Burial Funeral Industry Grief + Mourning

Shade it Black

Earlier this week, NPR ran an interview with Jess Goodell, author of the new memoir Shade it Black: Death and After in Iraq. The new book is Goodell’s account of her time as a Marine working in the Mortuary Affairs Unit in Iraq in 2004. Terry Gross interviewed Goodell in a segment entitled Death and After in Iraq: Memoir of a Mortuary, which you can listen to here.

The Mortuary Affairs Unit is the platoon tasked with recovering and processing the remains of fallen troops. Out in the field, Goodell and her unit would recover bodies and body parts and bring them back to base for further processing. Then they would prepare the remains for shipping back home. Back at base, Goodell’s job was to document identifying marks on the body like scars or tattoos, etc. The next step involved going through pockets of the dead soldiers to recover anything that could be given back to the family. In an excerpt from the book, Goodell writes:

He gave us step-by-step instructions. “Roll him over to document his wounds.” We may have known that a Marine was hit by bullets or a grenade, but we may not have known where. But when we tried to turn him over, we couldn’t. Rigor mortis was setting in and he was already beginning to stiffen, except for his waist, which was like a pivot point. Even when we strained to turn him over, we could not. It was awkward and we were silent except for The Sir’s slow, calm, firm instructions. “C’mon guys, you were trained on this and you know what to do,” he reassured us. And so, eventually, we did it. “Okay,” The Sir said, “now write down any distinguishing marks, any tattoos.” So we did. “Now, write down which body parts are missing and shade the missing parts black on the outline of the body.” So we did. We followed The Sir’s directions, marking the wounds, drawing the tattoos, shading the missing parts black. We had to be told throughout what to do next and how to do it.

We don’t yet have a copy of the book at my library, so I have not had a chance to read it. Publisher’s Weekly’s review is here. However, it looks like an interesting read not only for Goodell’s account of her time in the Mortuary Affairs Unit, but her experiences with the brutal and sexist culture of the U.S. Marine Corps. The NPR interview touches a bit upon this aspect of Goodell’s experience as well.

As the author talks about being diagnosed with PTSD, it struck me that perhaps the underlying factors are not only related to the handling of corpses, but the objectification and degradation of her own body as well. In the interview, her measured, almost dispassionate voice made me wonder if parts of her own body and mind had died in Iraq, not unlike the soldiers she was tasked with recovering. The coping mechanisms that the soldiers employ without even really knowing that they are doing so—the turning inward, the antisocial behavior—mask this pain quite well, at least for a while it seems.

At the end of the NPR interview, Goodell talks about her decision to study psychology and her desire to help other soldiers with PTSD, citing the need for more counselors who had personally experienced serving in Iraq.

Death + Technology Death + the Web Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials

The Value-added Tombstone

QR Codes Are Appearing on (Ready for This?) Tombstones
Julio Ojeda-Zapata, Press (May 20, 2011)

What’s the next best thing to placing flowers on your loved one’s grave marker? Teddy bears? Mylar balloons? Thanks to technology, those items are now passe. The latest way for you to pay your respects is via the QR code. The what??

A recent article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press discusses how Rochester (MN)-based Funeral Innovations is helping to spur the trend of this newly popular technology and hoping it will catch on with funeral directors and the general public.

For the uninitiated—or perhaps those without a smartphone—a QR code is a two-dimensional code readable by dedicated QR code readers and camera phones. In use in Japan since 1994, QR (or quick response) codes are now being used by various individuals, groups and businesses to promote all sorts of things. Advertising, music and business execs are using the codes to give people a value-added experience; scan the QR code and you are transported to a new layer of information about the product, artist or in the case of the funeral industry—the dearly departed.

So how does it work? Well, say Aunt Sally’s family puts one on her headstone. If your smartphone has a barcode reader app installed, you can point the camera on your phone towards the code. The camera then scans the code and relays information to your phone by taking you to a website where more information is available. Maybe it brings up Aunt Sally’s memorial service posted on YouTube or maybe it takes you to an online photo album or a page on the funeral home’s website that includes her obituary or tribute. Snazzy, huh?

