Gardeners are probably more tuned into the cycle of life than people that don’t garden. Gardeners know that every living thing returns to the soil after it ceases to live where it then decomposes and supports new life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. So what do you, as a gardener, want to have done with your body when you die? Do you want to have a modern funeral with embalming, tightly sealed casket and vault or a natural, simple alternative that returns your body quickly to nature’s cycle? While most people don’t like thinking about their own death it’s important to make some decisions what you want done with your body after the inevitable happens.
Baby boomers and the generations that come after them are more likely to consider how their death and burial will affect the ecology and environment. As the generations more attuned to considering the environment in relationship to themselves age, more and more people are choosing more natural burials. The modern method of burying our dead has also become outrageously expensive. More people would rather spend their money on doing things while they are living or don’t want to burden relatives with the high cost associated with modern traditional burial practices. The funeral industry has picked up on this trend and it has actually become easier to find places to have “green” burials. And about 40% of people now choose to be cremated rather than buried.
As a gardener you may be pleased to think that your body decomposing will help continue the cycle of life on earth. You may want your remains to nourish microbes and feed plants. Above you a mighty oak may grow or a sweetly scented rose. The things you took from the land are rightfully returned to it. You are one with the land again. Being knowledgeable about burial practices will help you choose a peaceful, nourishing, righteous end to your brief span on earth.
Modern conventional funerals
In a modern, conventional funeral a body is moved to a funeral home soon after death and prepared for burial. This will include embalming fluids, elaborate make up and posing strategies, a casket, now often made of metal or heavily varnished and treated wood and a vault. Vaults are cement or metal boxes that hold the coffin and that don’t break down over time. They aren’t required by any state or federal law, but almost all cemeteries now do require them. It will also require the purchase of a plot of land within a cemetery or in some areas a spot in a mausoleum. A modestly priced modern funeral easily costs $10,000 today.
Vaults keep the ground from sinking in as a coffin collapses either because of natural decomposition or heavy machinery overhead. It makes the maintenance of the cemetery grounds easier, although funeral planners will often sell it as “protection” for the remains. In some places a grave liner is allowed. This is a vault with no bottom. This is slightly more environmentally friendly than a vault. Vaults effectively keep decomposed remains and coffins from being returned to usefulness in the environment as do tightly sealed coffins made of various metals or now even plastics.
And make no doubt about it, vaults and sealed coffins, even embalming fluid, do not keep the body from decomposing, if that is the goal. Embalming fluid, which is composed of dangerous, toxic chemicals that pollute the soil when they leach into it, keeps the body preserved only for a short time. In sealed coffins and vaults the body still decomposes because bacteria are always present, only it does so in a nasty, wet, and fast manner, without any benefit to soil microbes and animal and plant decomposers. In natural, soil contact decomposition many things benefit from the body and coffin materials as they break down in a slow, natural manner. Contact with the soil is the natural and desirable way for a body to decompose.
A conventional modern funeral is not environmentally friendly, can cause actual environmental damage, does not allow the natural processes of nature and is very expensive. There are some things you may be able to negotiate that can reduce costs and may help the environmental impact. Opt for a grave liner instead of a vault or no vault if you can find a cemetery that will allow that. Use a decomposable coffin, by law you are allowed to build your own coffin or buy one from any merchant. Choose coffins without metal handles or decorations. Choose not to be embalmed; it is not legally required unless the body is to be transported after 48 hours from death.
Cremation is the second most environmentally friendly method of dealing with death and probably the least expensive. About 40% of people in Michigan chose cremation as the final disposition of a body. The practice is common enough that most funeral homes can handle it and while pre-planning is always a good thing cremation can occur easily without it. Cremation must take place in a licensed facility. And Michigan is one of the few states that legally require that a licensed mortician (funeral director) be involved with every death. A hospital or morgue will release a body only to a licensed mortician. Death certificates are not issued without a mortician’s signature. This will cost you; costs vary but expect a minimum of $2,000.
Cremation uses a lot of oil based energy in the many hours at high temperatures required for cremation. It also releases certain chemicals into the atmosphere, depending on the body that can include mercury and lead plus numerous other substances our bodies accumulate over time. Cremation destroys most of the value a body has for replenishing soil nutrients. But it conserves land, and resources needed for coffins and eliminates toxic embalming chemicals. As far as expenses go, it depends on what services a person wants in addition to the cremation. There is a fee for cremation. That usually includes a cardboard or plastic container for the remains. The cost of an urn or other container, if wanted, can be considerable or simple and inexpensive. You can hold visitation in a rented coffin if wanted. However, cremation generally costs about half of what a conventional funeral will cost.
