Years ago, staring towards the property across the street from a neighbor’s house and pondering mortality, a friend and I talked about the absurdity of conventional burial. As discussions between friends often are, the conversation was frank and detailed. We concluded that embalming, entombing, and trapping our bodies in graves seemed ridiculous in the context of cyclical natural processes. Why shouldn’t worms eat my brain when I’m dead? They would need the nutrition, and I would not.
The bereaved, of course, benefit more from burial ceremonies than the deceased. Graves and tombs, as my girlfriend once mentioned, aren’t for the dead but for the living.
As a sort of halfway solution to this contradiction, my friend mentioned that the old farmer who had worked the land across the street had been buried there. Planted atop his grave, in lieu of a gravestone, was a baby oak tree. As my friend talked, and I looked at the now mature tree–it’s roots piercing through the dirt that once was a man–the beauty of such a burial washed over me.
It was winter, but the brown, crispy leaves of the previous summer clicked and clacked in the cool winter breeze. Perhaps this characteristic was the manifestation of the tree’s special fertilizer, as my friend joked; who can say? But, magic aside, the fact is that the tree HAD used that old farmer’s body to grow.
My mind reeled for awhile that day, and I often think back to that conversation. Since then, I’ve learned that “natural burial” is a growing trend, even warranting it’s own howstuffworks article, and plenty of eager companies are lining up to provide such a service. Another friend, who briefly worked for a tombstone and funeral company, told me that people can even get their ashes fused with tree seeds and planted.
While being a tree seed doesn’t seem reasonable, being buried in a biodegradable casket or simply “planted” in a grove of trees does. Such a burial would, if I could look down and see myself, bring me peace. Knowing that my nutrients would return to nature just as they came from nature actually brings me joy in the face of the big empty.
So, it was with both bemusement and gratification that I read an article published by the New York Times today. “A Project to Turn Corpses into Compost” discusses one attempt to balance mourner’s needs with environmental concerns and spiritual preferences. In essence, facilities would be built in which bodies would decay into compost–with the help of wood chips and microbes–to be reclaimed by mourners who would have both a place to mourn and a practical byproduct to use.
Gruesome, perhaps, but also quite beautiful if we’re able to surmount cultural, religious, and practical barriers (what about all those heavy metal fillings, ingested preservatives, and stomach staples?). Though some people might fear a soylent green sort of situation (IT’S PEOPLE!!!), the idea of helping a tree, tomato, or flower grow when I’m gone brings me more comfort in life than any casket or cremation could.