“It’s Only Natural” (a “Green Burial” sermon)

a reflection by Rev. Bill Gupton
Sunday, October 23, 2015
Heritage Unitarian Universalist Church
Cincinnati, Ohio

 

 

We are all part of the Mystery. I believe that as surely as I believe I am standing here right now – and I believe that no matter what happens to us, when we die, we remain part of that Mystery – for we are part of a natural cycle – a turning which we do not understand – the Spirit of Life.

As most of you are aware, I devoted a good portion of my sabbatical, earlier this year, to studying “green,” or as I prefer to call it, “natural” burial. I visited, and hiked within, and met with the stewards of, natural burial sanctuaries from the deep Southeast to the Pacific Northwest. I spoke with funeral directors and “death doulas,” environmentalists and lawyers. I learned about local, state and national burial laws and regulations. I read research papers and masters theses and books. I met celebrities in the death field – yes, there is such a subculture, and there are such celebrities. I meditated and contemplated.

The result is that I think I can say, in all honesty and with all due humility, that I am probably better educated about what is commonly called green burial than anyone else in Cincinnati. Certainly, I have returned to my ministry here with a much clearer vision – and a renewed commitment – to creating what I have come to think of as a comprehensive end-of-life ministry which I hope we can build, together, here at Heritage Church in the years ahead.

By an “end-of-life ministry” I mean caring – compassionately and in community – for those who are dying, and for their loved ones – not just during the dying process, but afterward – all the way to the grave. This morning, I want to talk a bit about the final part of that process – the kind of loving, natural, and sacred return to the earth, as part of the cycle of life and death on this planet, which I think we might all wish for, if we truly had our druthers. And I’m here to tell you – we can. I thank you for showing up today – for being willing to hear about – and perhaps stay after the service and learn even more about – that most taboo of subjects, in America today: death.

But let’s start at the beginning. When people find out what an ardent advocate for green burial I am, their first question – well, perhaps after asking “What’s green burial?” is: “How did you get interested in that?

For me, it all began, with a pine cone…

With apologies to those of you who have heard this story before, this pine cone comes from the quaint little New England village of Concord, Massachusetts – the home of the Unitarian Transcendentalists. Specifically, it comes from a historic burial ground called Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I kid you not – that’s really its name. Even more specifically, I got this pine cone off the grave of Henry David Thoreau.

You know – Thoreau. The author of Walden. America’s literary patron saint – and Unitarian Universalism’s most eloquent spokesperson for – Nature. It was there, at the very humble grave of Henry David Thoreau, that I had an epiphany that changed my life – and certainly changed my own, ultimate destination.

You see, there’s a pine tree growing out of Thoreau’s grave. A pine tree, literally growing from the ground where the world’s most well-known and beloved naturalist is buried. I realized, standing there one fall afternoon, now nearly 20 years ago, that some of the very substance of the author of “Walden” – molecules, and atoms – part of Henry David Thoreau himself – was in that tree. That living, breathing, photosynthesis-performing, oxygen-producing tree. And thus, as well, part of him was in that pine cone, which had fallen to the ground.

This pine cone.

So I bent down … and picked the pine cone up. I drew in a deep breath. I soaked in the crisp air, and basked in the moment. It was, as they say, a religious experience – a moment of spiritual clarity and connection. I recalled those lines, immortalized in our hymnal (as are many of the words of Thoreau himself) – those lines that remind us we are stardust. I heard, in my head, the words I have since pronounced at funerals and memorial services: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

And I was comforted, beyond words, to rest, and to be held, in that eternal connection.

Since that pilgrimage to what is, in many ways, the home, the roots, of Unitarian Universalism, I have made a reverent place for this pine cone on the altar in my meditation room. (To this day, it gives me goosebumps just to hold it). To hold it, and to think about what we now – we Unitarian Universalists who are Thoreau’s spiritual descendants – call the Interdependent Web of Existence.

