HOW TO FIND THE BEST GREEN CEMETERY NEAR NEW YORK CITY

By Amy Cunningham

Some people think cremation is "greener" than burial because cremation generally requires no cemetery space. Actually, when you are speaking of one of the green conservation cemeteries within three hours of New York City or upstate, you can be protecting rural property by burying yourself in it. Cemetery laws prohibit highways or shopping malls from coming to land that has deceased people in it, so in using a green cemetery, you are helping to keep gorgeously-wooded, rural properties safe from development. (It may take a moment to bend your mind around this concept.) You can also be buried in a shroud (without a casket) in a green cemetery, something most conventional cemeteries don't yet allow. No herbicides are used on the grass, as a rule, and the setting of a registered green burial ground is kept much as it was found: wild, natural, frequented by birds, squirrels, and deer.

Folks who bury a family member in a green cemetery are sad a death has occurred, but elated by their participation in an end-of-life ritual that signals a return to the simpler burial practices of 200 years ago. Grave prep is more natural and aesthetically pleasing: no phony Astroturf covers the displaced soil, and evergreen boughs are available to help decorate or fill. Cemetery workers go out of their way to let family members lower the casket and shovel soil if that is their desire. You'll also never see a grave-worker look harried or check his wristwatch at a green ground. The space is yours and you'll be given ample graveside time. Some of my closest friends still exclaim, "Oh God, just cremate me." But for those who love nature, history, and old-fashioned ritual, and for those whose custom has always been simple and green (Jews, Muslims among others), it's a no brainer: Green burial in a natural burial ground--without an embalming, metal casket or vault--is a gracious, gorgeous, uplifting way to "go."

Shovels at graveside
Shovels at graveside

Here is my most complete accounting of every green cemetery and every hybrid ground attached to a conventional cemetery in or near NY state. There are shades of green at play here (two asterisks ** denote a completed registration with The Green Burial Council), but all plots listed here are priced well below the remaining graves in New York City. Some of these cemeteries are a little far afield, but I include them because they may make sense to New York families connected to those necks of the woods.

FULTONVILLE NATURAL BURIAL GROUND, Upper Mohonk Street, Fultonville, NY 518-265-3136. Single plot $500 residents, $700 non-residents. GREEN MEADOW CEMETERY, 1121 Graham Street, Fountain Hill, PA, 18015. info@greenmeadowpa.org 610-868-4840. Plot $1300, open fee $500. **GREENSPRINGS NATURAL CEMETERY 293 Irish Hill Road, Newfield, NY 14867 (near Rochester) 607 564 7577. Standard lot $1,300; cremains lot $350. Opening fee for standard burial $1,000. Opening fee for cremains burial $225. Antique horse-drawn sleigh available to carry casket in winter. HARLEMVILLE RURAL CEMETERY, near Spring Valley Rudolf Steiner School and Hudson, NY. Hybrid green ground attached to conventional country cemetery. Please call Jonitha Hasse at 518-325-7454 to obtain latest, extremely reasonable prices. **HOLY SEPULCHRE CEMETERY (Trinity Section) - Natural Burial Ground, 2461 Lake Avenue, Rochester NY 14612. 585-458-4110. $1800 single plot, $650 open. MARYREST CEMETERY 25 Seminary Road, Mahwah, NJ 07430, 201-327-7011. Single grave $1,400. Double grave $2800. Opening fee $2,050. Note: the purchaser should be a Catholic (but no one will “card” you). And the decedent need not be Catholic. This is, however, a Catholic cemetery. MOST HOLY REDEEMER CEMETERY 2501 Troy Schenectady Road, Schenectady, NY 518-374-5319. Single grave $2,000. Opening fee $760. Note: Next of kin must be related to a Catholic. **MT. HOPE CEMETERY’S “GARDEN OF RENEWAL” (Hybrid), 1133 Mt. Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620, 585-428-7999. Single grave $3,300, $800 open fee, $400 maintenance.

ROSENDALE PLAINS CEMETERY, P.O. Box 85 793 Springtown Road Tillson NY 12486, not far from New Paltz. 845-658-9042. Single graves $550, opening fee for burial $575, required flat grave marker usually costs about $250. Plots available for cremated remains also. Scattering garden in development. SLEEPY HOLLOW CEMETERY just outside Tarrytown, NY 10591, 914-631-0081. (Historic cemetery with hybrid green burial ground by side of cemetery road, shrouds accepted, cremains accepted). Single grave $3,400. Opening fee for grave $1,797. Cremation grave (fits two urns) $1,500. Opening fee for cremated remains $536. **STEELMANTOWN CEMETERY 101 Steelmantown Road, Steelmantown, NJ (outside Cape May). 609-628-2297. Single or double plot $2,000. Grave opening fee $1,500. Eight-member family plot $7,000. Opportunities for wooded burial or placement in old Quaker cemetery. One hundred-year-old casket cart meets hearse and family at the gate.

