|Thursday, May 18, 2006
Old Newsletter Articles volume 1
Thursday, May 18, 2006 :: 82271 Views :: Ramblings at Ramsey Creek
Rest in Perpetual Wilderness
(Note - Sometimes, people ask where the idea for Memorial Ecosystems came from. The following article was published in 1988 in Katuah, the (unfortunately) defunct journal of the Southern Appalachian Bio-region. At the time, I envisioned a non-profit entity, and was probably less sensitive to the problems that memorial nature preserves could present to very sensitive landscapes and American Indian archeological sites. In an upcoming article, I will delve into why we think that a socially responsible for-profit might get the job done quicker, and will provide more details on the early history of Memorial Ecosystems.)
In the densely populated highlands of the island of New Guinea in the lands of the once cannibalistic Fore (pronounced "for-AY") tribe, there are still pockets of untouched wilderness. These are the sacred groves, or ples masalai, near which the bodies of their dead are buried. The Fore regard these areas with fear, believing that here the ghosts of the dead are waiting to possess the bodies of any who enter. Because of their fear, beautiful, wild, untouched stands of the original forest still exist in the midst of agricultural lands and a teeming human population.
When my father died, the funeral director, a decent person and a friend from childhood, steered us toward his top-of-the-line casket. It cost more than a lot of cars do. We settled instead for the only wooden model that he had. He cautioned us that it was not "watertight," but consoled us with the fact that Dan Blocker (Hoss Cartwright on the TV show "Bonanza") was buried in an identical casket.
Next be showed us the vaults. The first was Italian scrolled, guaranteed not to leak for 100 years and able to withstand thousands of pounds per square foot of overpressure. I told the director that it all seemed silly. First of all, who was going to check to see if it leaked, and who cared if it did? Such strength might come in handy if we were trying to protect the corpse from a direct nuclear strike, but otherwise it seemed pretty useless. I suggested that we not have a vault.
The director seemed aghast at the idea. "Billy, the casket you picked is not watertight. If you don't get a vault, in a few years the ground above will sink in. Family members would have to deal with the fact that dirt and water are going in on the loved one." Ultimately, my father's body was pumped full of toxic chemicals, placed in a casket, which was placed in a vault, buried in an over-manicured graveyard, and covered with pea gravel. The whole affair cost $4,000.00.
The ples masalais of the Fore inspired me with a different idea. I would rather have laid my father's body to rest in a wild setting, full of the quiet and peace of nature...a place reached by a trail instead of a road, where trees would stand guard over my father's remains and in turn be nourished by him to stand tall in his memory. Why is this not possible? Why could we not put the money that is spent on expensive burials and sterile plots into the purchase of natural settings that could also act as protected habitat areas? Sacred groves, certainly. The money that we invest in funerals and "perpetual care" today is considerable. The Wall Street Journal stated in May of 1985 that there is more than $4 billion invested in funeral trusts in this country.
I live where the mountains drop to the piedmont in South Carolina. Land here goes for $800 per acre. Together, one thousand members of a memorial society, each contributing $1,000 (which is only one-quarter the cost of my father's burial) could purchase 1,250 acres of land: a significant parcel of land that would serve as a lasting (and, to my mind, a fitting) legacy for future generations.
Large undeveloped tracts near towns would be the first sites to be considered as memorial forest areas, especially those unlikely to be protected by government or other private programs. Unprotected Indian mounds, especially those in proximity to extensive woodland areas, would be prime sites. The membership in a given area might sponsor a survey and biological inventory of significant sites.
Burials in this memorial forest would have to be simple. Bodies could not be preserved, and any containers would have to be built of easily degradeable materials. Formaldehyde, with which bodies are preserved in standard practice, is a poisonous material. Present-day memorial parks are hazardous waste dumps, filled with small, sealed capsules of toxic chemicals, the grass above artificially maintained a perfect green with another assortment of toxic materials.