QR codes have become the latest topic of discussion where I work. Ever since they made a big splash at SXSW this past year, there’s been a lot of chatter about how libraries can capitalize on this admittedly geeky but cool tech tool. At my library, we’re bandying about the idea of putting them near some of the art and architecture in our historic building. Click the code and voila—access to way more info than we can possibly squeeze onto a tiny plaque placed near the art or architectural feature. At the University of Bath for example (where Death Ref colleague John resides), they are experimenting with using the QR code to “to join up library services with the technology and equipment students use.”

While we must remain vigilant about not alienating those who cannot afford or who have no desire to own a smart phone or barcode scanner, I can see how a technology like this has the potential to be a game changer—a new way of conceiving and consuming information for the masses. But what do you think? Are QR codes the wave of the future or a gimmick best left in the digital dustbin? Let us know your thoughts.

Grief + Mourning Monuments + Memorials

Postmortem Photography: The Aftermarket

I just happened upon a well-researched article posted to Boing Boing. Titled Ghost Babies, by Mark Dery, the post delves into the re-sale of postmortem photographs for sale on eBay and elsewhere with a little history on postmortem photography in 19th century America thrown in for good measure.

As a librarian, I found the sources to be a nice cross-section to begin further investigation. Here are the works mentioned and a brief description. These are of course but a few monographs on the subject of memorial/postmortem photography. Check your local public or academic library or interlibrary loan resource to delve further.

Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Jay Ruby.

Secure the Shadow is an original contribution that lies at the intersection of cultural anthropology and visual analysis, a field that Jay Ruby’s previous writings have helped to define. It explores the photographic representation of death in the United States from 1840 to the present, focusing on the ways in which people have taken and used photographs of deceased loved ones and their funerals to mitigate the finality of death.

Sometimes thought to be a bizarre Victorian custom, photographing corpses has been and continues to be an important, if not recognized, occurrence in American life. It is a photographic activity, like the erotica produced in middle-class homes by married couples, that many privately practice but seldom circulate outside the trusted circle of close friends and relatives. Along with tombstones, funeral cards, and other images of death, these photographs represent one way in which Americans have attempted to secure their shadows.

Ruby employs newspaper accounts, advertisements, letters, photographers’ account books, interviews, and other material to determine why and how photography and death became intertwined in the nineteenth century. He traces this century’s struggle between America’s public denial of death and a deeply felt private need to use pictures of those we love to mourn their loss. Americans take and use photographs of dead relatives and friends in spite of and not because of society’s expectation about the propriety of these means. Ruby compares photographs and other pictorial media of death, founding his interpretations on the discovery of patterns in the appearance of the images and a reconstruction of the conditions of their production and utilization. (Syndetic Solutions, LLC)

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Stanley Burns.

Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These photographs were often the only ones ever taken of their subjects and much pride and artistry went into them. It is astounding that although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, they are largely unseen, and unknown. Today we struggle to avoid the topic of death; as a result we have closed the door on these images, which reflect an American culture in which death and mourning played a visible and active part.

These photographs were a common aspect of American culture, a part of the mourning and memorialization process. Surviving families were proud of these images and hung them in their homes, sent copies to friends and relatives, wore them as lockets, or carried them as pocket mirrors. Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally normative response to postmortem photographs.

Discussions of death in books are prolific, and we are accustomed to images of death as part of our daily news; but actual death, as a part of private lives, has become a shameful and unspoken subject.

This volume presents a chronological arrangement of postmortem photography 1840-1930; no other collection of this material has been made available despite recent interest in the American way of death. What emerges is a vivid visual history of the changes in American customs. (Excerpt from the preface of Sleeping Beauty I)

The Victorian Celebration of Death. James Stevens Curl.

