HANCOCK -- As any follower of crime drama knows, it is far from easy to dispose of a body. With the earth’s human population now over seven billion (and counting), awareness is also growing about how large a toll the disposition of all those bodies will take on our planet.
Human remains might seem to be an exception to the ecological principles of "reduce, reuse, recycle." However, a growing number of people have decided that returning to traditional ways of "recycling" our bodies back into the earth is also the best option for the planet itself. One such local group, the Keweenaw Green Burial Association (KGBA), is encouraging community members to participate in two upcoming free events focused on green burial practices -- some entirely new and some as old as humanity itself.
"This is about the environmental impact of a choice that we will all face some day: what to do with our bodies once we are no longer using them," said the aptly named Jay Green, KGBA president. "The burial practices that have become conventional in the past 100 years -- preservation of the body with embalming fluids and burial in metal caskets and concrete vaults -- are not environmentally sound -- due to their use of toxic chemicals, fossil fuels, and non-renewable materials."
In the first event, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, in G002 Hesterberg Hall, Michigan Tech Forestry Building, the Green Film Series will screen A Will for the Woods, a documentary about Clark Wang, a musician and psychiatrist who was determined that his last performance would be a gift back to the planet. Viewers will witness Wang preparing for his own green burial and, in so doing, creating that option for others in his community.
Two days later, from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, June 20, at Portage Lake District Library, the KGBA will host a community forum facilitated by Michigan resident Merilynne Rush, a Natural Death Care educator and board member of the Green Burial Council International. Rush will take the audience through an examination of conventional funeral and burial practices, their environmental and social implications, and what green burial is and is not.
Also included in the Community Forum will be discussion about the KGBA’s ongoing efforts to better inform the community and foster green burial practices on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
"What we are finding is that once people have more information, a better understanding, and an opportunity to discuss more natural, green burial options, they begin to get more interested in 'going out green,'" said Green of the KGBA. "For example, cremation is often perceived as having the least environmental impact among conventional burial practices and some people choose it because they believe it is the greenest option. However, even cremation has a significant carbon footprint, contributes to air pollution, and essentially wastes nutrients that can be recycled back into the earth.
"Then, once you multiply a burial practice by seven billion, even for a less problematic practice like cremation, we’re looking at a real problem."
Likewise, at the June 20 Community Forum, Rush will focus on common misconceptions and myths about death and burial, differences between law and common practices, "how to" advice for natural death care and burial, personal stories, and Q and A discussion. Rush will also discuss a closely related trend whereby people are once again practicing home funerals: family and friends caring for their deceased themselves, preparing the body for burial, and receiving visitors all in their own home instead of at a funeral home.
Yet another new natural/green trend, said Keren Tischler, KGBA secretary and Keweenaw Land Trust president, is toward establishing "conservation" cemeteries. "It has often been said that cemeteries are a 'waste of land,'" she said, "but in fact conservation cemeteries are the exact opposite. They serve the dual purpose of restoring and/or preserving lands, in perpetuity, while also serving as a burial ground. Prairies, forests, and other ecologically important ecosystems can be permanently set aside in honor of those who lie buried beneath them.
"It’s considered to be the ultimate gift back to the planet: instead of permanently expending financial and material resources, you use your burial as an opportunity to help set aside yet another piece of land for the health of the earth and future generations."
What’s driving these changes? While it may seem like "green" and "natural" practices would be most appealing to the upcoming future generations who are still quite far from death, a lot of interest appears to be coming from the Baby Boomer generation.
"When you think about it, it makes sense," said Carolyn Peterson, another member of the KGBA Board. "The Boomers have been burying their parents. They are facing the fact that they are next in line -- and, in their usual fashion, they are questioning the practices of previous generations and they want more and different choices for themselves. This really is not much different than any other social change they have been the driving force behind."
Prior registration is not required for either event, and both are open to the public free of charge (donations always welcome). Support and funding for the June 20 Community Forum also comes from the Portage Lake District Library and the Keweenaw Co-op’s Bring-a-Bag donation program. For more information, please contact the KGBA at KeweenawGreenBurial@gmail.com.