While some might want their remains cremated and their ashes scattered, others would want a marker designating a specific place of interment. Instead of the usual tombstones, more natural markers would be appropriate. In keeping with the concept of creating vignettes of wilderness, living plants, or colonies of plants, might be best. A particular burial site might be graced by a colony of orchids, for example, or perhaps trilliums.
Living memorials could be coordinated by a resident restoration ecologist in areas that have been heavily impacted. In such a setting, an American chestnut tree might make a particularly good memorial. Because of the continuing blight problem, native chestnuts will probably need human help if they are to survive outside of orchards. The setting would offer a rich source for ritual. Imagine a communion ceremony using chestnut bread and muscadine wine. Limiting harvesting of stunted trees from the forest would yield materials to make heirloom baby cradles, marriage beds, or even caskets. While it is consistent with most religious beliefs, the practice of using funeral parks could be transforming, "greening" Christianity, Islam, or other spiritual practices.
I wish my body to nourish a part of the living forest, marked only by a colony of trilliums or a chestnut tree, in an area that would be pleasant and rejuvenating for others to visit, in which they would be reminded of life’s continuing cycles of growth and death, decomposition and rebirth. This would be truly a sacred place.
Is Natural Burial Strange?
Apparently, some people are unsettled by the idea of natural, “green” burial. To them it seems strange that anyone would want themselves or their loved ones buried in a plain box off in the woods and meadows. Perhaps these critics should consider a recent court action in upstate
SC. It is unarguably a bizarre and macabre lawsuit. The Anderson, SC plaintiff alleges that she spent nearly $18,000 on her husband’s funeral, casket and mausoleum space in an effort to preserve her husband’s body from decay. It seems that the couple wanted their young son to be able to open the casket (after he was grown) to view his father’s uncorrupted body. Four months after her husband’s interment, in the heat of a Southern July, the wife noticed a bad smell and something leaking from the mausoleum space. She demanded to see the body, and was psychologically traumatized and made physically ill by the site of the badly decomposing body of her husband. She is seeking actual damages for improper embalming as well as damages for pain and suffering.
The case raises obvious questions that allow most of us to distance ourselves from the weirdness of the situation: Wouldn’t the child have been better served by a collection of letters or perhaps a videotape archive of his living and breathing father? Why would the child want to see the body? Did she really expect that the corpse would remain in perfect repose for 20 years of brutal Southern summers? Who would spend that kind of money for that?
While we might take comfort that we would never be involved in such a situation, the majority of Americans are still spending outrageous sums of money for services not that far removed from the SC example. While $18,000 is definitely high end, the average expense in SC for funeral, embalming, vault, casket and burial space runs about $6,000. And although few of us plan bi-annual family visitation with the deceased, the sales pitches often involve 100 year guaranteed, “leak-proof” caskets and vaults, or the “dignity and other advantages of above ground, dry interment”. Apparently, a lot of us feel very uncomfortable with the entire idea of decay.
An unspoken truth is that modern embalming is not a perfect science. The Egyptians developed an elaborate funerary art for preserving their dead. One hundred years after mummification, I would imagine the pharoahs still looked pretty good. Four thousand years later, they are relatively gruesome. While generations of morticians have labored to keep Vladimir Lenin looking as if he just lay down for a nap in Red Square, I doubt his corpse will be in as good a shape as King Tut’s in another 300 years. The Egyptians and the Soviets had good reasons for spending the kind of resources that such treatment demanded. The Egyptians’ religious beliefs required an intact corpse for admission into the afterlife. The Soviets were developing a substitute for religion: the cult of personality. The reasons for the multi-billion dollar industry devoted to preserving average Americans are more obscure. And as the Anderson court case so graphically illustrates, the results are generally far inferior to King Tut’s and Vladimir Lenin’s.
