I had the unique privilege to have back to back to back-sigh-to back services in the last two weeks. And, while my body aches. My sanity is waning. And my sleep schedule feels like it’s hit a terrible new normal that is just “you’ll never sleep again”, I have at least come out the other side with a more fleshed out opinion of why you need to “go green”. And, it’s not simply for the obvious reasons that most people talk about. You know, like that it saves countless gallons of toxic chemicals from being poured down the the drain, that it saves trees and steel that are used for caskets, and concrete that is used for what I consider mostly unnecessary burial vaults. And if you are a funeral director yawning at my hippy dippy “global warming” hysterics better brace yourself for another eye roll. Because I think that green burials, aside from being “better for the planet”, are even better for your soul.
I suppose it is best to start out with the obligatory, no one can tell you how to grieve, and there are many ways to do so. And certainly my opinion is not the only one, and it doesn’t even mean it is the best, as everyone grieves differently. And maybe you don’t believe that the human even has a soul to look after and make better in the first place, and maybe that’s because you are kinda sucky and you don’t have one. No matter!! The heart of this is that I feel that I am one of the handful of privileged directors in this country that gets to experience this specific kind of funeral and corresponding grief process on a semi-monthly basis. And as a bonus, I am also one of the lucky directors that is truly able to fully control the options I give to my families, which in a way means I have the luxury of fully expressing and allowing my families to do whatever it is they want (within reason of course). See, I worked for a corporation and I know what it means to have them tie your hands on what you can do for your families. At my old job you had two choices, you could embalm with a viewing, or you could not embalm, and have no viewing. I saw these two types play out. I rolled them out. I set them up. And, I kept the casket open or I kept the casket closed. And somewhere out there is a woman who has three children, and I closed the lid on her “no embalm” viewing and service and have never forgotten it. But, before I did, I put the letters from her children against her husband’s heart. I saw the hand prints of their baby, and the note that read “Daddy, these are the hands that held you”. I saw the blue and orange card from their daughter that said, “I’ll love you to the moon and back” that had a hand drawn moon and rocket. And I also saw the photos of him before he fell ill, handsome, with a clean white smile and beautiful skin. He was embracing the children he would never see grow. And then I shut the lid on the shadow of the man he must of been, and knew that I was the last person that would ever see him. That his wife and kids wouldn’t be allowed to reopen the casket because of “health hazards”, despite the fact that I had just bathed and dressed him without-gasp-wearing any gloves. And here I am, still alive to tell the tale. I got to see him, and they didn’t. I put those cherished letters in, not his family. And when I finished, it felt like a terrible sin I had committed. That I had been a willing and complicit partner. And I knew I couldn’t be a part of that system for much longer. And sure enough, three months later, I was gone.
Barring extreme circumstances of decomposition that are far beyond my control, the type of situation where a family is not allowed to open a casket on an unembalmed person never happens with my company. In fact, we openly encourage being hands on with the body in whatever way a person is comfortable, and of course as long as it is safe and respectful. Have there been times where I have strongly encouraged my families not to open the casket, because sometimes it is really is better to remember people the way they were? Yes. And I can tell you how many times I have done that since working at Undertaking LA. Three. Three times. And if the family had insisted on seeing the body because they needed that closure, I would have figured out how to allow them to see a hand, or a foot maybe, or even a photograph a tattoo if that was an option. I would have done something, anything, so that they knew it was their family member there. And so here’s where green burials come in to play.
