Dust to Dust

Imagine Arlington National Cemetery as a hillside forest. I can't really, and I'm not sure that I want to, but the idea of an eco-cemetery and its associated benefits sure is appealing.

When I first visited the Virginia cemetery one Thanksgiving holiday, I was an impressionable 20 years old. It was immense; overwhelming to think of all those who died fighting for U.S. ideals. If you've been there, you know what I am talking about.

Grave markers and cemeteries really are for the living. That's why it is easy to understand our need to see and for everyone else to see, too, and especially remember all the lives that have been sacrificed. I'm not certain the effect would be the same if you saw a forest, built from trees planted over the remains of fallen soldiers.

For myself, burial and markers seem to be a waste -- I always considered cremation the way to go. Having seen the made-up faces and surreal bodies of people no longer animated has helped to form my cremation bias. I'm not sure about the polluting effects of this option, but Memoria, a personal consulting service for cremation, claims that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 tested cremation emissions for particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, dioxins and furans, as well as metals, including cadmium, mercury, and lead. According to the company, "the net testing results were so mild; EPA assigned crematory emissions the lowest level of priority for agency monitoring." Does that ring true to you?

Some funeral providers apparently are responding to calls for green options, but I don't know if the sustainability of any has been verified. In addition to cutting costs with cremation, you can forego the formaldehyde and buy a pine box, woven or fiber casket, a recycled paper coffin called Ecopod, and even a shroud. Earlier this month, a press release touting the Spiritree caught my eye. In this two-piece container, the organic bottom shell made of peat moss, wood chips, clay, recycled paper and other green materials works as an urn and a tree planter. The perforated ceramic cover protects the cremated remains while allowing water absorption. This vessel is multipurpose (practical) and still spiritual. (Jose Fernando Vazquez-Perez of San Juan, Puerto Rico designed it.) You can also find a watery resting place.

All this is to note that, although we seem to have viable alternatives to traditional interment practices, we probably won't be choosing them for a long time. How do you green up cemeteries, which are as old as death and replete with ritual, emotion, and guilt-inspired excess?

To comment, send e-mail to Lisa Williams.

With respect to your last sentence… you don’t. Leave it alone. Anyone who’s buried a buddy in a national cemetery would understand that real emotion, coupled with pride in and honor for the fallen, trumps green.

I buried a shipmate at the Fort Sill National Cemetery yesterday. He gave his life last week during a meeting with Sadr City government officials, assisting them in establishing honest, representative government. For his sacrifice, and that of all those buried there, we owe at least that small plot of land.

Bob Swanson

Posted by L.K. Williams, EPonline on Jun 24, 2008


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