It struck me that fateful afternoon – as I realized that Thoreau was still a part of that interdependent web – that in Thoreau’s day, people were buried in a simple pine box. Their bodies were literally returned to the earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust – because that pine box, broke down. It decomposed. It, and the body it contained, both went right back into the soil.

I thought of how different it had been for my father, who had recently died. I thought of how his body had been filled with embalming fluid (I didn’t yet know the more gory details of that process, details I learned during my sabbatical). I thought of how my Dad had been squeezed into a brand new suit, laid on some fluffy foam, fringed with frilly white satin, and then hermetically sealed inside a bronze, supposedly air-tight and waterproof casket (I didn’t yet know the falsity of those claims) – and finally, how he, and the whole thing, had been lowered, by a machine, into a large box of concrete that had previously been placed in the ground of an unnaturally well-groomed and manicured piece of earth.

The juxtaposition of how I imagined (and with solid historical evidence) that Thoreau’s body had been laid to rest – and how I knew my own father had been buried – that contradiction haunted me, there in that moment of clarity. And right then, my whole outlook on burial changed.

Prior to that moment at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, I had planned to be cremated when I died – largely because the one thing I knew, for certain, was that I didn’t want done to me what I had seen done to my grandparents and uncles and to my own father. I didn’t want that kind of final rites. But I had never realized I had the right to be buried another way. I had never realized how beautiful, how meaningful, how natural it would be, to simply be buried straight in the ground – perhaps in the woods.

Like my son Patrick, and my wife Jennifer, I love walking in the woods. But I had never considered that I might actually be able to end up there. Thanks to the monopolistic funeral industry in our country – thanks to our current culture of death denial in America – I had not realized that is was, in fact, possible – that it was legal to truly return to the Mother Earth I cherish – return home, to the Earth I sing about in church on Sunday mornings.

That’s the spiritual side, if you will, of my passion for natural burial. But there’s also a very pragmatic, real-world side as well. Consider, if you will, a few statistics. Some facts about what the modern funeral industry is doing to our environment.

Each year, in American cemeteries – and I say American, because the way we bury our dead in this country takes place practically nowhere else in the world – each year, we willingly and intentionally bury into the earth more than 64,000 tons of steel; more than 5 million pounds of copper and bronze; more than one and a half million tons of concrete; 20 million linear feet of lumber (that’s former trees, folks, and it’s also treated lumber) – wood that has been saturated with environmentally toxic chemicals. Then there’s the astounding 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid we also bury with – and in – our dead. Embalming fluid, it should be pointed out, is a hazardous chemical cocktail that contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. It is no coincidence that embalmers have significantly higher rates of cancer than the general public.

There are other environmental costs to the way we bury our dead in the U.S. Those pristine lawns in those modern cemeteries don’t remain that way without lots and lots and lots of watering, without the use of huge amounts of pesticides and other chemicals, without constant mowing that uses a great deal of gasoline. Countless trees and other natural growth are cut away to create the vast open spaces of American cemeteries. I could go on and on.

And if you, like many others, think of cremation as the green alternative to conventional American burial – think again. Every year, in the U.S. alone, the amount of fossil fuels used in cremations could drive a car to the moon and back – 84 times. Crematories pollute. They release mercury into the air; they account for an ever-growing percentage of the also-ever-growing number of dioxins in our atmosphere. Oh – and you probably weren’t aware that most human bodies that are cremated have actually been embalmed first! Or that many are, in fact, burned in caskets. All those chemicals, and all that material, also is released into the air.

In short, the negative environmental impact of current American funeral practices – whether burial, or cremation – is quite simply staggering. For me, green burial is the obvious – the natural – alternative. As Unitarian Universalists, we share a deep reverence for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. Think about those words, for a moment. Had you ever noticed that our Seventh Principle is actually composed of two parts? Yes, we celebrate “the interdependent web of existence” – but at the same time, we are called to acknowledge the undeniable fact that we, ourselves, are part of that web.