Remember how I said that I believe that there is more than one way to grieve? Well, I think that seeing the body isn’t the only way you can find solace during this time. Humor me for a moment? Close your eyes and picture the desert. Not the kind with barren sand dunes and tumble weeds blowing by in a dusty storm, but the kind that is serenely sparse with towering mountains surrounding you. There are trees there. Many in fact. And they have a multitude of arms poking out that reach up to the sun and sky as if in silent prayer. These trees are so spectacularly created, that every bug that burrows into them, every bug that would seemingly fracture their skin and lead to their demise, actually create another arm that spreads up and out to the stars. Your stereotypical cacti doesn’t reside here, but there are small flowering versions, like the terribly nicknamed Teddy Bear Cholla, that I assume got that name because it’s a type of cactus that looks soft and cuddly but actually “jumps” at you and “hugs” your skin in all the worst ways. You’ll also find a variety of birds, my personal favorite being the road runner, because duh, Looney Tunes. There are also pocket gophers-Gus is a local in our cemetery-tiny chipmunks, and even the occasional jack rabbit or cottontail may hop by if you are lucky enough to spot them. In the distance there are coyotes and foxes, and deeper into the park larger majestic cats like the Mountain Lion and Bobcat hide amid the rocks. The desert sun, when it sets-sigh-it blinds you with the richest pinks, blues and purples. Colors that you mistakenly took for granted as not being available against this sullen and dry background. And yes, depending on the time of year, it’s incredibly hot, and incredibly windy. But it is here that some of the most beautiful rock formations nature has to offer, and some of the strongest plants and animals on our earth thrive. This is where we bury our dead. And this is the kind of natural calm beauty that a cemetery tries to mimic with their serene rolling lawns, voluminous green trees, and looming man made rock formations (monuments), but I promise you as someone who has seen both sides, they are not the same.
A hundred and thirty-odd miles from Los Angeles, this is where I meet my families; Joshua Tree. The grave has already been hand dug in the days prior, which means that you won’t find a single tractor or large piece of machinery anywhere in sight. A large mound of dirt sits beside the grave and three or four long slats cross over it and nestle into softly into its side. There are even longer flat woven ropes laid out against each slat, which will be used for the hand lowering later. The shrouded body or casket rests on top of the slats and nearby a typical tent is set up to provide visitors reprieve from the beating desert sun. Family members gather. They say their hello’s and exchange hugs. They comment on the surrounding. The may make small jokes about the traffic, the heat, the deceased, and then they eventually take their seats. The attendance is usually small but the love that is shown for the person before us is always palpable and exponentially too great to count. But it’s not the service that I want you to focus on here. It’s the closing of the grave.
At one of my last services the sister of the decedent sat down next to me and asked if she could touch her sister’s face through the shroud before we began the burial. I replied that of course she could. I watched her reach out and I gently guided her hand to her sister’s nose, then to her forehead and then let go as she stroked the top of her head. I knew they had been nervous about whether or not some beloved items would be with her so I slid into the grave and reached up under the body to find her hands, and pointed out that I could feel her rosary just where I left it. As I was describing how it might be hard for her to reach over and feel it, I turned my head to see that this woman in her beautiful pink and beige clothing had slid right into the grave with me! And there we were. I heard Vonnegut whisper to me “and so it goes.” Two women standing in an open grave. With a body above us. And the earth below us. I thought I heard some gasps and I have to admit I had not expected that to happen either, and I also wasn’t sure how she was going to get back out of the grave without knocking her sister onto us. But, I figured that was then, and this is now. So I took her hand and she reached up and felt her sister’s hands and then she just held them. And in that moment I knew I had given her something that would last for the remainder of her life. When she was ready, her friends helped pull her out and I gave her bum a hoist up, I figured we had long passed familiarity after an experience like that. And then, I lifted myself up the same way you’d lift yourself out a pool, by placing each hand on a opposite corner of the grave and pushing myself up, backwards and out.
