Friday, May 20, 2011

What We Leave Behind

All this apocalyptic talk of late has been an unfortunate reminder that no matter how hard we try to prevent the passage of time and how right and healthy we live, each and every one of us will eventually meet an end on this earth. Many believe that we move on to a place where we are reunited with the loved ones who have gone before us. Others see themselves in a continuous cycle of growth and reincarnation. And some of us, myself included, believe in something greater but can't quite define or articulate it just yet.

One aspect that we can all agree on is that goodbyes never get easier, nor do the difficult conversations and even more difficult decisions regarding how to honor the physical remains of the deceased in the hazy days after their passing. For the most part, the longer we live the more time we have to think about our legacy, what to leave behind with whom, and where we would like to be put to rest. Our decisions in this matter are likely a direct reflection of the culture to which we were born and our experiences with loss throughout life - and I am no exception to this rule.

I recently read that one in eight people who have ever been alive are alive today. The statistic sprung from a debate about unsustainable population growth, but my mind travelled to cemetery space and land development. I thought of conversations I've overheard between parents and grandparents about purchasing family plots and tried but failed to remember how many rows I'd counted and plots I'd circumvented as a child following my father to those spaces in the earth. I realized that I could, however, pinpoint the exact spaces beneath the trees of backyards-past where we put our pets to rest in cardboard boxes and with a short prayer. I thought of the fate of the small cemetery near my home that occupies "prime real estate" in the land being bulldozed into a shopping center and that perhaps we are foolish to think that what we consider sacred today will remain so forever, or even for a lifetime.

I believe that my generation and those following will face some new challenges regarding not only end-of-life care, but also after-life care. Maybe I am a little premature with this, but in the face of booming population numbers and growing fears about chemicals leaching into nature, something about embalming human bodies and the vast geometric span of the traditional cemetery doesn't seem sustainable, or at least not personal and warm enough for my taste. So I did a little research on alternative, sustainable and/or ecologically friendly ways to honor the deceased. Here is what I found:

Keep it Simple: Reducing your post-mortem footprint can be as simple as requesting that donations be made to an environmental organization of your choosing instead of flowers sent, or requesting that any flowers sent remain potted in soil and be re-planted. This small act makes a difference without disrupting traditions too much.

Let Nature Take its Course: Decomposition is going to happen regardless of the material of a casket and/or additional concrete sealing. The energy and expense that goes into the production and transportation of an elaborate body container may be the most unsustainable part of the process. Shifting tradition back to a plain wooden box or casket made from rice straw greatly decreases environmental and monetary costs.

Think Twice About Embalming: There are, of course, circumstances in which this kind of preservation may be unavoidable but for the most part, refrigeration can accomplish these purposes. Embalming fluids and contamination from blood-borne pathogens are extremely toxic to morticians and have been known to find their way into sewage systems.

Green Cemetery:  A burial ground that prohibits embalming, metal coffins, and vaults, and aims to maintain a natural landscape. There aren't too many of these in the United States but you can find them and learn more here.

The quickest way to reduce a body to its elements. Modern cremation units operate with air-scrubbing capabilities to keep air pollution to a minimum and use far less energy than what would be needed for grave excavation or construction of an above-ground mausoleum. One of the beautiful sides to this is the freedom of transportation and resting place(s) of remains.

The Giving Tree:
Planting a tree in memoriam is not a new idea but actually growing one in/with the ashes of the deceased may be. Spanish designer, Martin Azua, has created what he calls a: Bios Urn. It is a biodegradable urn made from coconut shell, compacted peat and cellulose and contains the seed of a tree (of your choosing). Once your remains have been placed into the urn, it can be planted and then the seed germinates and new life is born.

Research/Re-Use Route: It is not uncommon to donate organs. A fully functioning organ can breathe new life into an otherwise grim one and may very well be the greatest, most selfless gift one can give. Donating your entire cadaver to science is another selfless, resourceful option, but is potentially hard on the hearts of your relatives so if it is something you are considering, talk to your family about it. And consider reading Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers to get a feel for the realities your loved ones will have to live with.

As always, I don't mean to impose any views on anyone but merely to share ideas as I come across them. The alternative methods listed above are meant to be just that: a list of alternatives.


Becky said...

nice piece. that 1 in 8 stat is a little crazy.

Deborah said...

Thanks. And yeah... isn't it? Blew my mind. I was actually hoping Troy would see the tree part and make the same connection to the piggies in Orson Scott Card's Ender Series that I did.

Anonymous said...

Extremely thought provoking article. Food for thought LM

Deborah said...

I'm pretty sure I want to be turned into a tree. I read Mary Roach's book and was a little disturbed by some of the scientific endings... they are noble and kind and giving to humankind, but I think tough on the family, you know?