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    To casket or not to casket? That is the (green) question
    By Becky Jungbauer | October 9th 2009 08:52 AM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Becky

    A scientist and journalist by training, I enjoy all things science, especially science-related humor. My column title is a throwback to Jane

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    When thinking about burial, most people think of caskets or cremation. But there are two options that, while seeming a bit odd at first, could be considered part of the green revolution: "beetleized" and "promession."

    From an ecology point of view, it makes a lot of sense - the circle of life and all that. Or, as written in Genesis: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."

    To be "beetleized"

    It starts with a beetle with an odd job - it buries the dead. The sexton beetle, also known as the burying beetle (Nicrophorus, from the Greek necro [death] and phor [bearing]), is a curious little critter that looks like a bumblebee. A beetle works with its mate to "find, lug and inter corpses many times their weight and size" - in other words, the undertakers of the small animals in the forest, says this NPR story.

    The "sexton" part came from the church officer of the same name,  a "church officer or employee who takes care of the church property and performs related minor duties (as ringing the bell for services and digging graves)."

    Anyway, author and professor Bernd Heinrich received a letter from a severely ill student with an unusual request: he wanted to be recycled by burying beetles upon his death.
    "Like any good ecologist, I regard death as changing into other kinds of life. Death is, among other things, also a wild celebration of renewal, with our substance hosting the party."

    But, wrote the student, if you put yourself in a casket that "seals you in a hole," you're cut off from all the creatures that nourished you when you were alive, the plants, the worms, the fruits, the animals. That, to the student, seemed a little selfish.

    I don't know the ending to this story - whether the student got his wish, or even whether he is still alive - but the idea is intriguing. Heinrich said he himself "hopes to be 'recomposed' - he doesn't like the word 'decompose,' preferring to think of himself as rejoining the world rather than falling out of it."

    The story included an excerpt from Pete Seeger's "In Dead Earnest," which captures perfectly the idea of recycling ourselves to rejoin the world.

    If I should die before I wake,
    All my bone and sinew take
    Put me in the compost pile
    To decompose me for a while.

    Worms, water, sun will have their way,
    Returning me to common clay
    All that I am will feed the trees
    And little fishes in the seas.

    When radishes and corn you munch,
    You may be having me for lunch
    And then excrete me with a grin,
    Chortling, "There goes Lee again."

    'Twill be my happiest destiny
    To die and live eternally.


    It's freezing in here!

    The other "green" alternative is promession. Your body is flash-frozen courtesy of liquid nitrogen (and anyone who has worked in a lab and done this with apples or other objects and then thrown them down the hall knows how this works), and then is hit with an ultrasound wave that shatters you into little pieces so you can be scattered wherever your family pleases.


    Grandma? Is that you?


    Check out the NPR story to hear Krishna Andavolu, the managing editor of Obit Magazine, an online 'zine and podcast about the funeral/mortuary business, explain how this works (scroll to the bottom of the article for the audio).

    For more on environmentally friendly burials, check out this blog titled "Grave Matters - A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial."

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    Given the cost of a funeral and burial, one wonders how this translates into "green" for the "death care" industry.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Becky Jungbauer
    Ha! I suppose the death panels could allocate people into burial groups, organic versus not - I'm sure the yuppie group would go local and organic.
    Gerhard Adam
    Sure ... different colored bins
    Mundus vult decipi