The effort of the family in Anderson was by no means on the far extreme in the modern American quest to preserve the human corpse. That distinction goes to the groups offering cryogenic storage of the deceased. The ultimate goal is to bring these dead back to life when the cure for whatever killed them is developed. The problem of course, is that they are already dead when they are frozen, ice crystals destroy brain tissue, and the world will almost certainly have more than enough people in a hundred years or so. Most scientists would agree that the chances that any of these people are ever going to wake up in the future is exactly equal to the chance that the Heaven’s Gate cult members woke up on a space ship hiding behind Hale-Bopp.
It has not always been this way. What passes for traditional death care in America today is actually a recent development. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” are words still spoken at many funeral services, even if the burial custom is geared to prevent that very occurrence. The founders of the early 19th century memorial park movement recognized the importance of natural burial. Wordsworth, in an essay on epitaphs written for Coleridge’s 1810 The Friend, wrote that city cemeteries were inferior to burials in rural parks “for the want of soothing influences of nature, and the absence of the types of renovation and decay which the fields and woods offer to the notice of the serious and
Several decades later Walt Whitman captured the same idea about death, decay, and life in these lines from his “Song of Myself”:
A child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than
…And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be that you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring
taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of
mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young
men and women,
And the hints about the old men and mothers, and the
offspring taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old
And what do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not
wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I
If you want me again look under your boot-soles.
You hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Obviously, Whitman had pantheistic leanings, but the message should be one that cuts across religious lines: death nurtures life. For those of us that believe in a spiritual afterlife, the dead physical body is of little use-it might as well nurture other living things. For those like Whitman, the only after-life is that nurtured by our physical bodies. In this light, spending enormous resources in an impossible attempt to preserve the physical body is a strange and atavistic custom. The idea that our physical bodies will ultimately be incorporated into other living things such as trees and flowers is no more threatening or bizarre than the idea of organ donation.
Memorial Ecosystems is dedicated to bringing common sense and traditional natural burial back to the funeral industry. We are reclaiming the memorial park movement and moving it into the 21st century.
Interment-Related Soil Disturbance in a Green Cemetery and Natural Soil Disturbance in Forest Ecosystems
Memorial Ecosystems, Inc. is a company dedicated to creating nature preserves financed by selling burial and cremated remains scattering rights. One concern expressed by a number of thoughtful critics is the issue of soil disturbance: we must create a large hole to bury a body. We have related in other documents the steps we take to limit any direct detrimental effects, especially in more sensitive natural areas.
However, in natural systems, soil disturbance can be important for establishing and maintaining certain plant populations. The scale of soil disturbance can be as small as that created by an ant colony and as large (or larger) than a failed slope or flood scoured stream bank.
In the forests of eastern North America, the most common soil disturbance with a scale similar to a 1.25 meter x 2.25 meter grave is the pit-mound: soil disturbed by the roots of wind-fell trees.
As trees fall in wind, and/or as the ground under them becomes super-saturated with rainfall, the roots on the upwind side pitch up, pulling free the soil above them, exposing subsoil and creating a low spot or "pit". As the dirt and rocks settle, and the root mass decays, a mound develops adjacent to the pit. The result is the pit-mound (illustration 1-4). The size of the new pit and mound will vary with tree size, tree species and soil substrate. The number and age of observable pit-mounds in a given forest area will depend on the history of severe weather events, soils, the age of the forest, and species composition.
Pit-mounds provide fine scale edaphic and hydrologic variation within forests. Such variation can translate into a greater diversity of habitats and possibly greater overall species richness. Pits are generally wetter, cooler and more rapidly accumulate organic material. Mounds are warmer, dryer, more aerated and remain bare for longer periods. The suitability of the two seedbeds varies with the edaphic context, ecology of individual plant species and variables such as fire and flood (Ross, et. Al., 1997). For example, Ross and colleagues studying hurricane generated pit-mound disturbance on south Florida rocklands found that where the pits were flooded, adjacent mounds had higher species richness, but in another, dryer location, pits provided fire protection and were richer than the adjacent mounds. In one forest with high sand content in the soils, the sandiness of the mounds resulted in much dryer and less hospitable habitat than in the other forest where finer textured mound soils held onto moisture better.