TOWN OF RHINEBECK CEMETERY’S NATURAL BURIAL GROUND, 3 Mill Road, Rhinebeck, NY 12572, 845-876-3961. Single plot $1300, $900 to open. Plot for cremains $450, $600 to open. UNION CEMETERY AT MAYS LANDING, 195 Route 50, Mays Landing. NJ, 08330. 609-625-7571. Adult interment $850, interment of cremains $275. One-time regrading fee: $200. **WHITE HAVEN MEMORIAL PARK 210 Marsh Road, Pittsford, NY (near Rochester) 585-586-5259. Has Jewish area, Islamic area, all-green hybrid ground. $2150 grave, $675 open fee. Cremains in woods $2150, by water $2800, cremains open fee $395. **WOOSTER CEMETERY, 20 Ellsworth Avenue, Danbury, CT, 06810. 203-748-8529. Lovely historic grounds with green area priced lower than the conventional. $2700 adult plot, $900 open fee. Call office for foundation and maintenance costs. Marker and foundation fees vary. Most green cemeteries allow engraved, flat, native stones. For a complete listing of green burial grounds in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, follow this link to download a pdf list. Esmerelda Kent of Kinkaraco burial shrouds also maintains a green cemetery list. (Note: All photos are mine, taken last time I brought a family to Steelmantown.)

DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU COULD DECORATE THE CREMATION CASKET?

People struggle with how to personalize cremation. Death occurs. The funeral director arrives. The deceased is lifted, covered, and rolled away. Then a smooth plastic box containing cremated remains is presented two or three days later. Of course a service is possible with the body before cremation, or with an urn afterwards, but did you know that you could pay your funeral director (or a home funeral guide) to bring the cremation casket to your home so that you and your family members could decorate it? Check out Olivia Bareham's Sacred Crossings website and see what one California death guide is helping families do in and around Los Angeles. The photographs of children at work with their designs and notes are gorgeous. You'd think a family's amateur efforts might not be consistently excellent, but miraculously, these home decorated boxes are always terrific and families feel like they're healing themselves by partaking in efforts so artistic and different. Thanks to Olivia, Char Barrett, Jerrigrace Lyons, Beth Knox, Lee Webster, and Peggy Quinn--all stalwart members of the The National Home Funeral Alliance for directing me to this remarkable concept. In the past six months, I've introduced the idea of decorating the box to several families who've written ardent messages of farewell on simple cremation caskets in Green-Wood Cemetery's crematory chapels in Brooklyn, New York.

Photos courtesy of Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings in Los Angeles
Photos courtesy of Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings in Los Angeles

FACTS ABOUT CREMATION FOR PEOPLE IN MANHATTAN AND BROOKLYN

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1133_image

Cremation does not replace the funeral. You can still have a funeral with the body present before the cremation, or a memorial service with an urn there afterwards.

If a cremation is planned–and a wake, formal funeral or identification of the body is still anticipated– you needn’t be saddled with the costs of a casket. Ask your funeral home about a ceremonial rental casket with cardboard cremation liner.

The lowest cremation price in the phone book or from a Google search is too low. Trust me. Funeral homes charging bottom dollar may be cutting corners to increase their total sales volume (or annual calls).

If time allows and the family is interested, the cremation box can be creatively decorated. Ask your funeral director to charge you extra to bring the cardboard cremation box to your house so that you and the grandkids (for example) can write, paint and draw on grandma’s casket. Sounds potentially strange and disastrous, I know, but like brides on their wedding day, these home decorated sacred vessels are surprisingly gorgeous and engage the family in an activity that is wildly uplifting. It may also be possible to decorate the cardboard box as part of the service in the crematory's chapel.

For an additional sum, a short service with closed casket or cremation box can generally be held at crematories that have a chapel attached to them. The box or casket’s entry into the retort (or cremation chamber) can also be personally witnessed or scheduled for a specific time. Witnessing gives some families peace of mind, and a feeling that the deceased person was accompanied "the whole way." If you’re not up for this, you could ask a friend to witness the casket's entry into the retort for you.