In this beautifully illustrated and well-researched book, Professor Curl has rescued much fascinating material from undeserved oblivion, and his work fills a genuine gap. From humble working-class exequies to the massive outpouring of grief at the State funerals of Wellington and Queen Victoria herself, The Victorian Celebration of Death covers an immense canvas. It describes the change in sensibility that led to a new tenderness towards the dead; the history of the urban cemeteries with their architecture and landscapes; the ephemera of death and dying; State funerals as national spectacles; and the utilitarian reactions towards the end of the nineteenth century. Combining wit with compassion, Curl wears his learning lightly, and his taste for the eerie is delicately balanced by this literary personality. He has resurrected many valuable and extremely interesting aspects of nineteenth-century attitudes to death and the disposal of the dead; Curl’s achievement is as well-ordered as any sumptuous funeral, and is lucid as well as entertaining, with many surprises and associated delights. (Amazon product description)

Wisconsin Death Trip. Michael Lesy.

As the title suggests, this is a truly strange book. Published in 1973, it is essentially a collection of photos taken in Black River Falls, WI, by Charles Van Schaik between 1890 and 1910. The subject matter ranges from children in coffins, to farm animals, to family portraits of some of the grimmest-looking people imaginable; the photos are accompanied by snippets from newspapers. The whole package seems to confirm that the good old days were actually awful. (Library Journal)

A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. Michael Sappol.

In this groundbreaking new book, Sappol, a historian and curator at the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, explores how professors and body snatchers, patients and physicians, and politicians and the public confronted the anatomical dilemma and forged a new consensus about the body and its place in 19th-century American culture. Body snatching has, of course, had its historians. Stories about the 1788 Doctors’ Mob in New York City (the angry mob of 5000 New Yorkers searching for medical students, physicians, and cadavers dispersed only after the governor called out the armed militia), the 1824 riot against the Yale medical department (spurred by the discovery of the partially dissected body of the recently deceased daughter of a West Haven farmer in the anatomy rooms), and the 1878 Harrison scandal in Cincinnati (when the body of John Scott Harrison, the recently deceased son of former president William Henry Harrison and father of president-to-be Benjamin Harrison, turned up in the dissecting room of the Medical College of Ohio) have long been a staple of American medical history and medical school anatomy courses. One of Sappol’s great accomplishments in this dazzling book is his creation of a new lens to view these well-known — and some lesser-known — episodes. It is as though we see them, and more important, understand them for the first time. The anatomical perspective, Sappol suggests, urges a serious reconsideration of the boundaries of professional medicine and popular culture in the 19th century. More than that, he seeks to explain how 19th-century anatomical view of the body led to the view of the body we know today. Crucial to Sappol’s argument is a redefining of what counted as anatomy in 19th-century medicine. With considerable verve and penetration, he explores orthodox anatomy in American medical education, advancing the claim that dissection and membership in the male fraternity of dissectors was critical to the formation of professional identity and legitimacy. (Partial excerpt, New England Journal of Medicine)

Death + Crime Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Death Ethics

“What About Morals?”

A Victim, Her Picture and Facebook
Jim Dwyer, The New York Times (March 29, 2011)

Photo credit: Mark Musarella, Caroline Wimmer/
Photo credit: Mark Musarella, Caroline Wimmer/

An instant was all it took to post the photo.

The photo I am referring to is the one taken by Mark Musarella. In March of 2009, Musarella—a then retired police officer and EMT from Staten Island, NY—snapped a photo of the beaten and strangled body of Caroline Wimmer in her apartment and posted it to his Facebook page. While the photo was taken down fairly quickly, the implications—legal, sociological and moral—are still being sorted out to this day.

While Musarella’s motivations for taking the photo are unclear, his instantaneous ability to share it make it profoundly clear the frightening speed at which lives can be changed forever. Posting the photo to Facebook—even for the short time it was up—allowed the perpetrator, even unintentionally—to re-victimize a family still grieving for their murdered daughter.

The New York Times ran a story this past week about the crime and the Wimmer family’s attempt to sue Facebook to get the gruesome picture back or have it destroyed. In Facebook’s vernacular, the photo is considered “intellectual property”, although a Facebook spokesperson now claims that the photo was removed long ago with no other copies remaining on any of its servers.