In more northern temperate forests, researchers find that mounds generally provide more hospitable seedbeds than the adjacent pits (Goodlett, J. C. 1954, Denny, C. S. and J. C. Goodlett. 1956, Goder, H. A. 1961, Lyford, W. H. and D. W. Maclean. 1966, Collins, B. S. and S. T. A. Pickett. 1982 ), but others note that even here, some larger seeded species such as beech and maple germinate and grow more successfully in pits.
Pit mound also has implications for animal species. With larger blow-downs, animals can find shelter behind exposed roots and soil (see photo ), and burrowing animals can augment existing recesses to form dens. Tree blow downs also play an important role in mobilizing large stones (see photo). Forest floor stones, which could be covered by detritus, are brought to the surface where they are important for many invertebrate (Holldobler, Wilson, E.O., 1990) and some vertebrate species. In turn, some of the species benefiting from stones, particularly ants, are very important in seed distribution and germination on the forest floor (Beattie, A.J. 1985, Gaddy, L.L. 1986, Pudlo, R.J., A.J. Beattie, and D.C. Culver. 1980). The soft, well aerated soil associated with tip-ups area are also very attractive for ant colonies. Ants move seeds to bare ground at the base of trees and in tree falls, and many plants utilize ants to colonize these areas--including tip mounds. The most common species in South Carolina Piedmont woods which are tolerant of bare ground plantings are: wild ginger or heartleaf (Hexastylis arifolia), various sedges (Carex nigromarginata, for example), green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), which probably needs bare ground for germination, and possibly spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) which is not ant-dispersed (Gaddy, 1999).
Comparisons Between Pit-mound and Grave-Mound Disturbance
The question for Memorial Ecosystems is how to use the research on pit mound to enhance the ecological value of burial-related disturbance. It is important to look at the differences between pit mound and burial disturbance as it happens at MEI preserves.
Some of the important comparisons include:
Pit-mound vs. burial mound without the pit
Bare soil /soil conditions/ mycorrhizae /nutrients
Niche for small animals.
In the southern Appalachians, the most frequent type of disturbance generating pit-mounds is micro-bursts associated with severe thunderstorms. These generally involve only a few trees. Other events such as tornadoes are much rarer, but can involve virtually all of the trees across broad areas of a forest. In true eastern old growth forests, much if not the entire forest floor has been pit-mound at sometime in the past, creating an undulating effect. In south Florida, Ross (1997) found that in transects of a hurricane influenced forest, over half the distance of the six transect lines were identifiably old pit-mounds.
At the Ramsey Creek Preserve, we expect to generate some 1,000-1,500 burial mounds on 32 acres over the next several decades in addition to the naturally occurring pit-mounds. Burials will be disproportionately concentrated in old agricultural areas where plowing, grazing and even bulldozing long since erased the pit-mound topography of the original forest cover. The tree cover in these areas (if it exists at all) is dominated by younger forest and species like pine that are less likely to generate pit-mounds in the near term. The rate for the more natural areas of the preserve (still relatively young forest) will be within the range of the long-term natural stochastic variation for soil disturbance. We presume that a single severe event or a number of lesser events could generate an equal or greater number of pit mounds in a fair percentage of 30-year histories at this site. The distribution will accelerate the return to more natural forest floor conditions, with some caveats (see below). Unlike natural disturbance, burial disturbance will selectively avoid areas of high diversity, and will be positioned to minimized disturbance of individual plant populations.
In preserves where trees do not exist, or are scattered, such as savannas, the burial rate will generate more ground disturbance than occurs naturally, but such disturbance can still be used for restoration purposes.
Pit-mound vs. burial mound without the pit.