Once out, we both laughed and dusted ourselves off. I tried not to look the cemetery manager in the eyes lest she shoot me a “what the heck are you doing?!” glare, but to my surprise when it came time to lowering the body she, of her own volition, asked if the nephew of the decedent would like to get in the grave to help guide her safely down. He looked shocked and I tried to encourage him without putting too much levity into the situation by saying that myself and his other aunt had already been down there and there wasn’t nothing to it. But really what I wanted to say was, please take this chance, I promise you won’t regret it. And to my delight-if you can call such an odd situation a delight-he decided he wanted to do it. The process of manually lowering the body is relatively simple. Two people go to the right of the grave and grab two slats each. Four other people, two per side-grab the ropes. I always grab the slats, usually with the cemetery manager, and on her count we pull the slats from underneath the body while the others grip the rope to hold the body steady. I held my breath as a pulled the slatted beam from under the body’s head as the nephews face was terrifyingly close to it. I didn’t hit him with it-if you’re curious-and with the cemetery manager’s help, we instructed everyone to slowly lower the body down into the grave. I watched the nephew lovingly hold his aunt’s hips as he kept her steady until she reached the bottom. And then, when he was certain she was sound, with the same arm movement as I had done before, he pushed himself up and out of the pool of grief.
When it comes to filling the grave, all my families have been different. One of my first families was burying their youngest sibling and when I offered them a shovel one of the brothers looked at me with such an intense pain that I knew I wasn’t getting that shovel back until that grave was completely filled. I quietly watched each boy pour shovel after shovel of dirt over their sibling-I can still hear the cadence and beat their breath and the dirt made together-and I knew that they were burying more than a brother. They were burying a lifetime of love, memories, and what felt like an anger and sadness so real that I am forever changed by just witnessing it. I’ve also personally helped bury a spouse with their partner and their child. One shovel after another on what I think was one of the hottest days of that year. I kept trying to find some shade in the shadow of the Joshua Trees but it was an unforgiving day and the shadows were lean. The spouse offered all of us sparkling water which felt odd to accept because they seemed to play a better host than me, but in truth I felt like I was going to pass out so I gulped it down and gladly accepted a second. And writing this to you in the safety of my cool apartment I can say with all honesty how it was a privilege to have been allowed to help bury this person. Shoveling pile after pile of earth back onto a body is so much more than filling a grave. It’s a solemn bond between humans. In a world where things are changing faster than we can keep up, it is an act that grounds us to the very core of our humanity. And, I can promise you, there is nothing is the world that matches this emotion. The tactile feel of a wooden handle in your palms. The force and the breath of pushing the shovel over and over into the mound of dirt, the lifting and pouring, covering the body below. It is a task that we ought to do ourselves. It’s a task we need to do ourselves. And quite frankly those poor grave diggers probably appreciate the break.
Then there is the traditional funeral. Now, let me say again there is nothing wrong with a “traditional funeral” in a “traditional cemetery”, and it is certainly not my intent to make anyone feel bad that they have chosen that in the past or will in the future. Not everyone has the luxury of driving to the desert, nor may they even live a hundred miles of one. And for them, the cemetery can still offer a place of repose and shelter from the stimulation of the outside world. But, it wasn’t until this last funeral that I realized what my actual problem with them was. I mean, I think that I had a vague idea. And it first occurred to me when I peered into an open grave that I was about to bury one of my decedents into, and the funeral director of that cemetery barked at me to get away from the hole. I felt stupid. Like a small child that didn’t know any better. And for the remainder of the service I stayed a “safe” distance back. And there it was. There was the problem. From beginning to end, a traditional burial is “better left to the professionals”. And somehow I wasn’t even one of them. It was better left only to the groundskeepers. One important thing for me to insert here-in fairness to regular cemeteries-is that the depth of a traditional grave is muuuuch deeper than a natural burial grave. A traditional grave is six feet or more if it is a double plot, meaning that it is intended for two caskets. Whereas a natural burial plot is roughly four feet deep-to aide in the body being high enough up to provide nutrients to the surrounding plants-which is why it was easy enough for me to safely hop in and out. It’s the difference between the shallow end and the deep end of a pool, only there’s no water to break your fall if you slip.