When cremation is finished the remains do not look like ashes. Instead they are unburned chunks of bone, teeth, tooth fillings and medical implants. A magnet is used to remove any metal and then the remains are pulverized to a fine powder. It is legal to scatter ashes on any private property, (with permission if it isn’t yours) and many public areas like parks also allow it. Some require a permit. You can dispose of ashes in the Great Lakes, as long as any container is bio-degradable if it’s thrown in with the ashes. Ashes must be deposited 3 miles off shore on the ocean. You cannot drop ashes from the air legally.
A new concept in many modern cemeteries is a scattering garden. For a fee people are allowed to scatter ashes in a beautiful garden and rake them into the soil. Most also have a monument where name plagues for those whose ashes were scattered can be added. You may also buy one plot and bury several sets of ashes in it in many cemeteries.
You may think that cremation ashes will act as fertilizer and help plants grow, but this is not true. Carbon, nitrogen, and all the usable nutrients for plant growth are long gone. Cremation ashes are primarily tri-calcium phosphate with small amounts of other minerals and salts unique to each body. Every set of ashes is different depending on the person’s diet and occupation and exposure to heavy metals and chemicals. The ashes are sterile and don’t transmit disease. But they could harm plants if too much is applied in one spot. That is why you should never dump cremation ashes in a hole and plant a tree on top of them. But scattered around a garden and lightly raked into the soil the ashes will not harm anything.
A green burial is the most environmentally responsible way of burial. It is less expensive than a conventional funeral and can be less expensive than cremation if carefully planned. In a green funeral bodies are not embalmed, except in some cases with natural herbal methods. Embalming is not a legal requirement unless bodies are moved on public transportation such as a plane or train. If you are thinking about a green funeral and a body must be transported some distance for burial you must carefully research what the requirements will be, what permits are needed and how you will accomplish the transportation well before the need arises.
In a green funeral the body is buried in a decomposable shroud (cloth wrappings) or simple, untreated wood box, or a coffin made of other materials like wicker that readily decompose. You can build your own coffin, or buy one from a place other than a funeral home. Beautiful handcrafted shrouds are also available.
The green burial is done in a cemetery designated for green burials and no vaults or grave liners are used. Most of these cemeteries are kept as natural areas, no formal plantings and no headstones are allowed. (Some places allow a small marker.) Some are mowed, most are not. There the body will be naturally and peacefully returned to the earth and benefit many living things. There are several of these cemeteries now in Michigan and across the United States. Some are adjacent to conventional cemeteries.
Burying someone on private land is allowed in many places but there are regulations on how much property one must have and the distance the grave must be from other homes. You won’t be able to bury someone in a suburban backyard. In Michigan you must establish a family burial plot, which must be less than one acre in size. It must be surveyed and recorded at the register of deeds as a family burial plot. While this will cost you, the good news is that piece of land will not be taxed. If you want to have a green burial on your own property you must research the zoning regulations, and get any necessary permits and survey work done well before the need arises.
A green funeral is less expensive than conventional funerals but it does have costs. Once again in Michigan you will need to hire the services of a licensed mortician. A burial plot must be purchased or a survey paid for. Coffins or shrouds are needed. You may need to pay for transport from a morgue or hospital. You can transport the body in your own vehicle if certain conditions are followed but many people will not be able to do that.
You are free to clean and dress the body at home and to hold visitation at a place of your choosing. But you may be required to use herbal embalming or refrigeration of the body if it will be held more than 48 hours before burial or if it will be transported somewhere for burial. The use of dry ice or refrigeration can temporarily preserve a body. Some funeral homes have refrigeration units for bodies because some religions forbid embalming also. You may be able to store a body there for a short time or even hold visitation sessions there. But you will pay for the services.
A green funeral must be planned in advance. Not all morticians will handle green funerals; you must find someone who is sympathetic to your needs. In green funerals time is of the essence, you must know where the burial will take place, have the coffin or shroud ready and every detail worked out in advance. It cannot be stressed enough that pre-planning is needed if you intend to have a green burial.
If you are a person who considers yourself a humble part of a greater web of life you will want to consider green burial. Imagine yourself being washed and anointed with sweet smelling herbs, then wrapped in a beautiful piece of cloth you have chosen. Then you are lovingly lowered into the earth and a mound of flowers heaped on your grave by your loved ones. There you will nourish the grass that waves above you and become one with the roots of the tree that shades you. Gone, but still part of life.
Kim Willis lives near Clifford, Michigan on a small farm that she shares with her husband and numerous animals. She worked at the Lapeer County MSU Extension office for many years but is now retired. She is a freelance country and garden writer. Her book Complete Idiots Guide® to Country Living was published in November 2008. Her best selling chicken book, Raising Chickens for Dummies® was published in 2009. She also wrote Knacks Canning, Pickling and Preserving (2010) and Cooking with Beer (2012).