"Green" burial involves burying human remains in a shroud or biodegradable container. The buried body and casket initially displaces a similar volume of dirt. Compacted subsoil expands as it is removed and takes up more volume when it is placed back in the grave, even with manual compaction. The resulting mound is similar in size to many mounds formed by windthrow. However, the operation does not generate a "pit". While potential MEI clients (and our competitors) have expressed concern about "the ground sinking", such an event is actually not very likely since all of the dirt is returned to the grave, and stewards take steps to limit lateral transport of mound materials. However, the mound will almost certainly attenuate much faster than those created by natural pit mound disturbance, where loose dirt is piled on top of intact soil and compacted sub-soil layers. .
On face value, it would seem that burial-mound would not provide the wetter, cooler, organic material-accumulating conditions of the "pit". However, in areas of dense interment, and in "family" plots, grave mounds will often be side-by-side, creating relatively low areas that will be wetter, cooler and that will accumulate organic material faster than matrix forest floor. These areas will have more and richer soil than that in the bottom of pit-mounds, and should provide germination opportunities for large seeded plants such as trees. However, if special plants in the area are intolerant of such conditions, care is required to ensure that we do not inadvertently endanger inter-mound populations.
While the ecological importance of rocks on the floor of streams is generally appreciated, the importance of forest floor stones is often ignored. Windthrow is almost certainly a major factor in keeping medium sized stones "in circulation" on the forest floor (see photo). Grave digging can actually be more efficient than windthrow at bringing rocks to the surface.
Bare soil /soil conditions/ mycorrhizae /nutrients
The quality of exposed soils and quality of mound soils are a major differences between natural pit-mounds and MEI's burial mounds. MEI's approach is to design our burial program to take advantage of the benefits of natural soil disturbance, while limiting the ecological downside as much as possible.
As documented above, pit mound disturbance can be beneficial when it exposes and aerates soil, creating a seed-bed for forest floor plants. The soil condition is also attractive for ant colonies (important for the ants themselves and for the ants' role in bringing seeds to the bare soil). Generally, windthrow results in a situation where subsoil is pitched on top of topsoil layers, creating a sandwich with subsoil on top, displaced topsoil and site topsoil in between, and site subsoil underneath. The mound also contains a substantial amount of course woody material
However, the quality of subsoil exposed varies widely. Sandy (Ross, 1997) and heavy clay soils can present real problems for establishing plants, and whether the mound will be naturally colonized depends on the presence of propogules as well as an appropriate seed-bed. In the inner piedmont of South Carolina, where the Ramsey Creek Preserve is located, the subsoil is generally heavy red clay. Old mounds can remain virtually un-vegetated for many years (even decades) after windthrow, even in heavily forested areas with an abundance of native plants, and in the presence of ants known to distribute ant associated plant species (see photo). While such sandwiches might have positive implications for long term soil structure development and mycorrhizal distribution in some situations, it is probably not the best general model for burial mounds.
By carefully keeping the layers "in order", it may be possible to provide a more favorable seedbed (or even bed for transplanting native seedlings) than would exist naturally. By providing site-appropriate seed or plant material, the process is much less dependent on the hit or miss presence of locally occurring plants. In some cases, where the topsoil is gone or degraded by past human activity, where the soil is sandy, or during dry times, it might be advantageous to consider soil amendments (to increase the moisture holding capacity and nutrient level) and mulch (to keep root mats from drying out while they re-establish). In other areas with acid precipitation problems, adding lime may be a reasonable step.
One area where natural disturbance might have a distinct edge over burial mounds is the quality and distribution of coarse woody debris from the mass of tree roots. These roots not only release nutrients as they die, they provide micro-channels for the distribution of water, nutrients and mycorrhizae. Invertebrates also utilize the rotted out channels (during grave excavations, we have noted almost-adult insect larvae in such channels over 1 meter deep) and assist in breaking down the buried root mass. The roots downwind from the pit are in fact intact, and penetrate into the subsoil (depth depending on species).
