My late father and late aunt, his sister, have told me the story of their mother giving birth to a still-born girl in about 1924 (when Dad was 14 or 15). Dad recounted the story this way in an oral history I did with him:
"I was out doing the chores and the doctor was there. When I came in it was hushed whispers and so on, and my Dad took me and showed me the baby on the bed and he said she didn't live. So it must have been somewhat of a shock to me because I went out of the house and I walked for about an hour around over the farm and didn't say anything to anybody.
"When I came back my Dad and my Aunt Fanny were there and he had gone to town and got a little paper mache casket and they put the baby in it. They set the casket on the back seat of our 1922 Chevrolet and went down to the cemetery southeast of San Jose (pronounced San Joe's -- in central Illinois) and buried her there."
Most of 100 years ago, that's often how people in America handled death. Not so much any more. Nowadays most deaths are handled by a professional funeral industry, and we've lost touch with what it means not just to prepare our loved ones for burial but also for how to return them to the earth in a way that doesn't do environmental damage.
A new book, The Green Burial Guidebook, by Elizabeth Fournier, is designed to help us recover the ability to bury our dead in ways that will be more ecologically friendly.
"Over time," she writes, "our society has dealt with death less and less openly, until we arrived at where we are now, largely ignorant of our options and our rights throughout the whole procedure." Others have dealt in print with this phenomenon, though without Fournier's focus on green burial. The theological book to read is Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.
So what exactly is a green burial? The author says it "means a person is buried in a container that can decompose, along with their human remains, and return to the soil. Ideally, all aspects of a green burial are as organic as possible. The body is not filled with embalming chemicals, and it is placed in the earth without vaults or nonbiodegradable caskets. The end goal of green burial is that nothing is used that doesn't help replenish the soil."
And the good news is that green burials are growing more popular. You may have to search a little for a cemetery that allows it, but there's a helpful list in the back of the book showing burial grounds in the U.S. and Canada where green burials are welcome. One of the points of the book is to urge readers to know what the local burial laws are -- and aren't -- and not to assume that what they have in mind is illegal.
In some ways, I suppose you could consider the burial of my unnamed aunt in a paper mache casket in the ground above her grandparents a green burial. At least I'm happy to think of it that way now.
(My photos here show the family plot in the cemetery in San Jose, Ill. My father's still-born sister was buried with her grandparents, German immigrants, whose graves are seen in the photo on the right.)
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THE CONSEQUENCES OF ANTI-MUSLIM TWEETS
A new analysis of Donald Trump's anti-Muslim tweets suggest that anti-Muslim hate crimes spike when he sends them out into the world. The British researchers who did the study say it's hard to conclude there's a direct, inevitable connection between the tweets and the hateful responses, but the pattern is pretty clear. And completely unsurprising. So click on the Daily Beast story to which I've linked you and tweet it out to @realDonaldTrump in case he hasn't read the story.