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Final Footprints

OPB | March 13, 2009 9 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:49 p.m.

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Photo credit: Estherase / Flickr / Creative Commons None

My father and I talk about his funeral fairly often. He reminds me what he’d like: cremation, a simple service where we play his favorite music from the 40s, and a little plot with a plaque so his descendants can visit him in the future. Compared to many people’s wishes, this is pretty minimalistic. But how would I feel if he decided to leave an even smaller mark on the earth and to have a “green funeral,” perhaps a home funeral, instead? If I were asked to shroud his body and prepare him for, well, forever? In our continuing series on sustainability in Oregon we discuss new (or very old?) approaches to peoples’ final footprints: green funerals.

There are many variations on green or eco-friendly funerals, many of which have been popular in Europe — or among various cultures and religions — for a long time. Sometimes the body is prepared at home by family and friends without the use of embalming fluids. Some employ death a death midwife. Metal caskets are replaced by wicker, cardboard, or even recycled newspaper; some even choose a burial shroud made out of biodegradable material. Burial grounds may be marked by rocks or wild flowers or sometimes only found by GPS. And sometimes people choose to bury their loved one much closer to home. Oregon is silent on the matter of private property burials. They are not unlawful, but also not recommended. (pdf)

In the latest issue of Smithsonian, writer Max Alexander describes his part in a home funeral:

I had been to plenty of funerals and seen many a body in the casket, but this was the first time I was expected to handle one. I wasn’t eager to do so, but after a few minutes it seemed like second nature. His skin remained warm for a long time—maybe an hour—then gradually cooled and turned pale as the blood settled. While Holly and I washed his feet, Sarah trimmed his fingernails. (No, they don’t keep growing after death, but they were too long.) We had to tie his jaw shut with a bandanna for several hours until rigor mortis set in, so his mouth would not be frozen open; the bandanna made him look like he had a toothache. We worked quietly and deliberately, partly because it was all new to us but mainly out of a deep sense of purpose. Our work offered the chance to reflect on the fact that he was really gone. It wasn’t Bob, just his body.

Green funerals can drastically reduce after-life costs and can be much more environmentally friendly than the traditional American funeral. Advocates also make the case that home funerals are more meaningful for the living. But, are they? What pressure do these green wishes put on survivors? Do your last wishes include a home funeral? A cardboard casket? Or a burial plot in your backyard? Have you been asked to make any of these wishes come true? How green will your last footprint be?

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