Sunday, August 9

dying to be green

Rixa wrote a great post on home burial a few days ago on her blog Stand and Deliver which got me thinking about the connections between birth and death and just how removed we have become in western, highly industrialised societies from the cycles of life and our propensity to hand over the 'management' of some of the most intimate expereinces we ever face as humans to commercial business. The baby/body becomes the comodity. Home birth may be still a fringe occourence, less than 0.1% of women birth at home today in Australia, the statistics on home funerals/wakes I'm unclear about.

When Simons wife died he brought her home and held her wake here. It freaked me a bit at first to know that. That my study... but in my heart I believed what he did was the right thing so i managed my weirded out feelings. When my twin sister died, my mum carried her coffin in the car to the crematorium. Being close and involved seems important in the grief process.

When i was living in Thailand and on holiday with my boyfriend in his rural hometown, his grandfather passed away and it was one of the most incredible expereinces i heve ever had and the memory has always been a wonderful one. For three days the whole community prepared. As Thais live in rather open style homes you could see preparations going on all down the main street where his family lived; grandma and grandpa lived across the road and cousins and aunts and uncles down the street, so you could see into peoples homes and the preparations the community was undertaking. Men were hard at work making the coffin and preparing the ceremony and women were sitting around threading flowers onto strings to make hundreds of garlands for the service and preparing huge pots of food.
Come the day of the service i was blown away. we walked across to his grandparents home/shop and the shop had been clearerd out to make rom for all the guests. The coffin sat in pride of place but set back into a corner. It looked fantastic. It looked like a tall decorative steamboat, and it stood three tiers high. The bottom tier contained the body, then there was a smaller long box on top and another smaller one on top of that. I am not sure if these other boxes served a purpose. The coffin was beautiful, painted black and decorated ornately with thousands of tiny coloured tinfoil cutouts. It looked like sparkly mosaic and it was draped in twinkling fairy lights and flower garlands. It was the most beautiful coffin Ive ever seen. The attending monk sat next to the coffin and conducted the service which was full of guest chatterings and not alot of listening! My boyfriends grandma seemed to pay more attention to my novel blonde hair than the service for her husband! After the service, the coffin was lifted by the men in the family and carried it low and we walked, some 100 strong down the middle of the main street of his small town, to the temple where the body was deposited to be burnt, returnng to my boyfriends house to feast. The ownership of that funeral was intense and is something i have since realised is so humane, normal and integrating.

Rixa talked briefly about home burial, now Im not sure what the legalities of that are in Australia. But I know 'green' funerals are becoming more popular as cremation and burial both have environmental impacts. Eco funerals in Adelaide provide cardboard coffins lined in calico, carbon offset credits and use Toyota Yaris! (how a body fits lying down in a Yaris i dont know!) and WhiteKnight, also in Adelaide, have removed the coffin completely, shrouding the body in cotton then hessian - no wood, no waste, no varnish, no metal, no formaldehyde leaching into the grondwater. Additionally , instead of burying the body at the "traditional six feet under, the body is buried at medium depth, allowing it to break down at a normal, healthy rate rather than the much slower rate imposed by anaerobic conditions further down in the soil" How green is that?

Bush burials are taking off and its this kind of burial that I'd like. Bushland setting, body in ground, tree planted on top. Yes please. If i could, id be propped under a tree somewhere in the outback, but thats not allowed. Burials, even so called bush burials must take place in a designated 'graveyard' and there are only a few in Australia, Lismore, Adelaide and Tassie. These kinds of burials coupled with a home wake and preparation seem to me to be more humane, more loving, intimate and meaningful and certainly greener. How 'bout you, what are your preferences? grin.


Rixa said...

Thanks for the link and the discussion. The only funeral I've really been at where I had any participatory role at all was my dog's. He got hit by a car--a police car in fact, in front of our house--and the policeman said "technically you're not supposed to bury your pets in your back yard...but that's what I did when my dog died. Just don't tell anyone." Digging his grave the next day and burying him was a bit cathartic, especially for my husband who felt responsible for his death.

I think the issue with depth is that if it's too shallow, when the body starts to bloat it can sometimes "float" to the surface. Not exactly pleasant, although I am sure that there are ways to make sure it's deep enough, if not 6 feet, so that won't happen. We buried our dog about 4 feet deep.

Laura Jane said...

I'm glad you've had a positive and personal experience of death. It really makes a difference to one's outlook.

I attended my first funeral when I was 27 years old. It was for an old school friend/occ boyfriend, an interesting and popular guy who had suicided. I had so many questions about what would happen and what I would see. The reality was pretty tame, but the emotional impact of the loss of this vital and talented young man will never leave me. The thing that REALLY hit me in the gut was that his father placed a red rose on his casket and as it disappeared through a curtain the rose was wiped off and left behind.

I have experienced a lot of death in my family since the 90s, most have been cremated and their ashes scattered. SOme friends were buried in traditional graves.

We have a newer cemetery here in Perth in a semi-bushland setting, where mobs of kangaroos watch from 20m away as mourners bury the dead under enormous gum trees. It is actually a lovely place to be, with no upright tombstones, just recessed plaques in the ground, and a few small lakes and some landscaping. My Dad and my beloved brother-in-law have side by side memorials in this place overlooking the lake, and I have friends whose children are buried here.

I like the idea of low-impact coffins, although I am not sure I could be comfortable with just wrappings. The Jewish community of course have always buried their dead very simply,naked, in a simple pine box, with rope handles, carried along on a simple cart to the graveside. It was very moving to see this unadorned view of death.

Thanks for the thought provoking topic.

Pip at Rest is not idleness said...