But I wonder about that. Here’s a 2009 article from PC World about Facebook’s track record with user’s deleted photos and a more recent article via revealing a 16 month or more lag time. Facebook says it is “working with” its CDN [content delivery network] partner to “significantly reduce the amount of time that backup copies persist.” This is obviously of little comfort to the Wimmer family and precisely why, I imagine, they are suing.

More and more, society is grappling with issues around death and dying in a technological age. Crissy Chriscitiello, Caroline Wimmer’s sister, was quoted in the NY Times as saying, “Everyone is all about technology. “What about morals?” We here at Death Ref have been posting about the intersection of death and the digital life for a while. Take a look at our “death + technology” or “death + the web” categories to view past posts. This June, the Centre for Death & Society (Bath, U.K.) will host a conference titled “Death & Dying in the Digital Age”—at which our very own Dr. John Troyer will present. It will be an engaging conference—hope you can make it.

Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death + the Web Death Ethics Suicide

Samaritans and Facebook Partner

The Samaritans, a confidential, emotional support service serving the U.K. and Ireland, launched a partnership with Facebook this past week. Now, any Facebook user who suspects another Facebook user may be suicidal or experiencing other emotional crises, can report it to the Facebook Help Center. Other suicide prevention organizations are also listed via the Help Center including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S., Kirkens SOS in Norway and serving other countries.

As reported in The Guardian, Samaritans chief executive Catherine Johnstone said:

“Through the popularity of Facebook, we are harnessing the power of friendship so people can get help. As a friend you are better placed to know whether someone close to you is struggling to cope or even feeling suicidal.”

The impetus behind the move is the Simone Back case, among others. On Christmas Day of last year, Back, of Brighton, England told her 1,048 Facebook friends “Took all my pills, be dead soon, bye bye everyone.” In the ensuing hours, no one went to Ms. Back’s aid. According to The Telegraph, “Some users of the site even taunted the 42-year-old over her final status update instead of trying to save her, calling her a “liar” and saying the fatal overdose was “her choice”. Some out of town friends implored online that she give them her address and/or phone number, but by the time her body was discovered the next day, it was too late.

BBC News aired a segment showing just how the system works. The mechanism for reporting is a bit cumbersome as Facebook is obviously trying to walk a fine line between having the service be too visible or too discreet. Although, in its test phase, several people reported suicidal concerns to the Help Center even before an official announcement was made. It will be interesting to see if statistics about Help Center usage for this purpose will be shared with the public and whether this will set a precedent for other social networks.


Guard and Reserve Suicides Up


The Army released final year-end statistics on Wednesday indicating a 24% increase in Guard and Reserve deaths last year. While the Army is seeing a slight decrease in the number of active duty suicides, the 24% increase in Army reservists and National Guard deaths is a jump that Army officials are hard-pressed to explain.

According to Major General Ray Carpenter, “The analysis for 2010 shows that it’s not a deployment problem, because more than 50 percent of the people who committed suicide in the Army National Guard had never deployed. It’s not a problem of employment, because only about 15 percent of the people who committed suicide in fact were without a job.”

Carpenter goes on to say, “As you look at it, part of it is a significant relationship problem, because over 50 percent of those who committed suicide had some sort of a partner problem that they were dealing with whether it was marriage, divorce, or boyfriend, girlfriend, that kind of thing. Our effort is to build resiliency in soldiers.”

But even though developing resiliency is mentioned as a strategy, a major factor in suicide rates may very well be the amount of time between deployments. However, top-ranking Army officials can’t agree on the issue of deployment as a factor. Major General Carpenter says it is not a deployment problem, which echoes the findings of last year’s Department of Defense report. But General Peter W. Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff of the Army, who leads the service’s suicide prevention effort, disagrees. In this article from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Chiarelli says “In spite of the evidence that deployments are unlikely to be the cause of suicides, I’m still hopeful that increasing the amount of time between deployments to two years for every year deployed would help solve this problem. “I really believe (that) is one of the things we have to look at,” he said.