Now, for this particular traditional burial, machines were used from beginning to end to bury the decedent, with little to no opportunity for the family to help, simply because it would have been near impossible. When they had finished saying their goodbyes, and we had put all the flowers we could into the casket, it was mechanically lowered into the awaiting concrete casket vault. Casket vaults-if you aren’t familiar with the term-are a cement casing for the casket, they also help keep the ground from collapsing in later when heavy machinery is rolled endlessly over the burial grounds. After the casket is lowered, cemetery workers placed a big black gunky sealant around the edges of the vault and then a huge Backhoe lumbers over to lower the the top of the vault onto its base. Then the workers grab more chains and place them around a groove in the base of the vault. The Backhoe lifts up and the chain sinks into the groove securing its hold on the vault and it slowly raises it off the ground. The whole while you’re hearing a “Whir-whir-whir. Beep-beep-beep. Boop-boop. Rawr-rawr. Whir-whir.” It’s so comical and unrefined that the brother of the decedent looked to me and said “Business as usual eh?” and I cringed because I felt that I was somehow responsible for these everyday shenanigans. I embraced the moment and grinned back with a simple “I suppose so.” And together we watched the truck back up and take the vault over to the grave and lower it in. Then the same machine proceeds to drive to the opposite side of the grave and what I would describe as a hum drum manner, perfunctorily pushes the dirt over and over into the hole. The beep-beep and the whir-whir accompanying it the whole process. From time to time its Goliath sized arm pounds the dirt down before scooping up more and more until the grave was completely filled in. Then sods of grass are placed on top of the grave and again the arm pounds it back into the earth. The whole affair is noisy and cold, and seemed to take longer to do with the machines than by hand. It also seemed to remind us that in life we are just little ants in office cubicles. And then when we die we are put in another box left to sit in another cubicle for all eternity. Because when it was all done. After all of that show boating. I couldn’t even tell where the body had gone. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Poof! The body was gone.
My family didn’t know what they were missing, but I did. And that’s just the thing. I know what you are missing. I know because I live it over and over and over. Like a less funny version of Ground Hog’s Day. It’s a blessing and a curse. I live your deaths each day. I see your pattern of grief. I anticipate and I know how it will play out. And because I am not married to my identity of being a “traditional Funeral Director”, and in reality I am not even married to being a Funeral Director, it frees me in a way that shackles others within this industry. I pray that the comments I read online from the “good old boys and girls” of the industry are far and few between. And yes, I see your comments. To the directors that hold their job as some sort of secret religion. To the directors who value “tradition” above the wishes of their families because you “know” what families really need. You are robbing society. You leave an emotional deficit for the kind of a monetary substance that is priceless and can never be refunded or replaced. I assure you, this industry could change if it wanted to. You can dig your grave shallower. You can use rocks instead of vaults. You can stand equal with your families rather than haughtily above. And I also want to say that I see all the great comments too. They flood our inbox. I see all of the eager youth wanting to stir things up, and I am happy you are out there. Green burials aren’t a fad and they aren’t a trend. They are the thing that we need in order to realize the fragility of life. They are the thing we need to heal. In a world of technology I beg this industry not to take away our ability to feel the ground amidst our fingers. Not to take away the sound the soil makes when a shovel overturns and it hits the casket below. I beg you, not to take away the ability to stand in an open grave. I write it again. I beg you. Do not take away the privilege. The right. To stand in an open grave. To gaze into the abyss. In today’s society it is commonplace that we outsource everything in important in our life. I beg you, don’t outsource our grief.
As my post script…..
I hope that you will reflect on this, and that you will visit the Nation Green Burial Council and even the National Home Funeral Alliance. They can help you find a place in your area that can offer you the resources you need to have the death and grieving process you deserve. I also encourage you to think outside Christianity and call your local Jewish funeral homes. We didn’t invent this process and you may find that they will be happy to help you. But mostly I encourage you, if you do not live in California to not call my funeral home, but to pressure your local homes. You have to let them know you want this. You have to advocate. You have to demand. My partner and I are the silly little girls in LA that run a home that has yet to go under. Prove to your homes that there are more people out there just like us.
Help us prove them wrong.