MEI replaces all forest floor tree branches to the grave top (along with the superficial "root mat" present in most mature temperate forests), and buries all excavated roots from deeper soil levels. The grave does include a large amount of course woody debris (if a simple wooden coffin is used), and the human body contains substantially more nutrients than the average cellulose-heavy tree-root mass. MEI has been unable to find research on the transportation of buried nutrients (greater than 3 feet) back into the biosphere. Studies on the downward and lateral transport of nutrients/toxins into groundwater indicate that the speed of transportation depends on the agent, the soil type, the depth of soil between the groundwater and the source, the ambient rainfall level and other factors. Living biological agents are not persistent, and do not present a health risk (Hestir, 1999). MEI bans embalming; embalming fluids are persistent, quite volatile and are the chief source of cemetery-associated groundwater problems. While our burials should not cause ground water problems (a full discussion of this concern is available, but is beyond the scope of this document), without careful consideration grave nutrients may be "out of circulation" for quite a while, or lost all together.
Many of our clients consciously want their nutrients to actively return to the forest ecosystem. The lessons learned from pit-mound can help ensure that it happens and happens quicker (and present a smaller nutrient load to groundwater). While MEI has not developed hard data that our measures are efficacious, we are developing guidelines that we think will address the issue, and hope to support research on the issue.
The aerated soil layer in a grave is substantially deeper than that created by windfall. In fact, it extends all the way to the coffin. The depth of the grave does not have to be 6 feet; a 4 foot hole is generally deep enough, with the mound providing extra cover. It may be desirable for graves to be even shallower, but if so, it may be necessary to create a temporary, biodegradable barrier to prevent animals from digging into the grave. Placing tree limbs or brush in the grave as it is being covered can help create micro-channels that might replicate those seen with intact tree roots. In restoration areas of degraded areas, it might be beneficial to add commercially available mycorrhizae inoculate to the fill dirt as well.
Unlike tree-fall and natural pit-mound, burial mound disturbance does not create light gaps. Some species that require bare earth (such as echinacea) also need some light gap. Where burial is occurring in old agricultural areas, savannas, etc., this is not an issue. However, within intact forest, burial mounds can be in deep shade. Light conditions, not just soil conditions should play a role in selecting appropriate plants for burial mounds.
Niche for animals
While burial mounds are excellent habitat for invertebrates, including and some small vertebrates, we do not want to encourage the larger burrowing animals that utilize tree falls. Fortunately, these animals seem to be drawn to the niches created by tree roots (see photo). Other invertebrates such as burrowing solitary and colonial bees will use the natural disturbance more regularly owing to the longer term soil exposure and the more vertical orientation of large, young pit-mounds (see photo).
Burial mounds are comparable in many ways to "pit-mound" natural soil disturbance associated with tree fall. If properly understood and managed, burial soil disturbance can be environmentally beneficial, at least in eastern US forests, especially in the context of ecological restoration.
Ross, M. S, Meeder, Sah, Herndon, Ruiz, Telesnicki, 1997, Windthrow in South Florida Pine Rocklands: Pit-and-mound Features and Plant Microhabitat Associations Following Hurricane Andrew (Report to Everglades National Park. Florida International University).
Goodlett, J. C. 1954. Vegetation adjacent to the border of the Wisconsin drift in Potter County, Pennsylvania. Harvard For.Bull. 25: 1-93.
Denny, C. S. and J. C. Goodlett. 1956. Micro-relief resulting from fallen trees. pp. 59-68 In: Surficial geology and geomorphology of Potter County, Pennsylvania. USGS Prof. Paper 288. 68 p.
Goder, H. A. 1961. Hemlock reproduction and survival on its border in Wisconsin. Trans. Wisc. Acad. Sci. Arts Lett. 50: 175-182.
Lyford, W. H. and D. W. Maclean. 1966. Mound and pit micro relief in relation to soil disturbance and tree distribution in New Brunswick, Canada. Harvard Forest Paper No. 15.
Collins, B. S. and S. T. A. Pickett. 1982. Vegetation composition and relation to environment in an Allegheny hardwoods forest. Am. Midl. Nat. 108: 117-123.
Beattie, A.J. 1985. The Evolutionary Ecology of Ant Plant Mutualisms. Cambridge University Press.