As we reported previously, the Army is struggling to address the mental health needs of its service members. In 2009, Congress created the Joint Department of Defense Task Force on the Prevention of Suicide by Members of the Armed Forces. Read their report here. There are no easy answers obviously. Suicide prevention education involves a complex series of strategies that need to evolve to meet individual situations. Unfortunately, for many, it’s too late. If you or someone you know is in need of help, talk to someone. You can also follow the links below.

Here is a list of links and resources from the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Army Behavioral Health page.

And here is a link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline specific to veterans.

Death + Biology Death + Disaster Death + Humor

Bye Bye Birdies

The recent spate of mass bird deaths has taken flight across the Internet—a literal and figurative tweeting and Twittering—and dare I say crowing—on a large scale. You could say it’s causing quite a “flap.” Reported by the Associated Press, the Daily Mail and others, masses of birds have been mysteriously falling from the sky in the U.S and Europe, dead on arrival. Red-winged blackbirds, starlings and turtle doves have been the victims in these rains of death. In addition, reports of mass fish deaths in the American South and crab die-offs in England have also joined the fray. But what of it? Are these the fabled “end times”? Media hype? Or something else?

Speculation has run rampant, but according to the U.S. Geological Survey, die-offs such as these happen more frequently than is reported—but, because of instant communication now possible via the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle—people (the media included) are trying to connect the dots and perhaps make connections where there is none. The USGS calmly says,

While large-scale bird die-offs are always a concern, they are not that unusual. USGS records list at least 16 events involving more than 1,000 black birds or starlings over the past 30 years. The majority of these cases were poison related, although weather-related trauma was also the cause of some events

Although no definitive explanation has yet been found—and may never be—the speculation and hype has been staggering. It has even been dubbed “aflockalypse” by some (!) Check out the nifty Google Map tracing mass animal deaths worldwide that a lone blogger put together. Depending on your tendencies, you can allay, or perhaps heighten? your fears, by reading the Black Bird die-off Investigation page here. Oh, and there’s even a USGS webpage called the New and Ongoing Wildlife Mortality Rates Nationwide. Here, you can keep track of reported events involving “a network of partners across the country work on documenting wildlife mortality events in order to provide timely and accurate information on locations, species and causes of death.” Who knew?

We usually stick to the strictly human side of death here at DRD. Sure, we have the occasional drunken elk rampage story, (i.e. Man vs. Beast). Really, the interest for me is more about how we, as a society, are reacting to these bird deaths rather than the deaths themselves. But before you run down to your public library looking for a King James bible to check out (don’t bother because they’re all stolen of course) or borrow a copy of Evan Almighty (we can only hope these are all stolen) take a deep breath and do a little fact checking. Maybe a viewing of The Birds is in order? For now, invest in a sturdy umbrella.

*No animals were harmed in the writing of this post. However, black(bird) humor was employed at least a once or twice.

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Body Fishing Up Ahead

Bodies floating in the Yellow River near Changpo Village in China’s Gansu Province. Photo credit: Tom Lasseter/MCT

This story has affected me in a way that many others about death have not. The complete and utter sense of tragedy permeating it is hard to shake and the mental imagery conjured up while reading it is the stuff of nightmares. In what has got to be one of the more grim and disturbing jobs in the world, CNN and other outlets reported this week on the “body fisherman”; mostly men who trawl for murder, suicide and the occasional drowning victim that floats down the Yellow River, about 20 kilometers to the west of Lanzhou, China. Those who perform this grim work advertise their services and cell phone numbers on hand painted signs that read “Body Fishing Up Ahead”.

The story, which has been picked up here and there since September, appeared in the Asia Times and various McClatchy news service outlets. Most recently, CNN reported on it just this week.

