By: Jean Johnson for Medtech1
The front page of the New York Times captured the northern California Mill Valley scene where eco-internment can cost from a few hundred to upwards of $15,000 for prime spots.
“Tommy Odum’s remains lie on a step wind-swept hill at Forever Fernwood, beneath an oak sapling, a piece of petrified wood and a bundle of dried sage tied with a lavender ribbon.”
It had to happen. Baby boomers who have balked at middle norms at every turn since they came of age in the late sixties have most recently announced that they don’t find the straight funeral gig very hip either.
“We may have taken a breather after the height of the sixties burned out,” said Pete Jones enjoying a sidewalk coffee at one of Portland’s single-owner espresso shops, “but we never rejoined the insanity. Just look, the Stones are taking another world tour – Mick Jagger on stage at 60! And Eric Clapton got Cream back together for a concert in England earlier this summer. Point is we’re still rockers, we don’t feed off the tube any more than we ever did, and we’ve scraped a few bucks together over the years to do things our own way more than ever.”
Expectedly the move toward ecologically-friendly burials without artifice and hype – described as “Nearer My Sod to Thee” by the Los Angeles Times – are coming on strong in California. What’s on the unusual side, though, is that the pioneer of the movement, Billy Campbell, M.D., is right out of Westminster, South Carolina.
Outside the small town of 2,500 Campbell established the first green burial grounds in the United States at the 350-acre Ramsey Creek Preserve. There, as an alternative to traditional cemeteries families can bury their loved ones in the woods in biodegradable coffins or cremation urns without embalming and other status quo trappings.
Campbell has since spread is his wings, though, initially consulting on Fernwood and most recently forming a non-profit group, the Center for Ethical Burial and a consulting firm in the very trendy Marin County. There Campbell is developing a natural aesthetic that excludes things like hothouse floral arrangements and, in Campbell’s words, “gaudy marketers marching up the hill.”
The pioneer adds that “there is a huge generation of people entering accelerated mortality who grew up with the first Earth Day. People are ready for something more meaningful.”
Early indicators are that Campbell’s vision is one poised to come into its own. Carolyn Reese Sloss, who died at age 84 and was cremated, is interred at Fernwood in a biodegradable, papier-mâché urn. Said her son-in-law, Murray Silverman, 62 and a professor of management at San Francisco State, “As an American, I take up too much of an environmental footprint already. To me taking up more of one after I die is pathetic.” Silverman and his wife, Martha Sloss, 52 and a psychotherapist, have their burial easements at Fernwood already reserved.
With larger places like Fernwood up and running, others like organic farmer near San Anselmo, Jerry Draper, are taking notice. He has 11 acres that he’d like to convert to an eco-cemetery instead of selling it off to developers. “It’s about taking responsibility, leaving the campground cleaner than when you found it,” Draper said. “It’s about being a Prius instead of a Hummer.”
Oregonians go they own way
Fewer Oregonians than Californians may drive hybrid cars like the Prius, but that doesn’t mean they’re not on the cutting edge when it comes to innovative farewells to loved ones. When Daniel and Brita Wilson’s father passed away in 1997, they did it their own way.
“We pulled together whatever we could think of,” said Daniel Wilson. “Brita knew about the Hopi custom of putting a cloud of cotton over the deceased face, so we did that after we got dad’s body cleaned up and dressed. She also had a brand new Pendleton blanket in these brilliant royal blues and purples that she had bought for him when he got so sick. We wrapped him in that, too.”
Wilson explains that they found a crematory that could take them right away and the pair accompanied the body from the hospital to the facility. “We took some time by ourselves before,” said Wilson. “Said our goodbyes, tucked things in alongside him like a flask of vodka and part of the flag they gave us when our older brother was killed in Vietnam.”
The brother and sister were waiting at the end of four hours as well when the cremation was completed. “After we got in the car and drove six hours to the place we scattered dad’s ashes. They were still warm when we returned them to the earth...”
While Wilson thinks the Californian’s are onto something with eco-friendly burials, he’s suspicious of his southern neighbor’s tendency to commercialize things. “What Brita and I liked about our approach was that we were involved. We did everything, and it helped us really come to terms with the idea that our father had passed,” he said. “That’s how the Jewish people do it as far as I know – they all get involved. So we took our cue from that tradition, and it was good. If we’d paid someone to take care of things, what would we have done? Sit around and wring our hands? It was better to take care of what needed doing. Anyhow, that’s what worked for us, even if I guess we did scatter the ashes illegally.”
Anyway observers come down on the new funeral trends, what’s certain is that as boomers move toward the great divide between life and death, they will bring the trappings of their lives to the ceremonies. Whether ensconced in state-of-the-art ecosystems where strict environmental standards hold sway or quietly laid to rest with a multi-cultural fusion of accoutrements, the hip generation will depart as it has lived – distinguishing itself by hook or by crook from middle class convention.