“Green” used to mean inexperienced. Now it can describe the ultimate life experience.
By Katie Sandberg
Angelenos intrigued with living lightly on the planet are accustomed to confronting challenges. Whether it’s buying Fair Trade products or consuming less animal protein to reduce our environmental impact, we’re willing to go that extra step—to think about not just what works in the moment, but what is best in the long-term for our families and the home that has been entrusted to us—planet Earth. Yet fragile living beings that we are, there is one thing most of us have difficulty contemplating: our own death or that of a loved one.
As American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes in her book, When Things Fall Apart, “Fear of death is the background of the whole thing. It’s why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But . . . we can have a joyful relationship with our lives . . . that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”
One way to embrace being alive—and to plan for the natural arc of our lives from birth to death—is to be aware of the sustainable choices that are available for the end of life. Deciding on avenues for death and dying that reflect our preferences, beliefs and family customs can be empowering.
Dying at Home: Hospice
Hospice is a philosophy of palliative and spiritual care for the dying that is increasingly popular among those with terminal illness, thanks to its respectful focus on the needs of the whole patient and the patient’s family.
According to Mary Antino, a social worker in the hospice program at GeriNet Healthcare in Downey, Calif., “We are the lamp bearers on a path no one wants to take. Our role is to put a structure around a patient and their family and provide education and training in caregiving aspects, psychosocial support and spiritual support so the whole process comes together to be one of the most gratifying experiences of their lives.”
Once two doctors have agreed in writing that a patient has a terminal illness that may result in death in six months, hospice services can be provided and paid for through Medicare, either in the patient’s home or in a nursing home or hospital. People of all spiritual beliefs choose hospice, and for many, receiving that care at home is the preferred option.
Antino has found that education is key to helping families successfully navigate the dying process. “Death can be characterized as accelerating change, especially toward the end,” she says. “If people understand in advance [the physical changes] they will be dealing with, they can accept them.”
And the gratifying aspect may apply to the patient as well. Many perceive death as a transition into a more joyous phase of existence, a belief that is supported by numerous descriptions of near-death experiences. As if in testimony, the widely reported last words of Apple founder Steve Jobs were, “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow.”
One green extension of the hospice movement has been the rise of natural funeral services as an alternative to impersonal, resource-heavy mortuary services and funeral parlors. Sustainable options for rituals after death —preparation of the body, celebration of life ceremonies and burial—respect both the deceased and the bereaved family, and give the survivors a way to honor their loved one’s passage.
“Hospice has completely changed how families are able to accept and embrace impending death,” notes Shari Wolf, owner and funeral director at Natural Grace in Manhattan Beach. One of her first steps is to educate and empower the family regarding their rights. California’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) notes that a person can act as a funeral director for a family or an individual, so families are in charge. The funeral director then acts as a facilitator to help shape meaningful rituals for the particular family. “I open the door for them to discussion, to realize the things they can do,” says Grace.
Some families choose to have a facilitator or coroner take the body of their loved one immediately following death and handle everything; others prefer to hold a home vigil or prepare the body for burial or cremation as a final, loving act.
When Marina Del Rey resident Eric Appell’s wife, Jelena, was diagnosed with cancer, one of the things she talked about repeatedly was her wish to die with dignity. Appell took care of her daily at home for the final year and a half of her life. When he chose Natural Grace to provide funeral services, “Shari told me that [once Jelena passed] she could come immediately or come the next day. She told me what to expect and what I could do, and if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have known. It was so meaningful to bathe Jelena and dress her in some of her favorite things . . . I was able to protect her dignity.”
The decisions made by a family regarding the preparation of a loved one’s body for burial depend on what the celebration-of-life ceremony will be like. If there will be a viewing, dry ice and refrigeration are sustainable alternatives to carcinogenic embalming. If there will be no viewing, bodies can be covered in a shroud and refrigerated until burial or cremation.
Surprisingly, the state of California permits home burial, but it requires a large piece of land and a court order, as was done for Ronald Reagan; in other words, don’t expect to prevail if you live in the suburbs. Although Los Angeles has no dedicated environmentally friendly cemeteries, there are no prohibitions against a simple shroud burial, or biodegradable wicker or plank casket. According to Cynthia Beal, general manager of the Natural Burial Company, the most damaging element in a burial is not the composting body or even embalming fluid, but the heavy finish on caskets, foam and other fabric used for lining, and glue and additives. Vault-free with a shroud or other quickly biodegradable material is indeed the most sustainable choice in remanding what Shakespeare called our “mortal coil.”
Fortunately our state also has no concrete vault requirements. Russ Heimerich of the DCA confirms it is entirely at the discretion of the individual “memorial property,” and Beal notes an increasing number are agreeable to vault-free burial, though one of L.A.’s largest, Forest Lawn, is not. Noelle Berman, private estates director of iconic Hollywood Forever, which does offer it, hopes enough people will request natural burial there—ironically in the heart of Tinseltown—to warrant creating an entire “green” section.
Some ecologically-minded families prefer cremation, especially when it can be carbon-neutral (see sidebar 2) and use a sustainably-produced urn. Ashes can then be placed at home, in a cemetery, in a state or national park (contact park management for permission), or scattered at sea (contact the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency for permission). Ashes can even be incorporated into cement to become part of a living underwater reef (www.greenburialcouncil.org).
Death may seem overwhelming and uncertain, but the experience of supporting a loved one through the life-death transition can be deeply healing, especially if the rituals are chosen by the family and honor all life. And for those who embrace sustainable living, natural burial is the ultimate way to restore our physical being to the continuing cycle of nature.
What Burials Cost the Earth Each Year
827,060 gallons of embalming fluid
90,272 tons of steel (caskets)
2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
30+ million board feet of hardwoods, much of it tropical hardwoods (caskets)
Cemetery maintenance: Many tons of pesticide and lawn maintenance emissions
Cremation: A traditional cremation releases between .8 and 5.9 grams of mercury as a body is burned, totaling 1,000 to 7,800 pounds of mercury each year. Of this, 75 percent goes into the air and the rest settles into the ground and water.
Resomation: This water and alkali based alternative is said to reduce funeral emissions of greenhouse gasses 35 percent and consume less than one-seventh of the energy required for traditional cremation. However, it leaves a chemical residue that is disposed into wastewater. It is as yet unregulated in California.
Sources: Mary Woodsen, Greensprings Natural Cemetery; Resomation.com, California DCA
Green Burials Guide
Natural Burial Company
Funeral Consumers Alliance, a consumer protection organization
Green Burial Council, a marketing association
Joshua Tree Memorial Park
Fernwood (Mill Valley, Calif.)