This is a heretical statement. It goes against the grain of Western culture – a culture which desperately declares, at every possible opportunity, that human beings are somehow separate from, somehow elevated above, the natural world. Yet deep inside, all of us know that simply is not true. And modern science confirms what native peoples have always told us – that we are inextricably woven into the fabric of all existence. You come from stardust. You, and I, are connected. Something that was once part of Thoreau, is now part of this pine cone.

Now, let me tell you about a few places I’ve visited in the past year – places where it is easy (much easier than in an urban or suburban landscape, much easier than in a conventional American cemetery) to feel, to experience, to know the reality of our interconnection with Nature. Places where that fundamental, elemental reality of our place in the natural cycle is literally made manifest.

I took the picture that is on the cover of your order of service at Pine Forest Memorial Gardens in North Carolina. Those of you who saw the green burial documentary “A Will for the Woods” – which we premiered in Cincinnati right here in this sanctuary roughly a year ago, and which I will be showing again this winter – may recognize the “Path of Clark’s Reflection.” Clark Wang was the young doctor who, while dying of cancer, convinced a conventional cemetery outside Raleigh, N.C., to create a natural burial sanctuary.

You may have noticed my language choice – that I said “conventional” cemetery. We in the green burial movement refuse to call our modern American cemeteries what they would prefer to be called – “traditional” cemeteries – because they are anything but traditional. In fact, they have only been around a few decades – not very long, in the scheme of things, compared to eternity – or, for that matter, even compared to “tradition.”

While at Pine Forest, I visited Clark Wang’s grave. I got to spend an afternoon with Dyanne Matzkevich, the manager of the conventional cemetery there, whose heart (and mind) were so opened by Clark Wang’s passion for returning naturally to the earth, that in his final days she made his dying wish possible – thus initiating a process that created the only Green Burial Council certified cemetery in the state of North Carolina. Over the past five years, dozens of people have been buried there – naturally.

But what, you may still be wondering, is meant by that term “buried naturally”? A natural, or green burial, returns the body to the earth without the use of embalming fluids, concrete vaults, metal caskets, or artificially maintained and manicured outdoor settings. The landscape is allowed to grow, naturally, and the only things buried in the earth are natural and biodegradable: The human body. Perhaps a shroud, made of natural fabric. Perhaps the traditional – and here, “traditional” is an appropriate word – pine box, handmade, of untreated wood. Often, the grave is dug by hand, rather than by heavy machinery. Often, loved ones help to fill in the grave after participating in laying their beloved lovingly into the earth.

I suspect what I have just described to you is very different from most, if not all, of the funerals you have experienced in your lifetime. Few living people, other than perhaps Orthodox Jews or monastic Catholics, have ever taken part in such a burial. But if you are anything like me, the picture I have just painted is a much more moving, meaningful, and inspiring scenario to contemplate. I have been blessed to witness such burials – and I can tell you, they are among the most sacred events I have ever participated in.

Yet in our culture, very few people have had that opportunity. We “outsource” death, as I like to put it, in our society – all the better to keep it away, keep it at arm’s length – a futile effort to separate ourselves from the reality of life itself – that we, and those we love, will die. In the process, we miss out on the possibility of integrating this most natural of events into our lives.

Like many of the other things that have become commonplace in 21st century America, I think our ancestors would simply shake their heads at what we do – and what we don’t do – when a loved one dies.

Let me tell you about another place I visited during my sabbatical. White Eagle Memorial Preserve is part of a 2,000-acre tract of land being preserved by the Sacred Earth Foundation. It is located adjacent to Native American tribal land in Goldendale, Washington. One day this summer, the preserve’s manager, Jodie Buller, showed me gravesites and told me many heartwarming stories about families whose lives and relationships had been forever changed by the distinctly human – yet, sadly, now all too uncommon – experience of burying their loved ones, in sacred ground. I was witness to Jodie’s undisguised joy (and surprise) at seeing a fresh growth of wildflowers that had just emerged from a recently dug grave. I shared her tears – and noticed the wind suddenly whip up, raising the hairs on the back of my neck – as she told me about a woman from the East Coast, who had wanted a natural burial on native land, but who had been too sick from the cancer that eventually killed her to travel to White Eagle and pick out her gravesite. Together with the woman’s sister, Jodie made her final wish happen.