An unceremonious or “direct” cremation can mean that the deceased will be cremated in a plastic body bag or hospital gown. Most grieving families never think about this in advance and if they did, they’d probably realize that, of course, they’d like the deceased properly dressed.

You can have your deceased relatives bathed and dressed for a quick viewing or just to know they went to the crematory looking as good as they could look. For this, your funeral bill may only go up only $200-$400.

Ash is pulverized bone, inert calcium and mineral salts left in the retort after burning which are then processed by a noisy mill into a grainy powder.

Cremated remains weigh about four pounds and are returned to the family in a boxy, plastic, temporary container. Please don't let this box sit too long in a hall closet. This is bad Feng Shui, among other things. Buy an urn. Ask the crematory or cemetery about a wall or ground niche. Do something with the remains. Move the old energy of loss out as soon as you are ready.

Cremated remains—by themselves when scattered—are not especially good for plants. There’s a product called Let Your Love Grow that, when mixed in, makes the ashes better for growing things.

Cremation takes up less land and might save some money, but here's the downside with nearly all crematories: it takes a fair amount of fossil fuel to heat that retort (or oven) to 1800 degrees F and keep it heated for two to three hours. Ask your funeral director or crematory about how many cremations are performed in the average day since busy crematories like Green-Wood Cemetery's in Brooklyn are more fuel efficient (as the retort is not constantly being cooled and reheated). Also ask how up-to-date the equipment is at whichever crematory your funeral director recommends (the more modern the better). Then perhaps, if you are not satisfied with the answers you're getting and your family is open to changing plans quite dramatically, consider the new love of my life (sorry Steve)–green burial. Pine box. Or simple shroud. Drive out of the city and convene in a green cemetery. Let your loved one descend into the soil ASAP. This is the way our teachers, Jews and Muslims, have done it all along. And it's something I'll post more about later.

Deaths of Prince and David Bowie Demonstrate Two Approaches to Cremation

Like David Bowie, Prince told his family not to fuss over his funeral. But those closest to Bowie and Prince tackled the same request in different ways. David Bowie was cremated privately by a corporate funeral firm with no one but funeral directors and crematory personnel present. By contrast, a group of Prince's friends and family members met up with Prince's body at First Memorial Waterston Chapel in Minneapolis. Prince's sister Tyka Nelson and "another relative spent several quiet minutes with the 'Purple Rain' singer before he was cremated." I am happy they did this. A lot of people don't fully realize that many crematories have chapels, where one or two family members can sit in silence or where services for 150 people with music and eulogies can also be conducted. “Cremation is fine," writes funeral director Thomas Lynch in his book The Good Funeral. "But if you are going to cremate your dead, go to the edge of the fire, in much the same way as those who were going to bury their dead were encouraged to go to the edge of the open ground.”

Memorial services and concerts with eulogies after the fact are glorious, and of course, the funerals of public personalities have their own special security requirements. But when the family is emotionally up to it, there's nothing as powerful as accompanying the deceased the whole way.

Good Funeral Music: Tchaikovsky's "Andante Cantabile"

Chamber music at the beginning of a funeral or memorial service doesn't get any better than this: Tchaikovsky's Andante Cantabile movement from the String Quartet #1 in D Major, Opus 11. "Play this at my funeral," I always say to my husband. Nothing recorded is as successful at capturing life's sweetness, the delicacy of our attachments to one another. The piece opens the doors of the heart, exposing its protected corridors. Can't fail. It's exquisite. Apparently, Tchaikovsky overheard the sorrowful folk melody being whistled by a house painter at his sister's home in Kamenka, Russia. When performed for Leo Tolstoy, the mighty, bearded author is said to have wept like a baby. Thanks to savvy reader Susannah Brooks who suggested I also post Bobby McFerrin's interpretation, which stirs the heart and imagination.

For Marvin Hamlisch's funeral: "Memories" Magnified Six Hundred Times

Have you ever said to yourself, "If I hear the Marvin Hamlisch song 'The Way We Were' one more time, I think I'm gonna die?" The ballad seems haunted by all those "memories" it addresses! Well, when the prolific Mr. Hamlisch did die in August 2012, funeral planners must have sensed that "The Way We Were" had run its last laps. So they gave Barbra Streisand a break, and assigned the song to a chorus of 600 volunteers. Brilliant. Here's how the choral version of "The Way We Were" sounded at Hamlisch's funeral at Congregation Emanu-El in New York. Much enlarged and pretty good, I think.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Jv7bBFejVw&w=560&h=315]

SHROUDS MADE IN BROOKLYN SEIZE THE LIMELIGHT

The rule of simplicity, which works so well in life, works beautifully in death also.

