Sooner or later, we're all going to die. Even Democrats and Republicans aren't divided on this one. But what happens to us after we die is another story altogether. We're not talking about esoteric interpretations of a soulful afterlife, or the lack thereof, but the nuts and bolts of respectfully disposing of a loved one's body after death removal, transport and burial. Creeped out by talk of corpses? Don't you know? The grim subject of mortuary science isn't taboo anymore, it's on HBO.
These days, options for funerals and burials are a panoply of possibilities, some glimpsed by seasoned viewers of Six Feet Under and other trendy TV takes on death. Not only are the entertainment networks hot on the topic, but PBS recently aired the P.O.V. film A Family Undertaking, a down-to-earth documentary about the returning interest in simple, inexpensive family burials that come with the bonus of being environmentally friendly. It's the way they used to do it: no embalming, a simple wooden casket or a favorite blanket, no tombstones. Everything breaks down as quickly as possible. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Most Americans just don't know there are choices for burials, especially those that are less expensive and easier on the environment. But as more people are catching on, so is the term "green burial."
Much of the footage in A Family Undertaking (www.pbs.org) tenderly reflects the dignity of a burial at the hands of loved ones no undertakers allowed. Filmmaker Elizabeth Westrate skewers the multimillion-dollar funeral industry for excessive embalming and for up-selling on caskets and other funereal accoutrements. Westrate's intimate scenes of one individual's peaceful demise and clean return into the ground in a cardboard box are presented in stark contrast to a typical affair with an invasively embalmed and cosmetically altered body that, once buried in a nonbiodegradable casket, turns the grave site into a toxic dump. (No coffin is airtight, no matter how expensive it is.)
Westrate's film effectively piques one's curiosity about the particulars of mortality and what happens between the place of death and the place of burial.
Is a green burial nothing unnatural between the deceased and the earth, the body handled only by family and friends even possible? The answer is yes, but it takes courage on the part of those who are left holding the bag.
Unlike England, which has more than 120 green cemeteries (the Brits call them "woodlands burials") and more on the way, there are only a handful of places in the United States where you can be buried green. One of them happens to be in the Florida Panhandle.
HONK FOR CHUFA
In the tiny town of Glendale (population 27 or so), near DeFuniak Springs, the friendly and quite genuine 50-something brothers John and Bill Wilkerson have turned a portion of their farm into a green cemetery. The Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve (www.glendalenaturepreserve.org) is the second green cemetery in the country. (The other, established six years ago, is in Westminster, S.C., near the area where the film Deliverance was filmed.)
The preserve sits on 350 acres of family land pieced together by the Wilkerson brothers' late parents, C.O. and Laura Wilkerson, and farmed from the Depression to the present. The senior Wilkersons were dead-set against the development of the property heaven forbid it should become a trailer park a message they pounded into their sons' heads from the time they were boys, Bill says. Their parent's other dictate was that their funerals shouldn't be a circus, something they were highly offended by and outspoken about. It just didn't make sense to the elder Wilkersons, son John says, burying a ridiculous amount of money in the earth and then worrying about who would pay for it.
After years of detective work and several rounds with Tallahassee bureaucrats, plus the help of a law professor, the Wilkersons chartered Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve in 2002 and set aside 70 acres for use as a green cemetery, established as a 501(c)(13) tax-exempt nonprofit. "We were pretty ignorant and stubborn, and we figured we'd get it solved one way or the other," says John. Both he and Bill are graduates of the University of Florida. And they did. The property is safe from development into perpetuity, unless the Florida Legislature overhauls government regulations. Also, John says, "Me and my brother and our spouses get to live here all our life and farm the fields; we get to sustainably harvest the timber."
To date there are only two paying customers, as John affectionately refers to them, buried at Glendale. Both customers were from nearby counties one, an elderly woman who was able to discuss her wishes for her burial with her children before she died; the other a middle-aged man who was terminally ill and requested to be buried here. John reports that the families of the interred were very satisfied with their unconventional burial experiences.
Their plots are no-frills, just mounds covered in native brush on the cemetery grounds, which are located alongside the active planting fields. The graves are identified by discs set flat on the ground like oversized nail heads one brass and one aluminum at the head and foot of the mound. The discs are supported by a buried section of rebar. The ground over the grave sites will never be mowed over, and they will eventually be level again as the body and casket decompose.
As for mapping, steel-reinforced concrete abutments set in the ground 100 feet apart delineate a grid in the burial grounds. A map is provided to the family, as well as to Glendale board members, so the graves can always be found, even if the terrain changes.
The necessary pieces of the Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve are in place, but future plans call for areas for weddings, nature walks, family picnics and educational outreaches. (You can get married at Orlando's Greenwood Cemetery too, in the adjacent Greenwood Urban Wetlands, so it's not all that strange.) For now, though, the rustic grounds reflect the rural environs. For some people, the crudeness of the country would be eternally appealing; others might find it repulsive.
