Kelly Ramke Lardin is the author of the children's books Josiah and Julia Go to Church, and Let's Count From 1 to 20 (bilingual counting books in French and Spanish). She holds degrees in French from The University of the South and Tulane University and studied translation at SUNY-Binghamton. She has always enjoyed writing and loves studying languages. She converted to Orthodoxy shortly after marrying her husband, who is also a convert to Orthodoxy. Her journey to the faith was fraught with struggle, but she wouldn't trade it for anything. Together she and her husband are raising their two daughters in the Orthodox faith. This continuing journey still has its moments of struggle but is also a joy. Visit her at kellylardin.com for more information on her books and to read short stories and other writings. She also blogs about her faith, family, and life in Chicago at A Day's Journey. She is available for speaking engagements through the Orthodox Speakers Bureau.
“Mom, what do you want for Mother’s Day?”
“I would like a ‘coffin table’.”
“That’s weird. People will think we’re strange. What else do you want?”
For a few years now, I have asked my family to give me a custom-made “coffin table,” a coffee table with a hinged lid that can store all the games and kids’ stuff that clutter our living room and double as a coffin when my husband or I die. I see my coffin table as a way to be a good steward of God’s gifts and resources. Although I have not yet gotten my coffin table, it hasn’t stopped me from trying to plan a burial that will respect the natural order of things and not cause harm to the earth.
“On any given day then, some twenty-seven hundred licensed embalmers like Tom Fielding will wheel a newly deceased family member into their prep rooms and there ply their trade… Twice nearly every minute on average, one of these preservative-filled bodies will then be sealed inside a casket that’s sealed inside a vault and topped with a ton of dirt that’s all but prevented from ever reaching them. The burial’s many environmental effects — the leaching chemicals, the consumption of resources, and the resulting pollution — live on.” *Harris, Mark. Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, New York, 2007: 41.
About seven years ago, my husband and I heard about a fabulous book called Grave Matters by Mark Harris. It set me on a quest to make my passing as natural and as pleasing to God as possible. While the book itself is not religiously-leaning, it opened my eyes to how far our modern funeral practices have strayed from the stewardship of the earth with which the Lord entrusted us. It also showed me the possibility of having a more natural, less expensive, less gaudy burial than those pushed on us by the modern American funeral industry. In the first chapter, Mr. Harris tells the story of the embalming of Jenny Johnson. He spares no details for the squeamish, giving us a look into the hidden side of funeral preparation. For me, it was enough to say, “I don’t want that.”
The modern funeral industry in America encourages, and in some cases requires, metal caskets, “outer burial containers” (basic liners or vaults), and embalming. These things are marketed as “protecting” the body. One wouldn’t want water and the elements to get into the casket, and one certainly wouldn’t want any worms to invade. If we embalm our loved ones, we can stave off decomposition. With all of this “protection,” we can fool ourselves into believing that the bodies of our deceased are still fresh and comfortable in their graves. Of course, the living will spend a pretty penny on all of these things that actually do no good for the deceased and prevent them from returning to the earth from which they came.
One might assume that embalming and these extra “protections” are required by law for sanitation purposes. They are not. In fact, funeral directors are prohibited from embalming (or charging for embalming) without the express permission of the deceased’s family. On the other hand, many cemeteries require some or all of the practices to maintain the “beauty” of the cemetery. Burial containers, for instance, are often required to prevent the ground from sinking in if the casket decomposes.
One might also assume, as the funeral industry would like us to believe, that these now common practices are “traditional,” but they are, in fact, quite a modern development. In chapter two, Harris describes the “truly traditional American way of death” (41). The body of the deceased would have been prepared at home, cleaned and dressed by family members. A local carpenter would have fashioned a plain pine coffin, or a ready-made one would have been purchased from a furniture store. The viewing or wake would have taken place in the home. Funeral services would have been held in the home or at church. Following the services, the deceased would have been buried with none of the modern trappings for “protection,” no embalming, no vaults, no hermetically-sealed coffin. The body would be allowed to return to the earth and nourish the earth. Indeed, until the mid-19th century, traditional burial would have been natural burial.
It was at that time that the funeral industry as we know it has its early beginnings. Embalming saw its ascent to popularity during the American Civil War. Northern families sought to bring their fallen soldiers home for burial rather than allowing them to be buried on the battlefield. Embalming was used to stabilize them for transport home. The practice was further popularized by the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. His body was transported from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois for burial, and the train made stops along the way for public viewing. Until this time, “Americans had largely opposed the idea of embalming. …embalming represented a pagan/Egyptian practice that involved the grotesque mutilation of the body, a kind of desecration of the human temple of God that was condemned in the New Testament” (45). Indeed, although modern American Christians have come to accept embalming, Judaism and Islam still condemn it.
Although there may have been good reason to use embalming during the Civil War, for most of us it is unnecessary, does more harm than good to the environment, and is, in my opinion, degrading to the deceased. A body can be stabilized just as effectively in a mortuary refrigerator, and dry ice can stave off decomposition during viewing and funeral services. Given that every body, even an embalmed body, will decompose eventually, it seems reasonable, more responsible, and more respectful not to use embalming. Decomposition will happen more quickly without embalming, but without embalming, it will also not release toxic chemicals into the earth.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement promoting natural burial. There are resources and information available to teach us how to reclaim truly traditional funeral practices, and natural burial cemeteries are springing up around the country. Some “traditional” cemeteries are even beginning to set aside space for natural burials. These allow one to forgo all of these unnecessary extras, which can harm the earth (embalming) or the pocket book (metal caskets and burial containers).
As a conservative Christian and a social and environmental liberal, I found Grave Matters to be an eye-opening, thought-provoking book. Whether you decide that natural burial without all the modern trappings is more in tune with God’s will and our Orthodox tradition, or whether you prefer to choose the convenience of leaving all your funeral preparations to the funeral director, you should read this book so that you can, at least, understand what the modern practices entail, what they do to your body, and what they do to the earth. I, for one, will do what I can to prepare a burial that is simple, light on resource consumption, and allows me to return to the earth and nourish it.
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