There seems to be two overarching threads in these stories. Some believe the people who would do such work are nothing more than ruthless mercenaries taking advantage of grief-stricken families. Charging what would be exorbitant fees—even by Western standards—the fisherman turn bodies over to families only as a fee is paid. Others say that the work they do is a necessary public service that local authorities cannot or will not provide. Who is right? It is clear that there are no easy answers and very little offered in the way of solutions to help stem the deathly tide.

In 2008, a documentary called The Other Shore, brought the practice to light for those outside of China. The film profiles Wei Zhiqian from Xiaoxia village in Gansu, a longtime body fisherman who recently ended his life’s work due to the building of a giant dam upriver. In his place, new families have taken over the trade despite increasing pressure from authorities to stop. There is still potentially much money to be made.

Lun Lun, 24, stated to CNN, “I have worked on this section of the river for several years. I’ve seen hundreds of bodies float downstream. They gather around here and we fish them out one by one. I’d like to say I’m a boat operator but really, I search for the dead.”

While China’s economy continues to grow, perhaps other unforeseen odd and gruesome jobs such as this one will present themselves. Scores of bodies will be needed to support and feed the industrial engine of the world’s second largest economy. It is sad to think that many of those bodies will be casualties in this accelerated march toward “progress” and empire building.

Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law

Toe Tags and Neck Holes


FDA Unveils Proposed Graphic Warning Labels for Cigarette Packs
Gardiner Harris, New York Times (November 10, 2010)

The war on tobacco has gotten just a bit splashier and “deathlier”. Graphic images designed to scare people straight will soon be gracing cigarette packaging by next summer. The images range from a corpse in a casket, a cadaver, toe-tagged feet, gravestones, a deathbed denizen and a guy blowing smoke out of a hole in his neck for good, visceral measure.

See the images here.

Graphic images on cigarette packs are nothing new. In Europe, graphic warnings such as these (and worse) have been in place for years. But now that the FDA has the authority to regulate the tobacco industry, they are going all out with introduction of a glitzy new shock and awe, “anti-advertising” campaign. On Wednesday, they unveiled 36 new warning labels, of which 9 will be chosen, to grace cigarette packaging across the U.S. However, the new effort ups the ante quite a bit from the rather sedate Surgeon General’s warning stating that “smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and may complicate pregnancy.”

According to the NY Times,

Dr. Richard D. Hurt, director of the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic, said he was hopeful the labels would save lives, though he said a higher federal tax and tougher workplace restrictions were also needed.

“The evidence is that graphic labels do make a difference in enticing smokers to stop smoking,” he said.

I say, you be the judge. Are cigarettes still the proverbial “nails in the coffin?” And if so, is showing a guy actually in a coffin enough to get you or others to quit smoking? The FDA is currently seeking public comment and so are we. We’re not blowing smoke—send us your thoughts!

Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Death Wish?

Remember the Doomsday Clock? Only those of a certain generation—and perhaps librarians with too much random information in their head—do. As one of those said people on both counts, an article in the October Wired magazine caught my eye. Titled “Suspend the Deathwatch”, author Scott Brown revisits (did it ever leave?) the Doomsday Clock and its place and anachronistic stance, in today’s society.

First mentioned in 1947 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (God, I love that periodical title—I literally walk past bound issues of it on a weekly basis in my work and smile, but I digress), the Doomsday Clock is a symbolic representation of our impending worldly doom. The closer the hands get to midnight, the closer we are to total mass extinction. I suppose the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement would be very happy if we would just get on with it already.

The Atomic Scientists describe the clock thusly:

The Doomsday Clock conveys how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction–the figurative midnight–and monitors the means humankind could use to obliterate itself. First and foremost, these include nuclear weapons, but they also encompass climate-changing technologies and new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.

Mr. Brown’s contention is that “we need an instrument that measures a wider variety of potential apocalyptic scenarios.” He goes on to suggest a Doom Queue—a lineup of ever grisly scenarios that would jockey for number one position. And better yet, he suggests we can all crowd source it with users picking and rating their fave apocalypse. Sounds good to me. As some of you may have attended last weekend’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, it seems the perfect way to capture our collective anxieties and at least give us something slippery but tangible to put our money on rather than a doom-laden clockface staring into the abyss.

