How will your death help the world?

This morning, while meditating, I observed the now dead mustard plants in the soil next to me. I planted that mustard over the summer and last week harvested the seeds (they’re an essential ingredient in Chana Masala). With temperatures dropping here in Connecticut, the stalks and last few leaves on the plant have dried up and withered. The rational western part of my mind saw this and said ‘I should pull those ugly dead things up.’ But then the holistic Gaian part responded, ‘Why? They’re holding the soil together. Why disrupt nature for aesthetics?’

That reminded me that when most things die they serve Gaia (just as they do as they live). Their remains feed other animals, they create a habitat for boundless other life forms (like a fallen tree), they return nutrients to the soil, and so on. But what happens when we die?

In the United States (and increasingly in the world), the default, unfortunately, isn’t pretty. Too often we’re caught off-guard—emotionally unprepared for what has arrived. In large part that’s because we live in a culture where we hide death: we hide aging with makeup, hair coloring, and plastic surgery. We hide old people in nursing homes, we even dress up corpses at funerals to look pretty and youthful (just like in life—going to the extreme of injecting red dye along with the embalming fluid to make the bodies look pinkish). Compare that to cultures that do not hide aging, that regularly confront death, that meditate on death, and ritualize death in ways that reinforce community bonds.

Cremation, while less damaging than a modern burial, is still using fossil fuels to burn your body into gases and ash that then contaminate the Earth—not exactly a restorative way to go. (An electric cremator in Austria, photo by Georg Lippitsch)

And because we’re surprised (or living in denial), we often numbly follow the path set by the funeral industry to deal with our loved ones’ remains (I experienced that when my dad died suddenly in 2005). Death goes from being beneficial to the Earth to a deep wound, as we convert loved ones into toxic waste—filling them with carcinogenic embalming fluid, putting them in hardwood or metal coffins (mined and processed from the Earth using huge amounts of energy and resources), putting the coffins in plastic or concrete vaults and burying them under pesticide-laden monocropped cemetery lawns. It is painful to think about how many times a day that process is replicated and how many new wounds the Earth suffers because of how we choose to die.*

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is legal and increasingly less difficult to die in an ecologically restorative way. “Green burials” are less expensive (no embalming, a simple coffin or just a shroud, no vault, a tree instead of a headstone) and while not cheap, much of the cost goes to preserving the sacred forest or park that the body will be committed to—so in fact, death goes from being harmful to ecologically restorative—as it should be.

Beyond the Body

But that’s not the only way to make your death restorative. Are there personal conflicts that can be resolved before you go? Are there people who do not know how much they mean to you? Do you have a will and does it include support for organizations or individuals you wish to nurture (as a fallen tree would)? I admit I’m not as far along as I’d like on all that, though this past summer I did a bit to fix that by organizing some “Quietly Co-writing in case COVID Makes us Kaput” sessions in which a group got together to better prepare ourselves for our inevitable return to Gaia (and something we’ll organize again around Halloween if you’d like to join).

There are also deeper ways to regularly connect to our mortality, so that we don’t dread or deny our inevitable journey toward death.

First and foremost we need to recognize and remind ourselves that everything is impermanent. Recently I read about the California wildfires and learned that runoff from burned homes leaches toxic chemicals into the groundwater. While I never considered that before, of course it does. If we build our homes out of PVC siding and piping, fill them with plastic and all sorts of toxic things (from batteries to electronic gadgets galore), when it all melts it’ll create a poisonous ooze that will flow up into the air and down into ground. An extension of our own toxified corpses. So every choice, ideally, should consider what’s going to happen after its useful life is over. Will it serve a new role like mustard roots? Or simply pollute the planet? And that question, of course, should extend all the way to ourselves. What will be our use in death? Will we seed the growth of good organizations, help seedlings stretch for the light, or simply contaminate the land around us?

Can one build a coffin out of just saplings that needed to be thinned? That’d be an ecologically restorative coffin. (Photo from John Christian Phifer, Larkspur Conservation)

But there is even more we can do. There are stories now of people around the world engaging more openly with death, building their own coffins, for example, and using them as coffee tables or at least putting them in their garages, or even meditating in them. Some actually do so as part of “Coffin Clubs“—a trend that started in New Zealand but has spread around the world. And South Koreans have even organized mass ‘fake funerals’ where many people come together and pretend to die, lying in their coffins for a half hour, with eyes shrouded and hands tied together in white cloth in the Korean tradition.

