, who called you, take you to himself; may angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham. 

    Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High.

    Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. 

    Receive his soul and present him to God the Most High. Amen.

    Prayed Mass for you all this morning…Nanda HUGS!

    • #3
  4. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I’m getting burnt.

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Thank you for sharing this lovely, touching scene. Still keeping you all in my heart.

    • #5
  6. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Hope for Peace for Sam and everyone he touched. God bless you all.

    • #6
  7. Mountie Coolidge
    Mountie
    @Mountie

    Thank you for sharing. 

    We did a variation of this with my best friend. He was cremated. 20 or 30 of us got together, dug a hole and planted a maple tree in it after sprinkling his ashes in the pit. The tree has grown and we like to think that some of his ashes have been pulled up into the life that now exists in the tree. It’s the way that I want to be laid to rest as well. 

    • #7
  8. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    My wife wants her ashes scattered on one of the Smokeys balds, and I’ll do it if I can.  But you can throw my ashes in a ditch on the side of the road for all I’ll care.

    • #8
  9. She Member
    She
    @She

    Thank you all so much, dear friends, for the kind words, and the prayers.  Yours, and those of others in our lives, help and sustain us more than you can possibly know.

    @mountie, thank you for sharing the story of your friend.  I feel very much the same way about Sam and the life that will grow up around and above him.

    • #9
  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Mountie (View Comment):

    Thank you for sharing.

    We did a variation of this with my best friend. He was cremated. 20 or 30 of us got together, dug a hole and planted a maple tree in it after sprinkling his ashes in the pit. The tree has grown and we like to think that some of his ashes have been pulled up into the life that now exists in the tree. It’s the way that I want to be laid to rest as well.

    For one of my in-laws, who loved camping (not hiking or any other adventure one uses a camp spot as base for, but the actual camping itself), the funeral “service” was a family road trip, visiting old campgrounds now part of family lore, and scattering some ashes at each one. A bit secular for my taste, but quite fitting for our in-law.

    • #10
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    @She, what a beautiful interment! May those memories be a source of peace in the days ahead.

    • #11
  12. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    May G-d bless and comfort you all. 

    May Sam rest in peace in the arms of G-d.

    • #12
  13. She Member
    She
    @She

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Mountie (View Comment):

    Thank you for sharing.

    We did a variation of this with my best friend. He was cremated. 20 or 30 of us got together, dug a hole and planted a maple tree in it after sprinkling his ashes in the pit. The tree has grown and we like to think that some of his ashes have been pulled up into the life that now exists in the tree. It’s the way that I want to be laid to rest as well.

    For one of my in-laws, who loved camping (not hiking or any other adventure one uses a camp spot as base for, but the actual camping itself), the funeral “service” was a family road trip, visiting old campgrounds now part of family lore, and scattering some ashes at each one. A bit secular for my taste, but quite fitting for our in-law.

    That’s wonderful!  It reminded me of a trek that my sister and I made in 2008 when we met in Prince Edward Island for a holiday recapitulating those of our childhood.  She’d brought (half of) Dad’s ashes with her (very fittingly, he had a lot of ashes, two urns full, actually).  My family has, in its many travels over the decades, always relished what we call a “packing challenge,” and bringing cremains across an international border certainly was one of those.  However, point of pride, she accomplished it.  But I digress.

    So, there we were, with Dad’s ashes, on PEI, and we decided to make a pilgrimage around his old trout-fishing spots.  We didn’t scatter him about at each one, but we wanted to visit them before we finally did scatter him, off the end of the North Rustico Harbor fishing wharf where he spent many, many happy summers catching smelt.

    A reminder, all round, that remembrances, funerals, burials and such, are as much, or more for the living than they are for those who have passed on.

    • #13
  14. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Sorry for your loss.

    • #14
  15. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing the story. It’s inspirational.

    The American way of dying costs too much. I have met some very kind and responsible funeral directors, and it’s nowhere near the industrial wedding industry, but it still bothers me. It also seems unnecessarily morbid. I avoid open-casket viewings for people I care about, because I don’t want that to be my strongest memory of them.