Curthoys, Lesley, 1998 ,Ramsey Canyon Preserve, Arizona: A Case Study in Successful Small
Protected Area Management, Natural Areas Journal, Vol.18 (1), p.28-37.
Gaddy, L.L. 1986. Twelve new ant-dispersed species from the Southern Appalachians, Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, vol. 113, No. 3, pp.247-251
Gaddy,.L.L., 1999. Personal communication.
Holldobler, Wilson, E.O., 1990, The Ants. Harvard University Press.
Hestir, Ben, 1999. Personal Communication and document created for web page.
Pudlo, R.J., A.J. Beattie, and D.C. Culver. 1980. Population consequences of changes in ant-seed mutualism in Sanguinaria canadensis. Oecologia 146:32-37
It has become almost fashionable to deride the most common American funeral rituals as empty, wasteful extravaganzas. While the excesses and crass commercialism of the funeral industry justify such criticism, the reaction is creating a growing disdain for funeral ritual in general. Cremation, with minimal or no connected ritual is growing in popularity.
If it is a fair criticism that current funeral practices are related to the denial of death, it is also true that extreme minimalist approaches can be denial-based. While most currently available options miss the opportunity, funeral rituals can be catalysts for the survivors’ spiritual growth.
We think that carefully constructed funeral rituals can foster healing spiritual growth, and help integrate the human community with the natural communities that they depend on. We see opportunities for transforming individuals and human communities in general.
Nietzsche said that if a thing doesn’t kill us, it makes us stronger. Like a lot of things credited to Nietzsche, this proclamation does not hold water. When personal worlds shatter, it is an opportunity for spiritual growth, but death-associated emotional trauma can also cause persistent psychological dysfunction.
How we deal with death can reinforce alienation from nature and natural processes, or it can help restore a healthier and more integrated relationship with the natural world.
Some social critics such as Guy Debford, Wendell Berry and many others say that we as a culture tend to disengage from life: we treat the world as spectacle; nature as an object completely separate from ourselves and there solely for our manipulation and use.
In his book I and Thou the philosopher Martin Buber described such a use interaction as "I-It" as opposed to an "I-Thou" relationship. "I-It" objectifies; "I-Thou" is the essence of community.
"I-It" is obvious in the attitudes of some in extractive industries such as strip mining, and for those who see nature as a mere scenic backdrop for recreational activities. Less obvious is the "I-It" attitude of some preservationists who see nature as a place completely separate from and inevitably contaminated by humanity. Establishing and "I-Thou" relationship with the natural world does not mean abandoning all use of natural materials or avoiding having fun in the wilds. It does not mean that we should abandon efforts to create or maintain large areas of landscape with little sign of humanity. Nor does it entail abandoning theistic religions for more pantheistic ones. The question is how does a predominantly urban population, insulated as it is from wild country, develop such a relationship? How can it become more than a source of materials and entertainment? Nature shows, while providing an important education function all too often reduce nature to spectacle, and raise expectations. When people get to real nature, it seems boring by comparison. It is not surprising that as a culture we prefer the image to the real, preferring the zoo and the canned swims with dolphins to quite walks in wild mountain coves. Getting beyond nature-as-spectacle is hard enough, but how will we ever go beyond nature as a backdrop and catalyst for contemplation and to human incorporation into a living community?
Writing in the journal Restoration and Management Notes, Lisa Meekison and Eric Higgs (1) quoted Bill Jordan, editor of that journal as saying that Ritual and Performance (defined in the anthropological sense of the latter term) provide the means to negotiate a positive relationship with the natural world. Appropriate Ritual and Performance can break down the distance between nature and culture "that turns us all-Hiker, Biker, Birder and Strip Miner alike not into members of a community, but into users and consumers of the natural landscape."
The rituals associated with care of the dead are ideally suited to re-establishing our culture as a part of the natural community.
