Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Review: Going Out Green: One Man's Adventure Planning His Own Burial, by Bob Butz

Ever since I was six I knew I hated open-casket funerals. My friend, Chrissy, died of leukemia that year, and though I was not really disturbed by the idea of her death (I knew she'd been terribly sick and she wouldn't be anymore; besides, she was going to live with Heavenly Father and be happy forever--why was everyone crying?), I was pretty creeped out by the sight of her waxy-faced body. I didn't think it looked like a person in there, let alone the living, breathing girl who'd come to my last birthday party.

The viewing didn't bring me any sense of closure; it just brought a sense of mild horror. It felt like voyeurism. Except that I was six, and didn't know what voyeurism meant.

The same sense of vague creepiness always comes back whenever I see another embalmed version of the shell of someone I once knew, pumped all full of formaldehyde and smeared with a ridiculous amount of make-up, especially when I think about the outragous cost of creeping people out and poisoning the ground.

Dying shouldn't cost that much money.

Besides, the best part of funerals is taking time to remember what a person was like while alive, not trying to pretend a person's body won't really decay if you use enough toxic chemicals.

Several years ago my mother-in-law died, and when my brother-in-law tried to force my little son to get a good look at the formaldehyde version of his Grandma Jube--he had him by the arm, ready to drag him over; my kid wasn't budging--well, that was the last straw.

I was going to be cremated. No kid was EVER going to be forced to check out MY dead poison-filled body.

Needless to say, when I first heard Bob Butz talk about "green" burials on NPR, I was intrigued: cemetaries as nature preserves, no poisons, no giant granite monuments, just a place of beauty, where a body could give back a little something in death by helping new things grow, and a family could have a peaceful place to wander and reminisce. I liked the idea of death truly being a returning of the body to the earth.

So I preordered this book. And I'd forgotten all about it when it came in the mail this month. The reading inspired several gruesome conversations with my husband about what actually goes on during the embalming process--much worse than what you learned in sixth grade when you studied Egyptian mummies. It also got me thinking about death.

And I learned some interesting things:

1. Cement vaults, satin-lined, sealed coffins and formaldehyed are not required for public health and sanitation, contrary to what many people believe. They're required by most cemetaries for their own convenience, but not by law, in most states.

2. You can get buried in an eco-pod if you want--a paper mache, Star-Trek-looking thing, which costs almost as much as the cement vault, partly because it has to be shipped from Great Britain. Or you can use a good old pine box. Or just a shroud. Or a blue sleeping bag, if you're Edward Abbey. Though you probably shouldn't try an Abbey-style burial, unless you want to get arrested. The law frowns on burying your buddy on public lands.

3. Cremation still pollutes, because of all the mercury in people's fillings, and because some people like to be a mummy for the open-casket deal, and STILL get cremated, which sends both mercury and formaldehyde into the air during incineration.

I'm still opting for cremation, because of 4.

4. There's such a thing as a "death midwife," who assists with preparing the body for burial. The key word here is "assist." You can't just say, "Here, take it away and do what you do, then let me know when you're finished." No. YOU are the one washing and dressing your dead loved one, putting coins or rocks on the eyes, tying up the jaw, getting the dry ice to keep the thing cold until you can gather your family around. Not to mention massaging to encourage the last "purge." I'm not going into more detail on that here. You'll just have to read the book if you're intrigued. Let's just say my husband was thoroughly grossed-out. And he's not a guy to gross-out easily. And there's NO WAY I'm doing that for him when he dies. Forget it, buster. Incineration's sounding really good for you, too.

5. Utah actually has a natural burial cemetary in Bountiful. I was floored. There aren't many, and Utah isn't usually cutting edge on anything but software.

6. Utah also tried to pass a law requiring a funeral director's signature on a death certificate, but citizens rose up in outrage and lawmakers backed down. Wow. Utah and eco-friendly; they don't usually go together. But I guess we like our individual rights.

7. Embalming used to be considered dessecration of the body in America, until the Civil War, when so many decaying corpses had to be shipped back home. Embalming has become standard practice ever since.

This book isn't an instruction manual on how to have a green funeral, as one review called it. But if you really want step-by-step instructions, it will point you in the right direction. It was a funny book and interesting, very informal. I like the idea of a natural burial, but personally, I don't want to have to deal with the gross stuff in the middle of grieving. And I don't think I can ask anyone else to deal with that for me, either.

The romantics like Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame) had a better idea, I think: burn your husband's remains and sprinkle them over a river in Italy. At least the family gets a trip to Europe out of it, instead of having nothing to show for the cost of death besides undrinkable ground-water.

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