Published: Thursday, July 29, 2010, 3:00 PM
by Laurie Robinson, The Oregonian
The voices for a green grave are sprouting all over. The Shroud Lady in Southeast Portland. The Green Reaper in Boring. The button-down funeral director who now wants a wicker casket for his own burial. Conservationists who want to preserve land, not bodies."We don't need to pickle people," science teacher Larry Hurst of Southwest Portland says of embalming fluid, which he describes as poison in the ground. And, he says, we don't need to be encased in concrete vaults or grave liners that many cemeteries require so the ground doesn't sink over time.
The green burial movement is still small but those involved in the
business of death are seeing a steady uptick in interest as people who
previously leaned toward cremation are hearing about returning their
body to the elements, essentially composting it.
"Burial vaults, liners and metal caskets with rubber gaskets were all designed to protect the casket and the deceased from the elements of the earth," says David Noble, executive director of River View Cemetery. "But now people are saying, 'I want my remains to return to the earth; in fact, I want to speed up that process by doing away with the barriers that would prevent that from happening.' "
"I want to bring the conversation about death back into the home," says Marian Spadone, a Portland artist who makes biodegradable shrouds -- a recent one out of a patchwork of recycled drapery from SCRAP; another has quilted wings dyed with tea. She also leads workshops about death with the goal of "emotional sustainability" for the community.
On one hand, no one wants to talk about death.
On the other, everyone does.
"It's not creepy," Spadone says. "I think everyone secretly wants to talk about death, because it's juicy. It's intense."
Luck, a personal organizer who lives in Northeast Portland, lost her friend, Alyce Darracott, to ovarian cancer in May. Darracott, who had devoted her life to animal rescue, wanted Luck, also an animal advocate, to make the arrangements for a green burial that was a direct burial -- straight from Darracott's home to the burial ground without the way station of a funeral home. She also wanted her friends, not a professional, to prepare her for burial and transport her body.
That was both an honor, which Luck stresses, and a sometimes-awkward experience, which she doesn't. A small group of friends dressed Darracott in the cream-colored organic cotton dress Luck had bought for her, laid her on a locally made pine shroud board and covered her with a natural-dye turquoise blanket
"It was hard like having a baby is hard," Luck says. "You would never give up that experience for anything."
Fournier, of Cornerstone, offered guidance and support for Luck, and put her in touch with the sexton of the George Pioneer Cemetery near Estacada and the section of tall-fir forest there that's available for green burials.
"Alyce loved nature," Luck says. "It was quiet. It was just a beautiful place."
The friends transported Darracott's body to the cemetery in a Volvo wagon and helped lower her body into the grave with ropes attached to the shroud board.
"It's absolutely what she wanted," Luck said through teary eyes and a smile. "It makes so much sense knowing that she's becoming a tree. That was her last act of activism."
The 20-acre cemetery is one of four conservation burial areas in the country -- and the only one in the Northwest -- certified by the Green Burial Council. Buying a plot in a conservation area helps preserve the land in a natural state.
Dancer camped and fasted for three days on the plot he selected on the edge of a meadow -- "probably the most peaceful three days of my life," he says.
"When you bond with the place you're going to be, under the trees that you're going to nourish, that's very powerful," he says.
The setting is ponderosa pines and oak with native bunchgrasses, sage and lupine, perched on the edge of Rock Creek Canyon. One young man who is buried there was an alternative energy buff, and his mom requested the only spot in the cemetery where the tip of windmill is visible as it comes around over a crest in the distance.
Dancer feels that cremation, which is the method chosen by almost 70 percent of Oregonians, makes no sense given global warming, especially considering that the region has lots of land. "The earth itself, the plants, could always use the nutrients, rather than having them burned up," he says. "I feel like our bodies don't belong to us, they belong to nature, and burning them robs nature of its due."
"This is really cool," Hurst says of a photo of a "sky burial," as he reviews the slide presentation he made on green burials for a community lecture at Catlin Gabel School last winter. Catlin Gabel, where he teaches middle school science, gave him the means to spend the previous summer researching green burial traditions and modern options for its annual Esther Dayman Strong Lecture.
In the photo, a man in a golden robe tends a body that is providing sustenance to a flock of vultures. The birds disperse, carrying the body skyward in pieces inside them. "We're talking total recycling here," Hurst says. Wouldn't it be cool, he muses, if someone were to do this in Eastern Oregon, "and they brought the condors back..."
Back to earth, Hurst thinks green burials are the simplest, best way to go, but he also considers sea burials to be green.
People carry their fears with them in planning for burials he said. Some are afraid of fire, some of worms and bugs -- as for him, he's afraid of the cold and dark at the bottom of the sea, and of being eaten by hagfish and crabs. He'd rather his atoms were circulating up on the surface of the Earth.
One modern alternative not yet available in Oregon but possibly the wave of the future is called bio-cremation, Hurst says. It avoids the mercury release of regular cremation (which happens when the mercury in dental fillings is burned and vaporizes) and the energy consumed in 1,700-degree cremations. Instead, the body is put in a tank of alkaline solution, lye, and is boiled under pressure until the flesh dissolves.
The process neutralizes the lye, so when the fluid is drained out it is harmless and sanitary -- and can be poured on the lawn, Hurst says. The bones have become so soft that they can be easily ground into a pile of white powder, which can be spread like ashes.
"I like the idea in that it's less energy-intensive than cremation," he says, "but personally I don't like the idea of being dissolved into a vat of liquid. You think of 'Soylent Green' when you think of this." Maybe with time, he says, the idea will seem more natural.
As for the energy use in cremations, Hurst thinks it's roughly the equivalent of a 500-mile car trip. Which, as someone in his audience pointed out last winter, isn't that much when you consider lifetime energy use.
Hurst believes in green burial, strongly -- but the scientist in him does keep things in perspective.
"Even if you're preserved and pickled, you'll still get recycled," he says. "It'll just take longer."
A funeral director for Cornerstone Funeral Services in Boring, Fournier got started with green burials -- a concept she finds thrilling -- about four years ago when a family with 30 acres wanted to do a home burial. At the time, Clackamas County didn't have much on the books that covered home burials, Fournier said, "so we rented a backhoe and off we went."
Cornerstone became one of the best known green burial resources in the area, and Fournier got national publicity as "the Green Reaper." Now, though her business is not limited to green burials, she helps with about three a month on rural land in Clackamas County. The county has come up with some rules in the meantime for home burials, including that the property has to be at least an acre.
The state has a hand in the legalities, too. If an unembalmed body isn't buried within 24 hours, it has to be refrigerated or on ice. If the timing doesn't work out to bury the person quickly, Fournier says matter-of-factly, "we get 20 pounds of dry ice from Baskin-Robbins and help place it strategically."
-- Laurie Robinson