This is a good post, I have often thought about my own funeral, what I would want, music etc, I have a file on the computer and the mister knows about it. We have discussed each others funerals, we're both in favour of organ donations and have investigated donating our bodies to science. There was a really, well written, informative book I read a year ago about the funeral industry in Australia written by a lawyer (I think) whose name escapes me at the moment, there was a lot of information in there about burials, what you can and can't do, what the funeral industry tries to make you do (in a lot of cases it is all dollar driven) I would be happy to just have wrappings and be buried under a tree somewhere.

Julie said...

Strangely - as a gardener - I don't fancy the thought of being "planted". I don't know why. I've always wanted to be cremated and my ashes used to fertilise a tree planted in my honour... but now I worry about the environmental impacts of cremation... so maybe I have to get over my personal ick factor at being buried? I love the imagery of your bf's grandpa's funeral.

emmani said...

Wonderful post Kel.

I wonder about funerals a lot (not because i'm morbid!) We have a funeral directors at the bottom of our road and it's everything I despise about this society, behind closed doors, shiny coffins and cars, top hat and tails, there even a sign in the window advertising 'make your loved one into diamond ring!"

I was however surprised to see a rattan/banana leaf, moses basket style full size coffin once.

The funeral of my husbands uncle in Kerala, still catholic so a bit plain and held back, was the first time I had seen the corpse of someone I had known (and loved) He was dressed up in black trousers, black shoes, white shirt and a crown of tinsel, which was funny because I never saw him in anything but a lungi and chappels (thongs)!

The night after he died, all the women of the family stayed up all night with him to prepare him and when I got there in the morning he was already in his glass covered, refrigerated coffin. The whole village plus more turned up throughout the day and a service was held at the house, before going to the local church on top of a hill.

The terrible thing was because of property and land prices and God knows what else, he was buried in a concrete grave almost like a manhole. Very sad, not even earth to earth and it cost about $1000 US for the hole!!

The Thai funeral sounded perfect... everything a 'goodbye' should be.

I'd like to be cremated Hindu style on the top of a hill in India, by the sea. Why try to be lavish in death?

Annuska said...

Oh wow! I did not know there were so many possibilities. I always thought cremation as I found it unappealing to be on a graveyard, eaten by worms and no further benefit to noone, so ashes scattered in nice places sounded good, even counting the environmental impact- cemeteries use a lot of land too! But the idea of a tree on top and some soft and beautiful wrappings, with added fairy lights and glittery bits adopted from the Thai version, sounds like a goer! Thanks Kelly I would not have thought about it without you- this is a good blog!

Karin said...

Ownership. Yes. It's something that isn't readily offered to the bereaved. You know me, I've had some personal experience with funerals. It's a topic I could really let loose on but I don't know how much time we all have.

The opportunity to think about it ahead of time, to contemplate death, I think it is very important. When our son Soren died, we had no idea this could happen and no preparation for such a tragedy. Our hospital staff was incredible and helped facilitate our ownership of our process. The funeral home was a different story.
They were shockingly callous. I'll never forget when we learned that we could not accompany our son to the crematorium. We thought we could. They'd already taken his body. They said not unless we paid them more money - $1,000 more. Then the receptionist said, "You'll just have to say your little prayers at home won't you." If she'd added a 'my pretty' at the end she would have sounded exactly like the Wicked Witch of the West. That feeling of being trapped by a system I had no knowledge of, during a time of extreme shock and distress, haunted me for a long time after. The fact that some uncaring stranger was the last person to see my son tore me up inside. I swore I'd never let that happen again, never imagining at the time that I'd have to go through this twice more.

We did as much as we could ourselves with our girls. We even took Imogen to the beach in a covered basket a day before her funeral, just to be in nature with her body. It's illegal to carry a dead body in your car, but our social worker made it happen for us. If we could have made their coffins, we would have.

To take ownership of the process has a powerful impact on how one grieves. I wanted to participate in the completion of their lives, to help them have a 'good death', to not hand them over to someone who didn't know them.

Thank you for posting this thoughtful topic.

Kel said...

rixa- thanks for starting the discussion. i find it sad and incredulous that we find ourselves in society where its illegal to bury your dog in your garden! what is that?

laura jane-yes yes yes. my first experience of death was my grandmother where we had an open viewing of her body. i was about 9 at the time and i remember climbing up onto her casket to kiss her on the cheek. she was so cold but she seemed so alone with everyone 'not touching' her as they walked past that i had to reclaim her. that was my first remembered experience of death. i think it affected me!

pip-yes i think we need to be prepared as we dont have a communal approach to death, we need to define it for ourselves. good on you. i must find that book.

julie- i have to agree on the aversion to being 'planted' thats why i like the idea of being propped up under a tree and im also very claustrophobic...but i must remember that i will be deceased!

emma-yes,its the commodification...a pire on a hill sounds fitting and yes it was a very special funeral.

annuska-smile.glad you find something thought provoking and some learning here. i am demanding fairy lights when my time comes, pedal powered of course!

karin-im so glad you commented as you voiced all the things i had ommitted but was very aware of. not that we choose to end up with a less than satisfactory experience but we can get steamrolled by the norm in such a vulnerable time. thank you for sharing here such intimate experiences and educating us all and making us all more aware. fuck that woman on the phone and what a shock to have your parental rights pissed off like that and yay the social worker,but isnt it incredible that its illegal to transport your own child? how fucked is that? thanks so much for your taking my post to heart. its where i always come from.

Pip at Rest is not idleness said...

Hey Kel,
heres a link for that book:


Kel said...

thanks pip- link was very interesting, must check it out at the local library.