Which brings us to the shroud--one of the most significant items rising over the retail horizon of the 12-billion dollar funeral business. Jesus was wrapped in one.

Devout Jews and Muslims also have much to teach about simple, earth-friendly burial, and they stick with the simplest shrouds. We personally admire every shroud maker out there, but generally work with Brooklyn shroud maker Kate Hoover, who made her first shroud for a Zen contemplative training workshop before becoming captivated by the idea of making shrouds for others.

When someone you love is in hospice care, a shroud is actually a good thing to purchase ahead. We teach people to spend time with the body of the deceased after death, when that's possible, and even partake in the wrapping of the body with the help of your loved one's caretakers or your funeral director.  Green cemeteries in the New York City area allow burials of deceased people wrapped in a shroud alone--no casket at all. But it is also possible of course for a person to be shrouded then placed in a simple casket for more conventional burial or cremation.  It's all about family involvement, and simpler, greener options today. Fitting Tribute will help you make decisions that are right for your family. Our motto is, "It's all good."

Valeshrouds.com
Valeshrouds.com

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE FUNERALS IN "GAME OF THRONES"

By Amy Cunningham, owner Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in Brooklyn, NY

With funeral options like earth-friendly burial in simple shroud or biodegradable casket, family-witnessed cremation, and full body sea submersion drawing more interest than ever, it's a good time to notice that the end-of-life rituals in HBO's epic fantasy drama "Game of Thrones" are culturally connected. Not since "Six Feet Under," has a TV show startled and electrified us with such fabulous funeral services. From high church to home-spun, these Celtic-y/Viking-ish pagan spectacles (that sometimes smack of a Greek/East Asian/ Mongolian influence) will affect the future funeral planning decisions of Americans now under the age of 30. To distill the wisdom in GOT's finest send-offs (spoilers ahead!), my 20-year-old son Gordon Waldman has kindly come to my assistance. So many deaths occurred in the first six seasons that Slate magazine tracked them. Here's what we might glean--

1. Grief is real and long lasting. It can drive you in strange and marvelous directions. Many main characters in the show are fueled by the emotions caused by loss. Cersei Lannister is basically driven to madness over the deaths of her children, while Arya Stark seeks gruesome revenge against those who murdered her family.

2. Bodies are important. The phrase "bring out your dead" seems operative. Death is not a medical event, it's a community experience, whether it's the head of Ned Stark on a pike or yet another formal visitation with viewing in King's Landing. I too want a golden burial shroud and loads of votive candles!

3. It's nice to have the support of a hospice worker, death doula or home funeral guide to help you bathe and groom the deceased person's body soon after death. I'm impressed with the work of the Silent Sisters (the death midwifes of the Seven Kingdoms who collect, bathe, and shroud the dead). They remind me of my saintly sisters in the National Home Funeral Alliance, though we are far from silent at the moment.

4. Rituals employing one of the elements--fire, water, earth, air--help grieving families process the loss. The countless cremations conducted by the Night's Watch are contrasted with the epic sea burials used by House Greyjoy. All are transformative.

5. The more you involve yourself with the care of the dead and the funeral itself, the more you might help yourself heal. There have been too many pyre lightings to mention, but the lesson seems to be--get in there, don't hold back, participate in the funeral and heal.

6. It is best not to make large demands of other family members at the time of the funeral. Jaimie and Cersei break this rule far too much, and have their most bizarre exchanges in front of the bier.

7. Stay flexible. Funerals aren't supposed to be perfect, and sometimes you have to change plans on a dime. Season six finale (spoiler alert!) shows Cersei spontaneously selecting cremation instead of entombment for her newly deceased son Tommen since, in a complex twist of fate, she's just blown up their version of Westminster Abbey, where every other dead relative, up to then, had been placed in crypts.

8. Hang in there, get support. As Daenerys learned after her Dothraki husband's cremation, you never "get over" the death of someone close to you. But you will, in time, "get with" the loss and walk on with it. You might even hatch three dragons!

 

Families may maintain their assumptions and grudges, but everyone will band together if the end-of-life ritual is sufficiently powerful (even when your late father's brother is a better shot, and way cooler than you are).

Seasons of grieving: Take your time, cycle through, marinate in any death that is sudden or completely unexpected.

Seasons of grieving: Take your time, cycle through, marinate in any death that is sudden or completely unexpected.