    I’ve left instructions to spend as little as possible on my arrangements: cremate and scatter my ashes around the place I love, the nature preserve where I live. Can’t think of anything better to do with my excess molecules. Once that’s done, throw a party.

    • #15
  16. She Member
    She
    @She

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing the story. It’s inspirational.

    The American way of dying costs too much. I have met some very kind and responsible funeral directors, and it’s nowhere near the industrial wedding industry, but it still bothers me. It also seems unnecessarily morbid. I avoid open-casket viewings for people I care about, because I don’t want that to be my strongest memory of them.

    I’ve left instructions to spend as little as possible on my arrangements: cremate and scatter my ashes around the place I love, the nature preserve where I live. Can’t think of anything better to do with my excess molecules. Once that’s done, throw a party.

    Oh, I agree.  And although I don’t want this thread to go in the direction of Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death,” because I really do believe that the way we handle the death of a loved one is more about the living than about the one who has departed this earth (so I don’t want to be critical of anyone’s choices), I can only tell you what I think.**

    A kinder, gentler way is what I also prefer.  Some favor cremation, and I like your example–be everywhere, starting with the place you love, and celebrate your life with a party (this is where I feel obligated to point out that I’ve always thought that the point of the funeral is to celebrate the life of the departed, not to get all weird, creepy and sad about the fact that someone isn’t here any more).

    **This satire, called “The English Way of Death” was part of the “Beyond the Fringe” revue of the late 50’s/early 60’s.  It’s possible you have to be a Brit to appreciate it.  But my family laughed itself silly at the time.  Yes, I actually am that old:

    Note:  Participating in this skit, we have Dudley Moore, known best in the UK as “Cuddly Dudley, and in the US for his role in the movie, Arthur.  Peter Cook, the “father of modern satire,” Dr. Jonathan Miller, and noted Hollywood and BAFTA screenwriter,  Alan Bennett.  Geniuses all.  In the days when comedy was about genius, and not about political hackery.

    • #16
  17. Nanda Pajama-Tantrum Member
    Nanda Pajama-Tantrum
    @

    She (View Comment):

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Sorry for your loss, and thank you for sharing the story. It’s inspirational.

    The American way of dying costs too much. I have met some very kind and responsible funeral directors, and it’s nowhere near the industrial wedding industry, but it still bothers me. It also seems unnecessarily morbid. I avoid open-casket viewings for people I care about, because I don’t want that to be my strongest memory of them.

    I’ve left instructions to spend as little as possible on my arrangements: cremate and scatter my ashes around the place I love, the nature preserve where I live. Can’t think of anything better to do with my excess molecules. Once that’s done, throw a party.

    Oh, I agree. And although I don’t want this thread to go in the direction of Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death,” because I really do believe that the way we handle the death of a loved one is more about the living than about the one who has departed this earth (so I don’t want to be critical of anyone’s choices), I can only tell you what I think.**

    A kinder, gentler way is what I also prefer. Some favor cremation, and I like your example–be everywhere, starting with the place you love, and celebrate your life with a party (this is where I feel obligated to point out that I’ve always thought that the point of the funeral is to celebrate the life of the departed, not to get all weird, creepy and sad about the fact that someone isn’t here any more).

    **This satire, called “The English Way of Death” was part of the “Beyond the Fringe” revue of the late 50’s/early 60’s. It’s possible you have to be a Brit to appreciate it. But my family laughed itself silly at the time. Yes, I actually am that old:

    Note: Participating in this skit, we have Dudley Moore, known best in the UK as “Cuddly Dudley, and in the US for his role in the movie, Arthur. Peter Cook, the “father of modern satire,” Dr. Jonathan Miller, and noted Hollywood and BAFTA screenwriter, Alan Bennett. Geniuses all. In the days when comedy was about genius, and not about political hackery.

    Beyond The Fringe/The Goon Show…forefathers of “Monty Python”, right? :-D  Glad you can start to laugh – and bring us along!

    • #17
  18. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    Peace and comfort to all of you.

    Incidentally, you’ve just essentially described a Jewish burial.  Not a new thing at all; we’ve been doing it “green” for millennia.

    • #18
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