But in case you are still setting your watch to the old Doomsday Clock, it’s 6 minutes to midnight. Sweet dreams!

Burial Cemeteries Death + Popular Culture Eco-Death Funeral Industry

Green Burial: A Review

Eco-friendly or “green” burial methods and practices are the hot topic in the funeral industry and mortuary sciences these days. Everywhere you turn, there is a new book, article or news report on the subject. There is even a Green Burial Council, which touts itself as “an independent, tax-exempt, nonprofit organization working to encourage environmentally sustainable deathcare and the use of burial as a new means of protecting natural areas.” And while the topic has received much attention in popular culture, acceptance of the various practices haven’t reached the all important “tipping point” for true integration into society—at least not yet anyway.

There are literally thousands of links out on the Internet referring collectively to the green burial movement. In doing a quick Google search using the following terms, this gives you a sense of the green burial chatter out there (numbers are rounded up):

“green burial” = 45,000 hits
“eco-friendly burial” = 35,000 hits
“natural burial” = 37,000 hits

So I thought it might be a good idea to review the various final disposition methods considered or referred to as green, natural or eco-friendly. There are actually quite a few different options out there although many funeral homes or mortuaries may only offer one option if they even offer any at all. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list but rather, an overview of some of the most common green body disposition and burial methods. I am making a distinction about the two categories as the former is about how the body is dealt with at final disposition and the latter is about choices made about final placement of the remains.

Disposition of the Body

Promession: The body is frozen to minus 18 degrees Celsius and then subjected in liquid nitrogen. This makes the body fragile. It is then vibrated which causes it to break down into an organic powder. Then it is introduced into a vacuum chamber where the water is evaporated. The now dry powder passes through a metal separator where any metals and mercury are removed. The remains are now ready to be laid in a coffin made of corn starch. The coffin is then buried in a shallow grave in living soil. As a result the coffin and its contents turn into compost in about 6-12 months. A bush or tree can be planted above the coffin. The compost formed can then be taken up by the plant, which can instill greater insight and respect for the ecological cycle. The plant stands as a symbol of the deceased. Source: Promessa

Alkaline Hydrolysis: Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as Resomation (which is a trademarked term) is a process that liquefies rather than burns body tissues. It uses about a sixth of the energy of cremation and has a much smaller carbon footprint, according to Sandy Sullivan, the managing director of Resomation, a company in Scotland that has designed a machine called “the Resomator”. The corpse is placed in a pressurized chamber. The vessel is then filled with water and potassium hydroxide, creating a highly alkaline solution, and heated to 330 degrees. After about three hours, all that’s left are a soft, white calcium phosphate from bone and teeth and a light brown primordial soup of amino acids and peptides. Bodies buried underground decompose in the same way, albeit over many years and aided by microorganisms. Unlike cremation, Resomation doesn’t vaporize the toxic mercury of dental fillings and doesn’t char joint implants, leaving them clean, shiny and potentially recyclable. The bone and tooth material can be ground into a fine ash, as with traditional cremains. The brown liquid, because it’s sterile, can go down the drain. Currently used on research cadavers and diseased animal carcasses, there are various companies exploring the commercial use of alkaline hydrolysis in the disposition of human corpses. Source: The Ninth Annual Year in Ideas (New York Times Magazine)

Embalming-free: Currently, no state or province in North America automatically demands the embalming of bodies. When preservation of the body is specified by state ordinance, refrigeration, chilling or dry ice can often be substituted for embalming. Special circumstances such as an extended time between death and burial, and transportation of remains on commercial airline flights may necessitate embalming. The body can be refrigerated instead of being embalmed with toxic chemicals. If refrigeration isn’t available, ice or dry ice can be used to preserve the body until burial. Embalming fluid is usually comprised of the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde, which poses health risks to those who work with it. For those who choose embalming, there are now several formaldehyde-free embalming fluids that will adequately preserve the body for up to several weeks. Source:

