Could Utility Trump Memorialization in a Green Burial?
One of the more thoughtful comments to the Grave Matters blog came a couple of weeks ago from Thomas Friese.
Responding to my post about how some funeral directors have dismissed green burial as a mere fad, Thomas praises the green burial movement -- with this cautionary note: Natural return -- with its emphasis on restoration ecology, land preservation, and resource-sparing interment -- is certainly good for the environment. Yet, if the graves in natural cemeteries are marked only with trees, the green burial movement runs the risk of de-emphasizing the personhood, the individuality, the memory of the deceased. If that happens, Thomas writes, natural burial becomes a mere utilitarian and "nihilistic" mode of body disposal.
I have posted Thomas' comments in full below. I invite your responses. I'll return with mine in the coming weeks.
Mark Harris Author, Grave Matters (www.gravematters.us)
Note: The photo above was taken in on the ashes-only FriedWald in Germany (the subject of last week's blog).
From Thomas Friese:
I can't say enough about how positive I find the growing movement towards natural burials. Poisoning our mother earth with formaldehyde and filling her up with concrete and steel is entirely unjustified. As is poisoning her with mercury from our dental fillings and wasting so much fossil fuel by cremating our bodies. YET I need to mention a potentially nihilistic trend which I perceive in some aspects of the natural burial movement.
The thought was prompted by a recent reading of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, whose awful utopic vision seems to be coming true in many aspects. Among the negative developments for humanity in the brave new world, Huxley predicts the ultimately nihilistic attitude towards death. In the brave new world, only cremation exists. When people die, they are immediately transferred to a central crematorium, where they unceremoniously disappear in a puff of hot air. No funeral service, no mourning or sadness, no memorialization at all - people have been thoroughly conditioned from early childhood to altogether disregard death, see it as quite inconsequential, not worth a second thought. Indeed, the only significant emotion their conditioning leaves in them regarding death is that by being cremated, they will contribute to society via the fertilizer recovered from their body's cremation. That is, they will help grow plants. I quote:
"Why do the smoke stacks (of the cremetorium) have those balconies around them?" enquired Lenina.
"Phosphorous recovery", exclaimed Henry. "On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. Phosphorous used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight percent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of 400 hundred tons of phosphorous every year from England alone." Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as if it had been his own. "Fine to think that we can go on being socially useful even after we're dead. Making plants grow."
We understand that in the Brave New World, the significance of death has been reduced to the amount of useful fertilizer returned to the environment, to a merely ecologically useful function.
To return to the natural burial movement now. We can only agree that land conservation, pollution reduction, energy conservation and tree planting are noble and necessary aims. And that conversely, preserving the material body is evidently NOT the point - only the ancient Egyptians and 20th century North Americans thought this at all relevent.
THE POINT IS that burials and funerals should never become ONLY about their utility to the earth's ecology and to the social collective. Eliminating our negative effects on the earth and collaterally conserving green space are only first steps in redressing the historical aberration that our modern death care has become. Then we need to return to the truly traditional aims of death care, those primary aims which have motivated people through the millenia: paying tribute to the existence and dignity of the individual; creating momento moris for the survivors; and testifying to hopes of transcendence and immortality in whatever form that takes for a particular people. Whether people are cremated or naturally buried, if no LASTING individual markers and no eternally protected and sacred burial sites are left, these three primary functions will not be served and the natural burial movement will have failed in its potential.
Which means that conserving green space by burying people there and then forgetting who those people are is insufficient. That only planting a tree as a grave marker, though it may serve the earth and thus society, is insufficient. Trees are among Man's oldest and most faithful friends and protectors, and the more we have the better - but trees die like humans, sometimes sometimes sooner, sometimes later. Thus they cannot be substitutes for lasting and individualized grave memorials.
Why do we think this is an either/or situation? We can have more trees, more protected green space AND lasting memorials and cemeteries. If "traditional" grave stones and cemeteries provoke aversion and morbidity in people today, let's change the way we memorialize - all sorts of appealing, meaningful AND natural alternatives might be created with artistic imagination and creative use of technology. After all, ancient burial sites that archeologists now uncover contain no plastic or concrete, only natural materials that have lasted thousands of years. Are we not capable - or worthy - of something equally lasting, beautiful, dignified and individual?