Want something different? Why not order a handcrafted casket or make one yourself? A funeral can be just as imaginative and important as a wedding and, much to the surprise of some "Game of Thrones" characters, a funeral can turn out a lot better.

Want something different? Why not order a handcrafted casket or make one yourself? A funeral can be just as imaginative and important as a wedding and, much to the surprise of some "Game of Thrones" characters, a funeral can turn out a lot better.

The difficult-to-love Baylon Grayjoy had a stunningly gorgeous sea burial, one of my personal favorites. "Feed the creatures of your kingdom on his flesh. Pull his bones down to your depths to rest beside his ancestors and his children."

The difficult-to-love Baylon Grayjoy had a stunningly gorgeous sea burial, one of my personal favorites. "Feed the creatures of your kingdom on his flesh. Pull his bones down to your depths to rest beside his ancestors and his children."

Service for one: With tears in his eyes, a dutiful and beleaguered Jon Snow lights his lover Ygritte's pyre.

Service for one: With tears in his eyes, a dutiful and beleaguered Jon Snow lights his lover Ygritte's pyre.

The cremation of Maester Aemon required four people to light each corner of the twiggy pyre. "He was the blood of the Dragon, but now his fire has gone out." The memorable funeral service starts 90 seconds into this Youtube.com video.

'Tis a pity, this isn't legal (or sustainable). Many would go for it.

'Tis a pity, this isn't legal (or sustainable). Many would go for it.

Hang in there. Stay present. Take a risk. Something larger than yourself will hatch before too much more time passes.

Hang in there. Stay present. Take a risk. Something larger than yourself will hatch before too much more time passes.

Nice idea: the Silent Sisters hand delivered Eddard "Ned" Stark's remains to a tented residence. (Why should grieving families return to the funeral home to collect the urn of cremated remains? People often appreciate it when funeral directors deliver.)

Nice idea: the Silent Sisters hand delivered Eddard "Ned" Stark's remains to a tented residence. (Why should grieving families return to the funeral home to collect the urn of cremated remains? People often appreciate it when funeral directors deliver.)

Non-consensual incestuous sex in front of the kids is a horrible crime, but sex of any kind in front of your kids when they are dead seems almost as bad.     Amy Cunningham is a New York City funeral director who serves Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Windsor Terrace, Ditmas Park families, helping them create distinctive funerals and memorial services. She specializes in green burials in cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Council, simple burials within the NYC- Metropolitan area, home funerals, and cremation services at Green-Wood Cemetery's gorgeous crematory chapels.

Non-consensual incestuous sex in front of the kids is a horrible crime, but sex of any kind in front of your kids when they are dead seems almost as bad.

 

 

Amy Cunningham is a New York City funeral director who serves Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Windsor Terrace, Ditmas Park families, helping them create distinctive funerals and memorial services. She specializes in green burials in cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Council, simple burials within the NYC- Metropolitan area, home funerals, and cremation services at Green-Wood Cemetery's gorgeous crematory chapels.

The Fact that MLK Jr. Foresaw His Death Was Acknowledged at His Funeral

As you will likely remember, the Reverend Martin Luther King spoke of his own death and funeral on April 3, 1968, one night before he was assassinated. But I never knew that a recording of his famous oration, now known as the "I've Been to the Mountain Top" sermon, was replayed at his funeral six days later at Coretta Scott King's request. Have a listen, and watch the faces.

 

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't really matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

Trinkets and Cookbooks Can Be Featured at the Funeral

People who come to a funeral love to be offered something small and sentimental like a carefully selected household object that once belonged to the deceased. This is comforting. I recently met a woman who set up a long table at her church and put out a sign encouraging funeral attendees to take home a single porcelain figurine or cookbook (the ones family members had already decided they didn't want). This was a huge hit (admittedly harder to pull off if the funeral draws more than sixty people). Weeks later, folks were still talking about how good it felt to have a reminder of the deceased and a token of the family's generousity and sweetness.

Good Irish Funeral Music: "Danny Boy" Revisited

Lately, I've been fixated on how to make "Danny Boy" new again. Can the beloved, seasoned oh-so-classic-you-can't-believe-they're-trotting-it-out-again ballad be made even more meaningful and heart warming than it already is? Yes, it's terrific--a total knock-out, in fact-- sung in the classic mode by a male tenor, but here are some ideas you might consider when confronted with a funeral where "Danny Boy" is requested.

