One of my many interests in life revolves around the death positive movement. Want to know what that is? Well the Order of the Good Death will sort you out.
Fundamentally, modern burial practices are incredibly destructive to the living, the dead, and to the planet. The peculiar obsession that we have in the West with embalming our dead, burying them in an incredibly expensive coffin, and then having that bank breaking coffin break down in the ground and leach any chemicals from it and the embalmed loved one contained within into the surrounding earth is just madness. And if you’ve spent some extra money and bought a plot so that your loved one is effectively enshrined in cement, never to return to the earth at all, well…there are some unpleasant truths about what happens in that particular instance that I will let you discover for yourself.
Whatever happens to us in life, we all have one life experience that we will absolutely certainly definitely all have – death. It is the one true leveller. Of course, we all wish for a quiet and peaceful death at a ripe old age, after having lived a good and fulfilled life. That’s not too much to ask surely? But what happens to us after then? While I’m not going to open up a debate about the existence or lack of an afterlife, we all leave a physical body behind wherever we end up floating off to. And that body has to be dealt with somehow.
Caitlin Doughty of the Order of the Good Death has spoken quite highly of sky burial, predominantly practiced in Tibet and Mongolia. A person’s body is left out in the elements on a mountain top to be scavenged by local birds. Not a bad way to return to nature if you ask me, but currently not legal in the UK. But there are other legal ways in which we can lay our dead to rest and still be in touch with nature.
Natural burials are getting more and more popular in the UK, with natural burial grounds appearing up and down the country. There are fairly strict rules for many of these sites, such as the body must be unembalmed (fun fact: embalming is not a legal requirement in the UK, unless a body is being repatriated) and any coffin must be made out of biodegradable components, so no shiny coffins with all those fiddly metal bells and whistles. But you do get to lay your loved one to rest in often very beautiful natural surroundings and you can plant a tree above their grave (permanent markers tend not to be allowed in many places) and leave them to go back to the earth. Quite beautiful if you ask me.
I haven’t mentioned cremation that much, mostly because it in itself comes with some environmental impact, but by following similar rules as per natural burial, you can reduce the impact somewhat.
So what prompted this blog post? I’m currently reading a book by Suzanne Kelly called Greening Death: Reclaiming burial practices and restoring our tie to the Earth and if I’m completely honest, it is sort of Peak Druid reading material. Kelly talks at length about how separated humanity has become from nature, and that the dying and burial rituals that we take part in are often no different. We deny the fact that we will all die and rot. We try to retain some semblance of permanency through embalming and other such practices. And its all for nothing really.
Kelly explores the industrialisation of the funeral industry and all the problems that that has caused, both culturally and environmentally. So far I’ve read about how embalming became a “thing” mostly due to necessity during the American Civil War, and I look forward to hearing more about how “reclaiming the corpse” can lead us to “restoring our relationship to the land”. Highly recommended reading for any death positive pagan.