Death is normal, even if it’s not popular. And these days, more and more people are doing it. As with so many trends that have rolled through American culture the last 60 or so years, you can thank (or blame) the Baby Boom generation. As the boomers have moved through life, they’ve moved through the American population like a rabbit being eaten by a snake. And now, as they near the snake’s tail end, millions of them are dying each year.
As they have done for most of their lives, the boomers are doing it their way. Many of them are dispensing with the formal funerals and traditional cemetery burials in favor of something a little more personal and creative. More of a tie-dyed tee shirt than a button-down collar and chinos.
Perhaps the biggest emerging change is that the deceased doesn’t get to attend his or her own funeral. Gone is the traditional open casket in a flower-bedecked church. Instead, families are increasingly opting for cremation and a memorial service, often held at a restaurant, beach, golf course or park.
Green burial is up and coming
Even cremation, which is now chosen by more than half of families, is starting to look old-fashioned — and not very biodegradable. “Green burial” is becoming the choice of more and more environmentally conscious consumers. It’s one of those things that’s so old it’s new again. Prior to the Civil War, most people were buried in a simple wood coffin But with thousands of dead soldiers needing to be shipped home to families, the military turned to embalming — a chemically robust means of preserving the remains to allow time for transport.
The problem with embalming, of course, is that it uses formaldehyde and other somewhat noxious chemicals that make it necessary to seal the coffin tightly. That interrupts the natural dust-to-dust cycle and, to put it in plain language, prevents us from returning our proteins and minerals to the earth that has sustained us all these years. Thus, green burial — the body is placed in a shroud or a simple wood or fiber coffin and buried. Over time, it becomes one with the earth.
There are more green cemeteries opening every year and many traditional cemeteries are setting aside spaces for green burials. There are more far-out solutions available in some areas — everything from body composting to “open burial,” and no doubt more in the works.
Another option for the civic-minded: body donation. You can leave your body to science, to be used in the training of doctors and other medical personnel. It will be cremated eventually and the ashes returned to your survivors.
Less expensive than a traditional funeral
Besides being more environmentally sound, these alternate methods are much less expensive than a traditional funeral and burial. Critics will say that cremation is not all that environmentally friendly; it is energy-intensive and does release some carbon but is still a big improvement over embalming a body, transporting it for miles and then burying it in a steel coffin inside a lead-lined grave. Green burial is pretty much environmentally neutral. Donating your body to science is free but may involve cremation when the students wind up their studies.
Families often recoil from the newer options, sometimes fearing they are sacrilegious. This is a topic to be discussed with clergy and rest assured it is not going to be new to them. Most are eager to do whatever brings the most comfort to your family and friends — and, it is hoped — to abide by your wishes.
It is, after all, your life and you should be the one to choose how you want to manage your closing act.