1. READ THE LYRICS AS STRAIGHT TEXT. DON'T HAVE IT SUNG AT ALL . Just read all four stanzas aloud from a podium, and grope for your handkerchief. Read it as a poem, aloud right now, and realize that by the time most singers get to the best, most moving lines, we listeners have been lulled into a sad, sweet snooze. (Take note, in stanza three: an "Ave" means "a prayer.")

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling

From glen to glen, and down the mountain side

The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying

'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer's in the meadow

Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow

'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow

Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying

And I am dead, as dead I well may be

You'll come and find the place where I am lying

And kneel and say an "Ave" there for me.

And I shall hear, tho' soft you tread above me

And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be

If you'll not fail to tell me that you love me

I'll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

2. HAVE IT PLAYED WITHOUT THE LYRICS AS AN INSTRUMENTAL ON A SLIGHTLY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENT. Here's a super great "Danny Boy," totally right for a funeral, on church pipe organ and solo trumpet. Here's Eric Clapton playing it on guitar with characteristic emotion, and not singing a word. And if you're bleary-eyed from too much funeral planning and need a little chuckle, here's "Danny Boy" played as an instrumental, down in the NYC subway system, on a saw.

3. JETTISON THE MALE IRISH TENOR. Women have been singing "Danny Boy" beautifully since soprano Elsie Griffin belted it out at the turn of the century. My personal favorite female-rendered "Danny Boy" is Sinead O'Connor's, recorded in such a way that you could quickly improve any "Danny Boy" funeral by cuing it from an iPhone into Bose speakers. Nice save. And don't neglect the grandchildren! They can sing "Danny Boy" at a grandfather's funeral, and rock the house (though funeral music should generally not be a performance). 4. FINALLY, CONSIDER EMPLOYING A MORE UPBEAT "DANNY BOY" AFTER THE FUNERAL'S CLOSING. This idea might not be everyone's pint of tea (or Guinness), but imagine "Danny Boy" played on sprightly banjo, after all concluding remarks and benedictions, as people are warmly greeting each other, hugging, finding their coats, blowing their noses, and remarking what a good funeral it was (Irish or not). Moral: it's okay for a funeral to leave people uplifted in the vast majority of instances, grateful that the deceased were with us for as long as they were, and happier themselves--goddamnit-- to still be alive, resolved to make good use of whatever time is left.

THE END OF THE LINE FOR FORMALDEHYDE

By Amy Cunningham, Editor of The Inspired Funeral

I used to associate the National Funeral Director’s Association (NFDA) with Brooks-Brothers-clad lobbyists who never questioned the utility of highly toxic embalming fluids. So imagine my delight last week–it really felt like Christmas–when I opened my May 2016 copy of “The Director” magazine (the NFDA’s glossy trade journal) and found a remarkable article called “Excising a Health Risk: The time to look into formaldehyde-free products is now” by the NDFA’s environmental compliance counsel of twenty-five years, Carol Lynn Green.

Among Green's talking points: 

1. Formaldehyde-free embalming products serve an important risk-reduction function in embalming."

2. “OSHA will change how it limits formaldehyde exposure, setting more stringent standards and/or imposing restrictive work practices.”

3. “Today’s memorialization practices, the shorter period between death and memorialization, and consumer interest in green products and practices, create a niche market for formaldehyde-free embalming products.”

A windshield sticker on sale for $4.99 from EZStick, on Etsy.com.

A windshield sticker on sale for $4.99 from EZStick, on Etsy.com.

My translation: just as we wisely stopped using poisonous arsenic to embalm in the decades after the Civil War, so too we should seek alternatives (in both funeral practice and products) to formaldehyde-reliant end-of-life rituals. Might we learn something from traditions that eschew chemically preserved corpses? After all, it's been five years since the U.S Department of Health and Human Services labeled formaldehyde a human carcinogen potentially dangerous to the people working around it.

Lest you suspect from my tone that I am “anti-funeral industry,” allow me to recount a conversation I had some years ago, when I was a mortuary school graduate in search of the required year-long residency. I quickly realized I was interviewing in the wrong funeral establishment when my prospective boss stated that all his residents spent the first three months in full-day, five-day-a-week, embalming practice. Line them up, and move them out! But as we continued to chat about the merits of strong fluids and wax reconstruction, he told me a moving story that illustrated the sacrifices he personally was willing to make. He described the day he collected from the Kings County Medical Examiner's office the body of a heroic police officer, who'd been shot and killed in the line of duty, and written up in all the newspapers.

“I wanted to make this great cop look good again so badly,” he said with real sincerity. “that I managed the whole ‘post’ by myself.”

