Thursday, February 21, 2008

Green Funerals: Old Peruvian Style versus New Mayo Clinic Style

Lima, Peru's underground catacomb human bone pits 
We are spending a week in Lima, Peru visiting Nancy's brother Jim Manahan, who is on assignment here for four months.

We’ve made the rounds of several museums and historic sites including the Church of San Francisco built in 1674. This church is famous for its vast underground catacombs containing the bones of 75,000 people.

In this first cemetery of colonial Lima, bodies were laid in pits and covered with quicklime to hasten decomposition. We walked past boxes with femurs organized in herringbone patterns and deep pits with thousands of bones and skulls artistically arranged. Hundreds of skulls are stacked on shelves cut into the earthen walls.

Another museum in Lima contains twenty-five-hundred-year-old mummies from the pre-Inca era. Given the arid Peruvian climate, mummifying was a perfect way to preserve bodies. Both the catacombs and the mummies are precursors to the modern concept of green funerals. (See our earlier blog, "Green Funerals 101.")

All this put us in a receptive frame of mind for an article we discovered in London’s prestigious newspaper, The Guardian. “What Really Happens When You Die?” features interviews with six professionals who handle corpses. They detail the procedures of autopsying, embalming, burying, and cremating a body--the modern ways of death.

Resomation unit, Whole Body Donor Program, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN
The most interesting part of the article is a description of an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional burial or cremation: resomation. According to Dean Fisher, the Director of the Mayo Clinic’s Body Donation Program, this new technique uses “water, potassium hydroxide and steam heat to dissolve the body.” What’s left at the end of the process is “nitrogen, phosphate, proteins, amino acids, salts and sugars,” the basic elements that comprise our bodies. Fisher says that this “innocuous fluid” can be “safely disposed of or used on land as a fertilizer”! The remaining bones are pulverized, as in cremation. There are no toxic emissions like mercury released into the atmosphere.

I had a long talk with Dean Fisher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. A strong proponent of resomation, he seemed quite proud of his unit . This method of final disposition is not used outside of Mayo's whole body donor program and some veterinary medicine schools. Fisher did not seem optimistic that resomation would be widely available any time soon, noting that “There are only a few resomation chambers in operation in the world.”

Nevertheless, this environmentally-friendly method of dealing with our bodies might be the wave of the future. For more information about this greener alternative to cremation and burial, visit Resomation Ltd.

Hundreds of years from now, tourists may pay to tour American museums formerly known as cemeteries!

Friday, February 1, 2008

Green Funerals 101

The publication of Diane’s book has opened the world of green funerals to us. Although our book doesn’t discuss green funerals, it does show a home death, the decision not to embalm, a family-arranged cremation, and a family-directed funeral.

A green funeral is one in which no embalming takes place and a body is buried without any toxic material being introduced to the earth, such as that found in standard coffins. A whole movement has sprung up in the past decade that advocates an environmentally friendly way of handling people’s remains.

I have become more and more interested in this type of burial for myself. Becky is not there yet, and has told me that she would prefer cremation—both her own and mine! I will bow to her wishes, of course, if I precede her in death (she doesn’t want to think of my body decaying in the earth). If I go second, well, I’ll see.

One of the best, most comprehensive articles I’ve read on environmentally-friendly funerals was posted 1/16/2008 in the on-line Cincinnati CityBeat. It includes interviews with mourners, ministers, and funeral directors. The journalist even considers the circumstances of gay and lesbian couples, something I haven’t seen in other reports on green funerals.

I’ve quoted two paragraphs below to give you taste. The second paragraph echoes my brother Bill Manahan's foreword in Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond.


“Die the Way You Live: Befriending Death and Planning for the Inevitable” by Stephen Carter-Novotni

When local chiropractor Pamela Tickel´s husband Will passed away in 2006, she was convinced that he should be laid to rest in a way that honored their commitment to the environment and a natural lifestyle. Will, also a chiropractor, was buried without embalming or a vault at Ramsey Creek preserve in South Carolina, one of just a handful of green burial grounds in the U.S.

“When we had a home birth 25 years ago, people thought we were crazy, and now people are very accepting and interested,” Pamela says, explaining that even though green burial is foreign to most, her paradigm has shifted and contemporary burial practices seem odd to her now.

For the full article, click here.