In the Restoration and Management Notes article, Meekison and Higgs also discussed the anthropologist Fredrick Turner’s theory of how Performance and Ritual can generate inner transformation. Turner described his three-step process for rites of passage:
Separation form the every-day world (where inner transformation is difficult or impossible).
Liminality: this is a threshold state where mental constructs of identity and society weaken or breakdown: transformation is possible.
Incorporation/Resolution-return to society with reinforced mental constructs or with new understanding.
Turner says that when ritual is performed with others, it can be normative (it reinforces the cultural values that are already shared) or transformative.
When we look at the funeral ritual in this light, we do see that a powerful separation from the day to day occurs; certainly most people suffering a significant loss will experience a strong challenge to mental constructs of identity and culture. Death is one of the most powerful, disruptive and frightening realities of our lives.
In contemporary practice, the ritual promotes a more normative than transformative response. Religious orders understand that deaths bring the family and friends into a liminal state and often use the opportunity to reinforce the religious community’s belief system. Such normative outcomes are generally valuable and healing.
However, the actual death care in contemporary funerals is often at odds with religious beliefs, and reinforces the secular culture’s alienation from nature and natural processes: specifically death and the reincorporating of our bodies into other life.
Funeral industry literature openly speaks of promoting denial as a way of softening the loss: creating the illusion that the deceased is "not dead, only sleeping". Not coincidentally, it sells expensive goods and services that give the illusion that the body is being preserved and protected from the ravages of the elements, including embalming, casket clothes, elaborate caskets, mausoleum space and vaults. "Dryness" is a common benefit touted for mausoleums. The manicured lawn of memorial parks and the pea-gravel cover found in many graveyards attest that the cemetery will keep nature at bay. Perpetual care covenants specifically ensure that the graves will not become "overgrown" with wild species. "It" (nature) is kept away.
Memorial Ecosystem’s burial practice, one that is also consistent with most mainstream religions, embraces nature and natural processes. Burial of non-embalmed remains in a natural setting, and in a way that promotes recovery of damaged landscapes, can be transformative for those who have had few non-utilitarian relationships with a living landscape. In our experience, the result goes beyond the non-utilitarian to a mutualistic relationship: as they take part in the burial ritual, and the following ritual of re-vegetating the disturbed ground, participants experience some degree of personal healing as they heal the earth.
The idea that landscapes can be therapeutic is not just a vacation-resort promotion, nor is it a product of new-age speculation. Over 2,000 years ago, the Taoists in China developed gardens thought to be beneficial for enlightenment. The use of landscapes in the formal treatment of mental illness in the US goes back to the Quaker’s Friends Hospital in Pennsylvania in 1879. Today, horticultural therapy is a part of mainstream treatment for the mentally and physically disabled, particularly in nursing homes. The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) has some 700 members and publishes a scholarly journal. In Wellesley, Massachusetts, the Institute for Child and Adolescent Development’s Therapeutic Garden (which does not involve patient participation in planting) recently won the President’s Award for Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects. While the efforts of groups such as the AHTA have been more focused on the disabled, the many years of research and direct experience support the idea that our funeral rituals and settings can provide a measure of healing for families and friends. We also think that those with terminal illness may also find comfort in an association with a memorial nature preserve. Beyond healing open emotional wounds, the process offers the possibility of humans reconnecting with nature.
In a memorial nature preserve, the human remains are not merely stored in a tightly controlled, human dominated area: their physical bodies become a part of a living wild landscape. The gap between ritual participants and nature narrows, and a true I-Thou relationship can develop-with at least this one place. While the resulting nature preserve can also serve many other human uses-for contemplative recreation, as a setting for scientific research, as a tool for teaching children and as an inspiration for art, the preserve can also help integrate human and natural communities.
1) Meekison, Lisa and Higgs, Eric, The Rites of Spring (The Ritualizing of Restoration), Restoration and Management Notes 16:1, Summer 1998.
2) Buber, Martin, I and Thou (New Trans edition (March 1974) MacMillan PublishingCompany; ISBN: 0684717255 )