Green Burials

Cremation page from Living on the Earth.

I first wrote about a simple alternative to the bloated waste and egotism of American funerary practices in my book Living on the Earth, first published in 1970. Probably I’d been sickened by The Loved One, a 1965 black comedy about people working in a large, decadent Hollywood Cemetery. More likely I couldn’t make sense of almost any aspect of my culture of origin, from nylon stockings to racism to skyscrapers.

It wasn’t until after Living on the Earth was published that I read The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford, who was married to Bob Treuhaft, the Bay Area attorney who represented Mario Savio (of the Free Speech movement in Berkeley) and lots of civil rights cases…and me, for a while. I was very fond of Jessica and Bob, and miss them now. Jessica thoroughly skewered the funeral industry in the first edition of her book, and then returned to do it again with a revised edition in the 1990’s. She died before she finished it, and Bob, by then retired, continued working on the book until he died, too. “I never learned to type because I always had secretaries,” he told me, “but now I am using a computer. Think of that!”

Bob Treuhaft and I having dinner at Alice Water’s famed natural foods gourmet restaurant in Berkeley, Chez Panisse, in June 2000, about a year and a half before he died.

Now I’m in my fifties, and have seen a number of creative friends deal with the remains of their “loved ones.” In Hawaii, the hands-down winner goes like this: cremation, with the ashes being placed in a Hawaiian gourd urn, followed by a circle of friends and family on a beach singing songs and sharing memories, followed by the scattering of ashes into the ocean from an outrigger canoe, followed by a showering of flowers (all of which biodegrade) from the outrigger canoe into the sea. No fuss, no muss, no waste, no monuments. Nothing plastic to chock the creatures of the sea. The gourd urn can be re-used indefinitely for ash scatterings. Follow that with a shared potluck meal served on non-disposable plates and utensils washed afterwards by the guests, and you’ve got yourself a green funeral. 

Of course, owing to my name, chosen for my plant ally that, like me, is a California native, I’ve got this other plan, should I depart from my body in California instead of Hawaii: cremation, or a mushroom burial suit, then a hole dug in a forest where California bay laurels are already thriving, place my remains or cremains into it, then a layer of topsoil, and then plant a California bay laurel sapling on top.

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So, now that we have Zen Hospice, it only makes sense that we also have the Green Burial Council, an actual association that helps people find places to bury people sustainably, conserving nature, not wasting money and materials, and not using toxic chemicals that will leach into the soil.