sky burial

Sky burial just may be the most natural way to go. It is a beautiful tradition where your body is left out to be consumed by animals, mostly predatory birds such as vultures. The thought is that since the body is an empty vessel there is no need to preserve it.

The sky burial is used in mountainous areas where people are unable to dig graves and fuels such as timber are limited to cremate the body. Cremation is held for significant persons such a lamas.

View more photographs of a Tibetan Sky Burial here.

WARNING: due to the graphic nature of the content, viewer discretion is advised.

Unfortunately Sky Burials are not allowed in Canada, but this beautiful tradition is one worth noting.

By Cheryl Chan

Published May 20, 2014 by The Province

 

Leanne Rooney is trying to decide what to plant above her husband’s grave. Will it be a Douglas fir or a red alder? A big leaf maple, perhaps, or a native shrub?

Three weeks ago, John Rooney was laid to rest at Woodlands, B.C.’s only green burial site at Victoria’s Royal Oak cemetery. He was buried in a simple pine box, built with no nails, glue or varnish.

It was a hard decision for Rooney, who had to sacrifice proximity so that ethically and environmentally, her husband rested at a better place.

“We didn’t want to cause more pollution,” Leanne said from their Vancouver home. “We wanted to be a positive thing for the world, not a negative.”

Her husband was the 102nd person to be buried in the quiet forested grove. Without the boulder memorials, it is hard to tell Woodlands is the resting place of more than 100 souls, especially as recently-planted trees and bushes mature and meld into the natural landscape.

“I can just imagine how beautiful it will be,” Leanne said. “It’ll be a very small footprint. There are no markers. I’m OK with that. I took GPS co-ordinates so I can visit him when I can.”

The Rooneys represent a segment of the population — environmentally-conscious people who lived their lives green and are seeking greener alternatives in death — that’s fuelling the growing popularity of green burials, forcing cemeteries to consider new approaches.

Typically, green burials ban the use of embalming fluids and concrete vaults. Bodies are laid to rest in biodegradable shrouds or caskets and in shallower graves to aid natural decomposition. Instead of individual markers, names are often inscribed on a common marker, or in some cases, no markers are used.

There have been 103 green burials at Woodlands since it opened in the fall of 2008. Another 83 people have prearranged their burials at the site. Plans are underway to expand Woodlands to two-thirds of an acre, doubling the current 254 lots to about 500.

Executive director Stephen Olson is so certain demand for green burials will increase he has committed to dedicating half of Royal Oak’s yet-to-be-developed 74 acres to natural burial in the future.

“That’s how convinced we are that this is going to be so widely adopted,” he said.

So far, green burials have been slow to catch on in Canada. Aside from Woodlands, there are three other green cemeteries in Ontario. In comparison, there are more than 200 green cemeteries in the U.K.

Contrary to predictions that green burials are a fad that will die out, many believe the back-to-basics practice is here to stay.

Michael de Pencier, director of the Natural Burial Association, is calling for a departure from modern burial practices, which with their granite or marble head stones and exotic-wood caskets, can be expensive and wasteful.

“All this opulence is fairly recent, driven by the industry and society,” he said. “We have to get people to picture, what would you like when you die? Would you rather be buried under an oak tree or under a big slab of marble?”

The Ontario-based association is working toward raising awareness of eco-friendly burial practices, but also wants to push the concept further. So far, all green burial sites in Canada are attached to traditional cemeteries, de Pencier said. He would like to see the creation of natural cemeteries that become unprotected parkland.

In Vancouver, Mountain View cemetery has been quietly offering greener options for years.

The cemetery, which is one of two listed as offering green burials by the U.S.-based Green Burial Council, allows graves with no concrete vaults. Only six per cent of casket burials at the Fraser Street cemetery use vaults. It also allows families to reuse and share burial space — arguably, a greener way to go.

Even though green burials are less costly than traditional burials — foregoing concrete vaults and head stones can cut about $2,000 from the bill — for those who opt to go green, it is never about the money.

“It resonates with them on a very philosophical or spiritual level,” Olsen said.

About 90 per cent of people who choose green burials had previously expressed a preference for cremation, Olson noted. It suggests that even though green burials make up only a small fraction of interments in B.C., they could nibble away at the province’s cremation rate, which at 80 per cent is one of the highest in North America.

Most people choose cremation over traditional burials because it is simpler and less expensive, and is considered to be more environmentally friendly. But cremation releases carbon emissions and mercury toxins from dental fillings into the air.