All around the country, at every one of the dozen or so natural burial sites I’ve visited this year, I have witnessed the simple beauty and wonder of human life, ending and returning naturally to the earth which is our original Source. All around the country, I have heard moving stories of how both the living survivors, and their dying loved ones, have been deeply touched, and profoundly changed, by the journey of undertaking a green burial. Every one of the sacred spaces we call a natural burial sanctuary enhances, stewards and protects the natural cycle – and the plants and animals that comprise its ecosystem. Can you say the same about the cemeteries you’ve run across, in the course of your life?

Here’s another thing you may not know: Ohio is home to several natural burial sanctuaries. They are very different from one another, and embody two current trends in the green burial movement. In the northern part of the state, there are Foxfield Preserve, and Kokosing Nature Preserve. Both are conservation land trusts, where natural burials are integrated into – and an integral part of – the preservation and restoration of land that had once been threatened by development or pollution. In western Ohio, there are a growing number of so-called “hybrid” cemeteries – conventional cemeteries that – as did Pine Forest in North Carolina – have designated a portion of their acreage as greenspace, for green burials only.

But unfortunately, there is no natural burial location in southwest Ohio. I hope someday to be involved in changing that – and I hope this congregation will be involved as well. Wouldn’t it be incredible to be able to bury your loved ones – to be buried, yourself – in the truly “traditional” human way? To return to the earth. To become part of the natural cycle, once again. To become, say, a tree – or as Les sang about this morning, to grow into goldenrod? I have happened across goldenrod at Foxfield Preserve here in Ohio, thriving around, and even on, natural graves.

My journey into the world of natural burial has been much like that of documentary filmmaker Sarah Thomas, who described her first experience of a natural burial sanctuary by saying, “It is … a burial site – and yet [it is] one of the most alive places I have ever [been]… Far from being morbid … what struck me most is the sense that those laid to rest just become part of what is already there… For me,” she continued, “this translates most accurately what death is – part of a continuum, rather than a finite ending.”

Then Thomas concludes – and I fully agree with her – that green burial creates “a resting place, that feels right.”

Or – and I offer you this quote on a weekend when we have seen the most powerful hurricane in recorded history make landfall in North America – as licensed funeral director and green burial advocate Caitlin Doughty puts it, “The type of person who believes climate change is a serious threat to the environment is the type of person who is not going to want the body of a loved one to go into the ground pumped full of cancer-causing chemicals and locked in a metal casket, in a big concrete vault.”

I could go on, but it would only belabor the point. My study, my research – my experiences over my sabbatical, and beyond – have turned me into something of me a green burial evangelist – and I know that evangelists can sometimes be insufferable. So I will simply invite you, if you have questions or want to learn more, to stay after the service. Take a bathroom break, get something to drink, and then come back into the sanctuary at noon. I will be showing some brief videos, including an actual green burial, and I will be providing handouts you can take home, dispelling common myths and misconceptions, and of course offering space for questions and answers, dialogue and discussion.

Before I conclude my reflection, however, I want to make a commitment to you, as your minister. I promise that I will do everything in my power to help anyone in this congregation, who wants a natural burial – for yourself, or for a loved one. I now have the resources and the connections to make that happen – perhaps not yet here in Cincinnati, though I’m working on that – but I commit to you that I will help and guide you in the process of natural burial, should you or someone you care about be interested in doing so.

I leave you with a few lines from a poem titled “The Bed,” by Wendell Berry – the Kentucky farmer who is as close to the earth, and as in tune with the natural cycle, as anyone I have ever met. He writes:

 

 

The ground’s a grave – and so it thrives…

A thousand thousand years will bloom here, in the spring.

Upon the living, sing the blessings of the dead.

 

Blessed be, my friends. I love you. And Amen.