Placement of the Body

Green Cemeteries: A green gravesite is a natural setting more closely resembling a forest floor. Green cemeteries are park-like or woodland/forest settings with acres of natural topography. The natural or green burial method starts with the body preparation which uses no embalming fluid or a nonformaldehyde-based formula. If there’s a headstone, it’s a rock or a piece of rough-cut limestone that’s flat on one side to identify the deceased. Some people plant a tree on the spot. Some methods use GPS coordinates to spot a grave’s location. Caskets are made of wood, plywood, bamboo, cardboard, cornstarch or wicker, etc. Sometimes a shroud or quilt may be used to wrap the body.

Backyard Burial: Not all backyard or personal property burials utilize biodegradable caskets/coffins or involve wrapping the body in cloth or shrouds. However, by choosing backyard burial, families do not contribute to the high maintenance costs and pesticide-laden practices at traditional cemeteries. Perhaps the most well-known burial on personal property is that of the Presley family at Graceland in Memphis, TN. Each state has different laws regarding personal property or backyard burials. Source: various

Biodegradable Coffins: There are numerous biodegradable coffin/casket choices. Some of the most common materials used are bamboo, willow, pine, seagrass, cane, recycled paper and cardboard, untreated jute and natural resin and banana leaf. Unlike traditional caskets which may be made of steel or rare hardwoods and employ fixatives/varnishes, metal hinges, rubber gaskets and paint, biodegradable coffins are made of organic materials, allowing for easy breakdown and decomposition into the soil. Source: Natural Burial Company, ecoffinsUSA et al.

Reef Balls: Reef balls are artificially-designed reefs. They are hollow, concrete structures that are placed on the ocean floor and serve as habitat for marine life. Cremains are mixed with the concrete as the reef ball is being cast. Once hardened, they are transported out to sea via boat where friends and family members are able to participate in a sending off ceremony. Eternal Reefs is one of a small number of companies offering memorial reef balls. The largest “green memorial” in the United States is located in Sarasota, Florida where several hundred Eternal Reefs Memorial Reefs are dedicated. Eternal Reefs have been placed in many locations including waters off of New Jersey, the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, Florida and Texas. Reff balls are only allowed in properly permitted locations that are approved by the Federal, State, and local governments. The Reef Ball Foundation, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) publicly supported non-profit organization that functions as an international environmental non-governmental organization. The foundation uses Reef Ball artificial reef technology, combined with coral propagation, transplant technology, public education and community training to build, restore and protect coral reefs. The foundation has established “Reef Ball reefs” in over 56 countries with ongoing projects in 14 additional countries. Source: Eternal Reefs, Reef Ball Foundation

Further investigation


Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial by Mark Harris
Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Natural Burial by Bob Butz
Grave Expectations: Planning the End Like There’s No Tomorrow by Sue Bailey

Links: Green Burial Council, Centre for Natural Burial, Natural Death Centre

Death + Popular Culture Funeral Industry Grief + Mourning

It’s My Way or Highway (to Hell). Neither O.K.

Australia’s Catholic church bans pop songs at funerals
Reuters, Melbourne. September 10, 2010

There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven.
A time to give birth, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to tear down, and a time to build up.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to throw stones, and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search, and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep, and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together; A time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate; A time for war, and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, partial)

Apparently too, there is a time to play pop songs and there is a time NOT to play pop songs.

This past week the Catholic church in Australia sent down an edict banning all pop and rock music and football club songs from funerals performed in their churches. The guidelines, handed down by Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, were distributed this week to priests and funeral directors. Funerals are to be “sacred farewells”; “life celebrations” should be done before or after the formal service. According to the article:

“The wishes of the deceased, family and friends should be taken into account … but in planning the liturgy, the celebrant should moderate any tendency to turn the funeral into a secular celebration of the life of the deceased,” the guidelines state.


The article goes on to list the top 10 most popular songs played or sung at Australian funerals. I love that “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” from the Wizard of Oz made the cut (although is was categorized as a “popular unusual” song).