Near the graves sits the open-air chapel, which is more of a scavenged sculpture than a traditional place of worship. In New York City, it would be considered a prized work of art. The pulpit is fashioned from a concrete abutment topped by a piece of salvaged black granite. The Wilkerson brothers never throw anything away; their "spare parts" fill several barns to the rafters.
"I've had a local reputation all my life of being a weirdo," John says with a laugh. But he's a respected weirdo. The brothers made sure their neighbors were OK with their plans before they proceeded. In this area, John says, most folks believe that no one has the right to tell anyone how they should live, much less be buried.
Still, it adds to the quirkiness factor that the Wilkersons also cultivate the specialty crop of chufa. Grasslike chufa plants are tasty food for wild turkeys and the seeds are sought after by hunters looking to plant food plots to attract their prey. Selling chufa is how the Wilkersons continue to generate income until the burial business picks up and they are sure it will.
"We're getting two, three, four requests a day, wanting to know, 'How do I do this?'" John says. Basically, Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve charges $1,000 for the "opening and closing of the grave space at the time of need." The plot itself is free. No prepayments are accepted. Simple, handcrafted pine boxes can be purchased for around $500; there's even a practical model, with rope handles on the side, that can be used with shelves until put into final use.
In contrast, the average price for a typical funeral runs between $5,000 and $7,000, not necessarily including the cost of the plot itself. Americans and Canadians pay, on average, three times more for funerals than people in England and other European countries.
At Glendale, no embalmed bodies are allowed embalming fluid is toxic and only caskets made of wood or cardboard can go into the ground. You don't even have to be buried in a coffin if you don't want to; it's OK to go in the ground au naturel or wrapped in a blanket.
A green burial policy seems enlightened once you know what goes into the ground each year in America with the dearly departed, according to stats from the Society for Environmental Journalists: 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid; 90,272 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze and 30 million board feet of hardwoods (much of it from tropical rain forests) for caskets; and 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete and 14,000 tons of steel for vaults.
So green burial is good for the environment. But what's in it for the customer?
"We hope to create a place of sacred earth that will never be developed and a more meaningful way of disposing with their loved one's bodies," John says.
When John dies, his preference is to be buried on his property in a hole dug 8 feet straight down into the earth by his trusty auger. He wants to be planted feet down, head up, with no paraphernalia and absolutely no trappings of a modern funeral. Friends and family can have a few drinks and tell stories, if they are so inclined.
Advance planning and timing are critical factors in a DIY burial, especially in the case of an unexpected death. As John Wilkerson says, "All the info is readily available to everybody, but it is virtually impossible to find." So if someone were to die in Orange County and wanted to be buried at Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve, for example, how could it be done?
Legally, the body of the deceased belongs to the next of kin, responsible for making decisions and picking up the tab. Title XXIX (Public Health), Chapter 382 (Vital Statistics), Section 382.002 (Definitions), term No. 7 of the 2004 Florida statutes states: "Funeral Director means a licensed funeral director or direct disposer licensed pursuant to chapter 470 or other person who first assumes custody of or effects the final disposition of a dead body or a fetus as described in subsection (5)."
The family member taking responsibility for a green burial is the "other person" acting as a direct disposer. For those wishing to do it themselves, it's important not to engage the services of a for-profit funeral business; doing so changes everything.
The pre-pay funeral industry is regulated by the Florida Department of Financial Services, and operates under a completely different set of rules than those that govern the disposal of a body. Come October 2005, freshly passed legislation will establish one ruling body, the Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services under the Department of Financial Services, which should cut down on the game of hide-and-seek for consumers. For now, though, finding the correct information and filing the proper paperwork for DIY burials is a challenge. Here's a general guide.
No. 1: Upon death, keep the body cool using air conditioning and/or packing it with bags of ice cubes or dry ice check the phone book for suppliers. Joshua Slocum, the outspoken executive director for the Funeral Consumers Alliance, offers this advice: "Keep the body in a room around 65 degrees. It'll be absolutely fine, without odor, for a couple of days."
Having one of those shelf caskets would come in handy right then, or an inexpensive cardboard casket (which can be ordered online) would work too. But there are no rules about improvising with other types of containers. It's all about convenient portability. The taller and heavier the body, the harder it'll be to move it around, and the more manpower required.
Rigor mortis sets in a few hours after death, stiffening the muscles in the body for least 36 hours, so position the body as you will want it for traveling and burial immediately after death. Slocum also says there are certain icky things a family needs to know the bowels and bladder of the deceased may let go, so be prepared to clean the body and pack the orifices with cotton. There may be a reaction known as "purge," which can be prevented by packing the throat of the deceased with cotton, as well.