Of course, green burials are not new. In the past, most burials were green by necessity.

Over the last century, the practice was eclipsed by modern funeral practices with shiny caskets, formaldehyde in embalming fluid and manicured green lawns held up by underground concrete lining the norm.

But the tide seems to be changing.

Green burials are becoming very “au courant,” said Catriona Hearn of landscape design firm Lees + Associates, which designed Woodlands and many other cemeteries in B.C.

“Every municipal cemetery is talking about this,” she said. “Virtually every community doing cemetery planning is having to consider green burials. They may choose not to offer it, but they are talking about it.”

In Salmon Arm, the city’s conceptual plan for its new cemetery site include green burial ‘pods’ in wooded areas rather than clear-cut zones. On Denman Island, a group of residents has been working since 2009 to establish a natural cemetery on land protected by a conservation covenant.

But so far, the interest doesn’t seem to be translating to actual green burial cemeteries — at least not yet. One obstacle is the uncertainty whether there is a sufficient market for it.

“No one really knows where it is going right now,” Hearn said. “It’s hard to offer it when they’re not sure about the uptake.”

Another obstacle, especially in urban areas, is the cost of land and geography.

Mountain View, for example, has no forested land it can use, manager Glen Hodges said. Surrey, too, which is in the early stages of planning a new cemetery, is limited to open lawn areas.

The biggest hurdle, however, could be public lack of awareness.

The Rooneys first read about green burials in 2008 when Woodlands first opened on the Island. They had thought green burials would be available in the Lower Mainland by now and Leanne said she was surprised it hasn’t caught on.

Despite the distance, Leanne said choosing Woodlands for her husband was the right decision.

When she visited the site, she was struck by the natural setting and remembered thinking it will one day smell like rain-scented forests.

“It felt right this is where John would be,” she recalled.

“It was the most comfortable decision I had to make in this whole process of losing him.”

ALTERNATIVE GREEN METHODS

Sounds like science fiction, but here are other green methods to dispose of a body after death:

Alkaline hydrolysis. Also referred to as resomation, this procedure involves dissolving the body in a heated, pressurized vat of lye and water, resulting in a sterlie liquild that can be used as fertilizer or poured down the drain, and bone ash, which like cremation, can be placed in an urn and given to loved ones. Scottish company Resomation claims the procedure has a carbon footprint 18 times smaller than cremation. It is approved in some U.S. states and in Saskatchewan.

Promession. The process, invented by Swedish company Promessa, involves freeze-drying the body with liquid nitrogen, then using high-amplitude vibrations to shatter it, creating a dry powder. The powder is then sifted through a metal separator that removes mercury and metal surgical parts. The remains can then be buried and turns into compost in about six to 12 months.

 

Click here to view the article on The Province’s website.

When thinking about your funeral, there are so many things to think about: casket, visitation, clergy, flowers… the list goes on.  If you are thinking about ways to make your end of life celebration a little bit different and a little bit green here are some ways you may go about doing so.  To download the article click here.

Susan Chumsky writes in her article featured in the New York Times that baby boomers, the ones the death industry is greatly anticipating, are eagerly searching for meaningful ways to celebrate their end of life ceremonies and keep future generations in mind.  This article is a great reminder of how we can celebrate lives in so many ways and still practice environmentalism even upon our own demise.  With this huge boom in the amount of people passing it is good to know that so many have the ambition to be more gentle to the earth.  Click here to read the full article, or download it here.

 

“The poetry of the earth is never dead.”

– John Keats

“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

-Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie

By Claudia Dreifus

Published January 13th, 2013 by the New York Times

 

For much of the year, Bernd Heinrich spends his time at a cabin he built in a remote forest in western Maine. The cabin has no indoor plumbing and no electricity, he says — just a tree growing inside it.

An emeritus biology professor at the University of Vermont, Dr. Heinrich, 72, sees the New England forest as a living laboratory to study nature’s changes. Over the years he has translated his observations into 17 popular books on nature and the animal world, including ones on bumblebees, dung beetles, owls and geese. Also among these works are a memoir and a 2002 book on running, “Why We Run: A Natural History.” (In the 1980s, Dr. Heinrich was a champion marathoner.)

And lately he has been studying how animals die.

Dr. Heinrich’s book “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death” was published last summer by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

We spoke at the Trailside Nature Museum on the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in northern Westchester County, and later by telephone. A condensed and edited version of the interviews follows.

How did you come to write a book about animal death?