Many others, while not going to that extreme of building or climbing into their own coffin, join conversations on death at Death Cafes, or meditate regularly on death. Imagining oneself as a corpse returning to the Earth is a common Buddhist practice (a topic of a future reflection) and even, if you’ve ever simply done yoga, the final resting pose is Shavasana, which translates to corpse pose. By regularly contemplating death—and by recognizing that in death life continues to flow (or at least can)—it can be far less frightening, and help you appreciate the short time we do have living as differentiated beings far more.

What other ways can we embrace death while we’re alive? And ensure our death has a restorative role in the world? Add your thoughts below. (Photo from Larkspur Conservation)

*Well, if you want to know, it’s about 7,000 times a day just in the United States, assuming 90 percent of Americans follow the industrial way of death (but it’s probably a higher percentage).

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7 Responses

    • Erik Assadourian

      Interesting. Looking at the website, though, I’m not sure I see this as superior to green burial–but certainly an option if there is no green burial option in that area. (Though you could also donate your body to science. Or to police forensics who will use your body to see how nature naturally composts your body when left out.) But for $5,500 that’s about the same as a green burial plot–and nature will slowly compost your body for you–rather than at an industrial facility. But more important, the $5,500 spent on a green burial plot will help preserve another bit of wild land–and every little bit helps.

  1. wornsmooth

    I am curious that cremation wasn’t mentioned. While obviously briefly using an intense amount of energy, i don’t see any ecological downside from the ashes. Am I missing something? Is there a harm imposed that I am not aware of? My Mother and recently passed Brother both chose cremation. I and my wife both have it in our wills. Is there something we need to rethink?

    • Dave S.

      wornsmooth, Cremation uses a huge amount of energy. If you Google carbon footprint of cremation you’ll find that that one cremation produces an average of 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide. Given this figure, it can be estimated that cremations in the U.S. account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks for your comment, wornsmooth. I did mention cremation, albeit briefly, and just in a photo caption!

      “Cremation, while less damaging than a modern burial, is still using fossil fuels to burn your body into gases and ash that then contaminate the Earth—not exactly a restorative way to go.”

      My short answer reflects my ambivalence. Cremation may be better than a modern industrial burial (no vault, hopefully a simpler coffin, though many still get ornate coffins and embalmed). Plus, you are using significant fossil fuels to burn the body, as Dave noted. And then the body is smoke and ash. Compare that to a green burial where the body naturally returns to the earth over years (and decades for the bones) adding nutrients, and most importantly, through the burial plot fee, protecting a wild piece of land.

      The photos I used for this blog come from the beautiful Larkspur green burial preserve. The fees are the means to protect and sustain this land. I feel like this is a great model that land trusts could use all over the world. Cremation, like composting, like freeze drying, and other new ways to break down a body turn this into an industrial process (reminding me of the dystopian film, Soylent Green!).

      It’s a complementary debate to sustainable food and agriculture: is making fake meat from pea protein really sustainable or just another business opportunity. Let’s redevelop our local farms and grow peas (and beans, and cabbages) and invest in the education (and banning of advertising) necessary to help shift our palates to preferring real and healthy food. Of course, that feels pie in the sky, but fortunately changing one decision at the end of one’s life is a lot easier!

  2. wornsmooth

    Dave and Erik,
    Thanks for the replys. I reread it and, yes you did say it along with the photos. Missed it.
    I do agree that a natural return to Gaia would be best, both from the energy used standpoint, and the more restorative use of one’s body.
    Interestingly, in conversation after my brothers passing, one of my sisters commented how she would like to be the source/growth of a willow tree after her death. Perhaps not as whimsical as we then imagined.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Wonderful if not whimsical. Perhaps you can help your sister explore the world of green burial if she hasn’t? The Book Grave Matters is a nice introduction. As is the documentary, A Will for the Woods (I’d recommend the latter more as it’s easier to connect with).

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