No. 2: If death occurs by natural causes, a doctor familiar with the health status of the deceased can be called in to fill out and file the death certificate. So it pays to have a sustained relationship with a doctor. If the demise is unnatural or unexpected, the police will have to be involved and the county medical examiner likely will have to take temporary custody of the body to perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Once the autopsy is complete, however, the body can be returned to the family. Medical examiners do not embalm bodies or prepare them for burial. The family will need to be very specific with the medical examiner about wanting the body returned to them, because it is not a typical request. A funeral home could become involved without consent, potentially derailing the process.
No. 3: Embalming is not legally required in Florida, or any other state, so don't let anybody tell you otherwise. "People think you've got to embalm a body, but it's not true," says Slocum.
There are many myths about embalming, such as that it sterilizes a body with contagious diseases, which is simply not true. In fact, the trend is going the other way. In Hawaii, it's prohibited to embalm a body infected with certain contagious diseases because it puts the practitioner at risk. Furthermore, Slocum says, if most people knew how invasive the embalming process is, they would be shocked. The gruesome embalming shown in A Family Undertaking is a very tame, edited version, he warns.
The Civil War is credited with stimulating the business of undertaking in the United States, because there was a need to preserve bodies for long, slow travel home, and for repairing wounds to lessen the shock to the family. Families who purchased an insurance policy before a soldier went off to war received a special tag for the soldier to wear around his neck. Undertakers would scour battlefields for tags, and then embalm the dead for the return home.
No. 4: With the body properly chilling and the death certificate squared away, what next? "Right then," says John Wilkerson, "the person with the power is in the Bureau of Vital Statistics office in your county. That's the person that has to issue a Burial Transit Permit before this body can be transported by anyone. In most cases in the state of Florida, that Bureau of Vital Statistics person does not know the law. That's the problem we're running up against. We're having to educate the people who are supposed to know."
A visit to an Orange County satellite office for the Bureau of Vital Statistics proved the point. Though very eager to help, the supervisor had to call the main office in Jacksonville to confirm what I was insisting. Once a copy of the Burial Transit Permit was procured, we read it through together and both learned a few things. On line six, it calls for the signature of the "Funeral Director/Direct Disposer." Though the county supervisor had never dealt with anyone but a funeral director, there it was, the term "direct disposer."
When the triplicate BTP form is requested, the Bureau of Vital Statistics registers a permit number, eventually to be matched up with the death certificate, also issued from this office. (Get about a dozen copies, as official death certificates are required for settling the deceased's business affairs.) The BTP form must be completed by Glendale Memorial. Glendale would then file a copy within 10 days in Walton County, "the county where disposition occurred." The "direct disposer" keeps a copy too, while another copy must be mailed or delivered within 24 hours to the Orange County Bureau of Vital Statistics, where it was issued.
No. 5: With the BTP in hand comes the right to transport the body to a licensed cemetery in this case, Glendale. (You didn't think you could drop the body off just anywhere, did you?) Again, air conditioning and/or ice are needed to delay decomposition during transport. Common sense should rule what size vehicle is needed, but a minivan generally does the trick, says John. The only legal stipulation is that the body must be fully covered in transit. If a cop pulls you over and finds a dead body, the BTP is the only thing that'll keep you out of jail.
Snags are inevitable. For instance, if someone dies after business hours on Friday, the death still will have to be reported immediately to the doctor or police for issuance of the death certificate. But Chapter 6 of the Vital Records Registration Handbook 2004 states that you have within five days after death to obtain the BTP. So, no worries if the body has to chill at the house until the office of Vital Statistics reopens. As long as the deceased is not transported from the place of death, viewing and services can take place during this time frame. After the body arrives at Glendale, the family is still in charge.
A green burial is not a mission impossible, but it's something your family must be committed to carrying out, as obstacles and aggravations are inevitable at a time when emotion is high. "This is something that you don't want to jump into at the spur of the moment without planning," says Slocum. "The family needs to walk through the process well in advance of the death. Ã? You want to find out who you need to educate."
That's why it's rare for a loved one to handle so much responsibility. "But there are ways to be greener," Slocum says, and his Funeral Consumers Alliance website (www.funerals.org) has a wealth of information on that subject. Also, the president of the Orlando chapter of the FCA, Victoria Laney, is eager to educate anyone in need of honest information about funerals (407-677-5009). And the groundbreaking books Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love by Lisa Carlson (1998) and The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford (a 1998 update of her 1963 classic) are highly recommended.
"Talking to your family is the most important thing," says Slocum. "I just had my 30th birthday and my family has known for years what I want. ... So come on, talking to your family about death isn't going to make the grim reaper arrive any quicker. But not talking to them, you're setting them up to have to spend money on guilt and vain regrets."