I first started thinking about it when a former student, Bill, wrote saying he was terminally ill and what would I think about his having a “sky burial” on my property in Maine? He wanted to leave his body to the ravens. Bill did not want to be cremated or buried in a sealed box. He wanted to be recycled and have his body provide food for other creatures.

Bill’s letter got me thinking about the different ways animals are recycled in natural ecology and about how scavengers cleanse the world so there’s room for new life.

In many ways, this was a subject I’d been circling for a long time. Over the years, I’d studied ravens and beetles, scavengers who are key actors in natural recycling. I may have felt some affinity for them because we — my parents, my sister and I — had once been scavengers ourselves.

Scavengers?

Yes. At the end of World War II, in Germany, my family escaped the advancing Red Army and lived in the forest. My father was an entomologist, a wasp specialist, and he believed the most awful place to be in a war was a city. We ate by scavenging. We trapped mice. I remember finding a dead boar, and my sister and I ate it.

But to return to Bill: I wondered if his idea was feasible. What if we put him out and no ravens came? I could imagine that even if they did eat him, there might be a human skull lying around and the next thing, the police would be up there. No, this wasn’t practical! I sent Bill a note saying that regrettably I could not help him.

But now I began doing little experiments on my property. I’d been working on a book about beetles and I thought this might make a chapter. So I put out roadkill — mice, raccoon, a shrew — and then watched for who came and how nature’s undertakers — burying beetles, maggots, gorgeous green bottle flies — broke the carcass down.

The entire scene was about transformation. A mouse would die and get eaten and it became beetles. Or its molecules could become part of a hawk or an owl. I looked at a moose and a deer carcass and I was fascinated by how quickly even big things disappeared in nature. So before I knew it, this chapter had grown into a book!

Did you find it difficult to work with roadkill?

Aside from the ick factor, a carcass is a very active scene. It’s not so much about death as life. The carcass provides a huge amount of concentrated food for the animals who are recyclers. So you get competition and all kinds of interesting animal behavior as they try to get access to it. If the food is being defended, that’s interesting. And if all kinds of animals want it, that’s even more interesting.

Some of the recyclers I enjoyed more than others. Ravens are very appealing. I’ve never met a raven I didn’t like. I can’t find maggots appealing, but after a while I did get used to them. Today I can watch maggots and find them quite interesting. Just this summer, I put out a raccoon carcass and it was almost consumed by maggots and there was nothing left, no meat whatsoever, in three days. And then, I saw a whole cohort leave, thousands of them, and they left the raccoon as a group, all in one direction.

What do you think was going on?

I still don’t have all the answers. I can give you some hypothesis. They were heading for the sun, moving towards light. They had to leave the carcass because they’d finished it off and there wasn’t any food left. Most creatures, if they don’t have food, they move on. Why shouldn’t a maggot? The question still is why did they all go at once? This was in the summer and if you move in a group, you reduce the surface area and lose less water. I’ll be doing more research on this next summer.

Many scavenger species have a bad reputation. In some cultures, there’s a hatred for vultures and ravens. Do you understand it?

It’s because of their association with death — they are blamed for it. Ravens get blamed a lot for killing a lot of things when, in fact, they mostly eat the dead and the nearly dead. It’s an illogical association that comes from a lack of understanding of what these animals do. Consider what would happen in the ocean if nothing ate the dead fish. Eventually, the ocean would be up to the top with dead fish. If there were no recyclers, nature would stop.

Many of the scavenger species are now endangered. What is happening to them?

With some of the larger scavengers — the condors and the vultures — we’ve hunted out their food base. There’s nothing left for them to eat. Also, we are using poisons to kill competitors for our own food sources — rats and mice. Then owls and hawks eat these poisoned rodents and die.

With some of the vultures, there have been population crashes because some of the medication fed to livestock is toxic to them. They eat dead cattle, traditional food, and then they die.

I was just reading about how the Parsis of India have sky burials as part of their religion. Lately, they’ve begun breeding vultures for their ceremonies because there aren’t enough wild ones left. It’s tragic. The ecosystem is very complex and we can’t know what will happen if these animals disappear.

Are humans and their remains part of that complex ecosystem?

I think so. But human death is becoming more and more divorced from nature. We pump our dead with polluting chemicals like formaldehyde, put them into airtight boxes and then plant them in precious real estate that could be used for agriculture. We think we’re denying death that way. The appealing thing about Bill’s idea was that he wouldn’t be consuming resources in death — his body would give back to natural world.

What ever became of Bill?

He’s still alive. Happily that sky burial hasn’t been required.

 

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