Monday, October 6, 2014

No Green Graves in the Heart of Minneapolis -- YET!

Entrance of Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery
Minneapolis is not selling any empty plots. No chance of a green burial so close to home!

That's what I learned when my friend Ann Risch and I visited the oldest surviving burial ground in the city, a 15-minute bike ride from my home. Thousands of bodies have been removed from Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, leaving 7,000 empty plots owned by Minneapolis.

Pioneers and Soldiers opened in 1853 at Lake St. and Cedar Ave., the only Minnesota cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places.  Founded by an abolitionist, it was one of the few unsegregated cemeteries of its time, the final resting place of African American businessmen, fire fighters, and Civil War veterans. For 25 years, it was the only Minneapolis cemetery that accepted bodies of those who died without money or family to bury them. Plots cost $1 dollar.

See all the green space
As the city's population boomed and its boundaries expanded, most of the burial plots were sold. In the early 20th century, with dwindling income from grave sales, the owners sent letters to descendants of people buried on the 20-acre site asking them to remove their relatives. Thousands of bodies were soon disinterred.

A civic campaign to save the cemetery from being turned into a public playground or sold to business interests for development succeeded. In 1927, the Minneapolis City Council voted to purchase the cemetery and implement improvements, including the current limestone and iron fence.

Could Minneapolis start offering those 7,000 empty plots for natural burial? What would be the requirements? No embalming, biodegradable caskets or shrouds, no concrete grave liners, and environmentally-friendly grave markers. Being a pioneer for green burials right in the city would be fitting for a cemetery that pioneered a desegregated burial ground over a century ago!

Tattered flag at Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery October 2014
Before calling to inquire about a plot, however, you might catch a summer open air concert or enjoy Cinema in the Cemetery. The final movie of 2014, "Thing from Another World," will be screened October 8 at dusk. Gates open at 5:30. Tickets are $8; kids under 12 free. Proceeds support the restoration of the stone and iron fence. You can Adopt-A-Picket for $30, contribute any amount toward a badly-needed new flag (I gave the caretaker $20), or take a historical tour of Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery through Continuing Education.

For more information, visit or contact the City of Minneapolis’ Division of Public Works at (612) 729-8484


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Final Footprint Eco-Caskets and Natural Burial

Lynn Redgrave's Ecoffin fair trade wicker casket
I first heard of Final Footprint four years ago, when newspapers reported that British actor Lynn Redgrave had chosen an Ecoffin fair trade certified wicker casket for her funeral. (See August 10, 2010 blog post.) I contacted the American Ecoffin distributor, Jane Hillhouse. Jane imports caskets and urns made of sustainable materials and has a vision of natural burial grounds all across the US, as has happened in her native England.

This April, Becky and I visited Jane Hillhouse at her home in Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco. Jane walked us into a large storage unit filled with merchandise and unwrapped an exquisite rattan, banana leaf, and bamboo casket. We helped her line the casket with organic cotton fabric. Back at her home, she showed us a woven wicker design and beautiful children's caskets.
Jane Hillhouse with rattan, banana leaf, bamboo casket

Adult and children's caskets from Final Footprints

Jane can fold down the back seats of her Prius and load
Jane loading a casket into
her Prius
an adult casket into it by herself, demonstrating that a family can easily transport their loved one to the cemetery rather than hire a mortician to perform this final act of love.
Jane Hillhouse helping find affordable caskets
for landslide victims in Washington state

As Becky and I were about to continue our drive to Napa, Jane's phone rang. It was a woman from the sheriff's department in Washington state's Snohomish county, hit several days earlier by a devastating mud slide. Many families needed to bury their dead, and some were looking for alternatives to costly funeral home caskets. Could Jane ship eco-coffins to Washington? Jane offered the families a discount on any casket in stock. (Final Footprint ships coffins all over the United States and Canada,)

Two months later we were with Jane at the Funeral Consumers Alliance national conference in Minneapolis. She had an eco-casket on display for the almost 100 North American funeral activists, including several members of the Minnesota Threshold Network. 
L to R: Minnesota State Rep. Carolyn Laine,
home funeral educator Jerrigrace Lyons of Final Passages,
Nancy Manahan, Jane Hillhouse, Becky Bohan
Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco-Garden hearse at the cemetery
On the last day of the FCA conference, Jane took her Final Footprint casket to Prairie Oaks Memorial Eco-Gardens in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota's first natural burial grounds.

The owner Tony Weber gave FCA attendees a tour of Prairie Oaks, including a recent natural grave, with no embalming, no metal or hardwood casket, no concrete grave liner, and no imported granite headstone. Just a body lying gently in the earth in a biodegradable shroud or an eco-casket like one of Jane Hillhouse's, beneath an oak tree, providing bio-nourishment to the forest and prairie. The location can be marked with a tree or a stone that's native to the area or with GPS coordinates.
Recent green grave at Prairie Oaks

For me, green is the way to go.

More information about green burials is at:

Final Footprints Eco-Caskets and Natural Burial:

Prairie Oaks Eco Memorial Gardens,, is featured in the February 2014 issue of Natural Awakenings Magazine. It includes a graphic illustrating the main differences between a conventional burial and a green burial:
Minnesota Threshold Network,
Funeral Consumers Alliance of Minnesota:

Nancy Manahan
Minnesota Threshold Network member

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ancient Family Tombstones in Malibu

The Victorious Youth
A group of school children blush as they enter the private room of The Victorious Youth, a rare bronze life-sized statue of a naked athlete crowning himself with an olive wreath. The 10-year olds elbow each other, trying not to stare at the fully-depicted genitals. Their teacher patiently points out ALL aspects of the statue.

The Victorious Youth is one of the most stunning Greek, Roman, and Etruscan works at the sumptuous Getty Villa in Malibu, CA. Situated on 64 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the museum is a re-creation of a first-century Roman country house that was buried when Vesuvious erupted.

Getty villa peristyle with shaded walkways and pool
As we wait for the museum to open at 10am, Becky and I explore the outdoor amphitheater, herb and fruit tree garden, and the peristyle (a colonnade in a building around an internal open-air court and garden). Fish swim in the long shallow pool where Roman children would have splashed on a hot day in the original Villa dei Papiri.

1st century mummy of Herakleides
Since Becky loves all things ancient, she is in heaven. But the most fascinating pieces for me relate to death, for example, the rare first century Roman-Egyptian mummy of Herakleides. The young man's name is inscribed over his toes, the painted wooden covering of his corpse a beautiful portrait showing luminous eyes, aristocratic nose, and neatly-trimmed beard. CT scans show he was about 20 years old when he died.

Even more unusual are the tombstones depicting the deceased interacting with their families, something we've never seen before in any cemetery or museum in any country. One shows an older couple talking to their son. The father seems to be making a point, perhaps giving some final advice to his heir. But the young man is not looking at his father. He and his mother gaze into each other's eyes, their hands joined.

Another tombstone, made in Athens in 400 BCE, depicts a man with his battle shield and helmet, perhaps indicating that he died in battle. He seems to be shaking his wife's hand. According to the names on the headstone, this is Philoxenos and Philoumene, their final farewell etched in perpetuity.

As more people today are choosing green burials, which require no headstones, perhaps contemporary cemeteries could recoup that lost business by reviving the ancient practice of carving enduring family portraits in marble!

Nancy Manahan