Jul 062010

There’s strong evidence that we are going Back To The Future, that the twenty-first century will be more like the nineteenth century than what we’ve been used to. We are starting to pay a price for progress in terms of environmental degradation and and economic malaise. We have developed a culture that centers on the private auto and this has resulted in an architecture that requires us to drive endlessly to do our business and get to our homes. It’s pretty easy to get nostalgic for the time when everything was walking distance, where market towns were a day’s walk apart, where big cities hummed with non-combustion activity. Everything in our civilization is compartmentalized and separated, spread out on long highway strips and into cul de sacs.  It’s easy to get out of touch.

We’ve been fortunate this year to have two nineteenth century experiences: a home birth and a home death. Ironically, there are some similarities with this coming and going. But the important part of the experience is that you are in touch with it. You are connected to it. It doesn’t take place in an institution with flourescent lights glaring and intercoms making announcements you can’t understand. These events traditionally took place at home with family in attendance, with neighbors standing by, with children seeing what was taking place. The loud exclamations of birthing, the rattle of a dying person connect you to the reality of the event. Being present is instructive and experiential as opposed to tedious (sitting in a waiting room of a hospital).

Somewhere along the way we decided we had to drive somewhere to birth or die. We forgot we could do it at home. These days more people are coming home to give birth or to pass on out of personal preference or economic necessity. Watching a babe’s head crown or seeing an old relative gasp last breaths will reconnect you to the world in the same way that getting out of your car and walking somewhere will do.

A home birth is a spectacular event to witness. I’ve told my daughter-in-law that two of the five most impressive things I’ve ever seen in my life are her giving birth (and I can’t remember the other three). A home death is on the other end of the joy spectrum. There’s sadness, of course, but I expect in many cases relief at the person’s release.

I’ve been out of touch with post-life events and was surprised to learn that so-called “green” burials are now allowed. “A Green Burial is a burial of an unembalmed body in a biodegradable casket without a burial vault or a grave liner.” I should say, “allowed again” for this is the way people were buried before our age of high technology.

According to the marketing of this nineteenth century burial technique we would save:
•    30 million board feet (70,000 m³) of hardwoods for caskets
•    90,272 tons of steel for caskets
•    14,000 tons of steel for vaults
•    2,700 tons of copper and bronze for caskets
•    1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete for vaults
•    827,060 US gallons (3,130 m³) of embalming fluid

Like most every aspect of our modern society there is a tremendous waste.

As a gardener what appeals to me about green burials is that a body would essentially be composted. Most twentieth century funeral services quoted from the Book of Common Prayer: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” That’s composting in its essence but not possible when the body reeks of formaldehyde.

So as we move Back To The Future, as life becomes more local, as we slow down and get real, as we put our hands in the dirt, we can begin to get the feel of things as they really are. And when  we get to the end of it all, you can compost me. It’s very nineteenth century.


  2 Responses to “Compost Me”

  1. I agree with your sentiments about the disposal of what used to be us. The funeral business is extortion at its worst. Also reminds me of one of my favorite poems about the Civil War dead by Walt Whitman who served as a Nurse: This Compost.


  2. A very beautiful post – thank you.

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