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, followed by a circle of people on the beach singing songs and sharing memories, followed by the scattering of ashes into the ocean from an outrigger canoe, followed by showers of flowers (all of which biodegrade) into the sea. No fuss, no muss, no waste, no monuments. Nothing bad for the sealife to choke on. Follow that with a shared meal with non-disposable plates and utensils, and you’ve got yourself a green funeral.

Of course, owing to my name, I’ve got this other plan, if I part from my body in California instead of Hawaii: cremation, then dig a hole in a forest where California bay laurels are already thriving, pour my ashes into it, then a little dirt, and then plant a California bay laurel sapling on top. I’ve half a mind to ask Bill Wheeler (artist and owner of the infamous Wheeler Ranch where I wrote Living on the Earth) if he’d agree to let someone bury my ashes there. That was about as close to heaven as I’ve been on this earth.

A road into the forest at Wheeler Ranch

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