A “post” is jargon for a post-autopsied person cut open in a Y incision from shoulder joint to mid-chest to pubis by a pathologist to determine cause of death, then stitched back together with the plastic bag of cut-up, weighed, and analyzed viscera wedged into the abdominal cavity. It takes a long time and significant chemical exposure–with the deceased's chest cavity open like that, formaldehyde pooling–even with the best ventilation, to make such a body wholly presentable. My new buddy inhaled so much toxic formaldehyde that day to get the officer’s body right, that he was faint and dizzy as he staggered out of the prep room, and had to be supported just outside the door frame by two employees.

This story touched me deeply. The sense of civic responsibility, this man's devotion to making the funeral right, his willingness to endure a horrendous experience--all of that stirred me. But his resignation regarding “the hit” he had to take, inhaling a chemical in a quantity that could lead to health consequences (stats show increased risk for myeloid leukemia and ALS in career embalming room workers) still puzzles me. Some embalmers are just that selfless. But others aren't in a dialogue with their bodies. They still smoke cigarettes. One I know used to work in asbestos. All, of course, need the job, otherwise, who'd do it?

So I was impressed, but perplexed by my prospective employer's belief that formaldehyde toxicity can't be avoided in the funeral biz, and that other employees should suffer as much as he has suffered. My heart goes out to this man's wife and family. And to his staff, quite frankly.

The upshot of Carol Lynn Green’s article is not to halt embalming entirely for those funeral consumers who expect it, know what it is, and still want it. It’s to find methods and chemicals that won’t threaten the health of dutiful funeral workers, and get funeral home owners curious about what they might add to their menu of funeral options. Funeral firms must get ready for Baby Boom customers who feel that death can be managed naturally with no toxic chemicals at all (look at those long lines at Whole Foods, people). When strong preservative is required--due to air travel, warm climates, delays in service scheduling--funeral directors will still use formaldehyde. One might hope that, now, with the NFDA's straight forward encouragement,  funeral directors will embrace formaldehyde-free fluids and stop tarnishing their legacy in the effort to celebrate someone else’s.

I wrote Carol Lynn Green right away and told her she was a “change agent.” She certainly is courageous.

I'm reminded of a moment I savored years ago when my younger son Gordon shouted across a grocery store aisle: “Hey Mom, it says here on this package: 'no dyes and no artificial preservatives!' Your team is winning!”

Urns of Endearment

Dreams of flight and thoughts of freedom surround nearly every death, so bird imagery on urns for cremated remains makes sense to me. I've also been craving more toppers or finials on natural basket urns, and find these feathered friends optimistic and comforting.

Jemima Fisher created her first, simpler fabric urn (without ornament) to hold the cremated remains of her mother who was, like Jemima, a British textile artist and doll maker. Influenced by a fabric bowl her mother had given to her and after a lot of practice, Jemima incorporated her mother's favorite colors and materials into the whole endeavor, and was pleased with the organic, natural feel. After all that work, the urn was filled with her mom's cremated remains and buried under a tree.

Would you work a long time to create something beautiful, and then bury it? That's what I love about this. Some people think that only the simplest wooden cube-shaped urns are suitable for burial, but there's a strong argument for burying vessels that are not only biodegradeable, but also elegant, rare and precious. "My mother would have loved it, I'm sure," Jemima says.

Making the first urn "was a cathartic process, but also emotionally draining, and although I wanted to continue creating beautiful biodegradable and ornamental urns for others, it was not the right time to begin," Jemima writes on her website. So she took a break and has only recently started selling fabric urns to customers.

Placing removable birds on top of the vessels is a newer concept, and Jemima advises families to retain them as keepsakes after the burial (if there is one). The idea for a bird came from the Mouse Man Furniture based in North Yorkshire, England, where every piece of hand-made furniture had a little mouse carved into it. With the birds came new urn shapes, which I think you'll agree are wonderful.

Meet Jemima, the textile artist behind Skylark Urns.
Meet Jemima, the textile artist behind Skylark Urns.

Jemima's urns generally sell for 250-300 British pounds, which comes to $460-$550 dollars including postage. Fabulous urn vendor Adrienne Crowther also stocks and sells fabric urns domestically off the brilliant website Shine on Brightly.

Your End-of-Life Toolkit

Morbid Poet or Canny Pre-Planner?

Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts
Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts

It's inspiring to note that America's most death-preoccupied poet (known for writing "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,""Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me;" and "I was always attached to mud") died in her own sunny bedroom 129 years ago this week, was then placed in a white casket on a pine bier in the parlor, honored with a 130-line obituary in the local newspaper, and was lovingly buried with two heliotropes in her hands at a gorgeous graveside service that involved other May-blooming flowers she had studiously reared (when in better health) in her own garden. Who gets an end-of-life roll-out like that any more? Mostly only those who think a lot about death in advance.

She'd be pleased with us, sitting here, talking about her funeral. "We do not think enough of the Dead as exhilarants," she wrote. What a soul, what an intellect. She shocks and enlightens us today with her death-inspired insights. For example, she said any death, all death, reliably comes as a "stupendous" surprise (even when that death is long-awaited and anticipated). This is certainly true to my experience. She wrote, "All other Surprise is at last monotonous, but the death of the Loved is all moments--now."

For her funeral May 19th, 1886, Dickinson's pall bearers walked her casket from the parlor to the cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts, as her grave lay just beyond the fence line of the elegant home where she lived all her life. There, her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson read Emily Bronte's poem "No Coward Soul is Mine," a piece which could be interpreted as slightly more religious than Dickinson was in her final years, but you can decide for yourself when you read it, and start thinking about what poems you'd like recited when you too are dead, when "subterfuge is done," and when the temporary and the eternal "Apart--intrinsic--stand."

No Coward Soul Is Mine

By Emily Bronte

No coward soul is mine,

No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere:

I see Heaven's glories shine,

And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast,

Almighty, ever-present Deity!

Life - that in me hast rest,

As I - Undying Life- have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds

That move men's hearts, unutterably vain;

Worthless as withered weeds

Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one

Holding so fast by Thine infinity;

So surely anchored on

The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love

Thy Spirit animates eternal years,

Pervades and broods above,

Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone,

And suns and universes ceased to be,

And Thou wert left alone,

Every Existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,

Nor atom that his might could render void:

Thou art Being and Breath,

And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

Last Woolen Testament

In 1667, British wool manufacturers were so fearful of the popularity of imported linen that they pushed Parliament for a law requiring every deceased person to be buried in a woolen shroud. Common folk complied with these strict requirements for more than seventy years. Perhaps it seemed like a cozy deal. Who doesn't like a soft wool blanket? Capitalizing upon the well-publicized natural burial movement in England today, the Hainsworth Company, most famous for dressing Buckingham Palace guards, decided to sell people on the idea of wool burial again. This handsome, biodegradable wool casket with jute handles is fortified with recycled cardboard and can support several hundred pounds. When you see it in person, as I did at the ICCFA convention, you long to crawl into it. (Of course I was tired, since the exposition hall was enormous.) Choose chocolate brown or a eggshell ivory. Casket retail price would be approximately $2400. Hainsworth makes pet caskets and lovely woolen boxes for cremated remains. Ask your funeral director about these products all available through Elliot Urn & Supply.

Good Funeral Music: "It is Well With My Soul"

Horatio Spafford
Horatio Spafford

Obviously, the funeral for an elderly person who lived a productive life is different from the service for a young one taken too early, but when a period of suffering was endured before death, there is often, as you know, a sense of relief at the service that can be supported with the right music. "It is Well With My Soul" is one Christian hymn that expresses faith in God and peace with loss. It's a predictably terrific number for the funerals or memorial services of people who were ready to die.

This blockbuster, which you'll probably recognize as soon as you hear it, was written in the late 1800s by a man named Horatio Spafford who'd lost almost everything dear to him. The melody is by Philip Bliss, and said to be his best. I feel that hymns like this one can be adapted and edited to fit the beliefs of any family.

So I spent a good three hours listening to dozens of versions of "It is Well With My Soul" (also called "When Peace Like a River") on YouTube.com. From Mahalia Jackson to Alison Krauss, I enjoyed every moment, and will present here versions helpful to you in thinking out how many different ways this historic hymn could be performed in your locality. Here is a straightforward version sung by Jodi Campbell with scrolling lyrics, good for starters. Here's the excellent B4 Quartet's interpretation. Ashley Carver performed "It is Well" on the violin at the graveside service for Rebecca Dumapias Paular as pall bearers approached the grave with the casket. Want it big? Here's the Chancel Choir and the Sanctuary Orchestra. And finally, here is my pick for the funeral music connoisseur: Marion Williams singing "It is Well With My Soul" in 1962 at the first gospel concert ever performed in the Netherlands. With your own local talent, you'll come up with your own transporting version.

Opening lyrics:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Refrain: It is well, with my soul, It is well, it is well, with my soul.