Death is not a great conversation starter in western cultures. If you’re out trying to make friends or pick up chicks at the club, it’s probably best if you leave the big “D” out of things. Few ideas tend to make people as uncomfortable as their own mortality or that of those they love.
It is not a sexy subject. Questions like, “How do you want your friends and family to deal with your dead corpse once you’re gone?”, do not generally make positive first impressions.
But nevertheless, it’s a serious and very real question to ask a person. Especially in this modern day and age when there are so many options: cremation, casket burial, burial at sea, people have been buried in their cars, scuttled with boats, hell, some crazy bastards even get shot out of cannons.
But sooner or later (hopefully later) we’re all going to need a plan. And there are some modern eco-burial options that seek to change our relationship with death in subtle, yet powerful ways. Because, let’s be honest: it’s gotten weird. Have you ever been to a traditional, Catholic open casket funeral? The deceased are dolled up, make-upped, made to look like their sleeping instead of dead; their bodies are pumped full of formaldehyde, their caskets are airtight, made of hardwood and are lowered, not into dirt, but into sealed concrete vaults.
That shit is bizarre.
It’s like some strange form of denial: if we make them look like they aren’t dead, and seal them up in a box like leftover food, safe from decomposition and let strangers deal with the whole process, maybe it will hurt less to lose…
But it doesn’t work like that. And, in fact, according to author of “On Death and Dying”, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, it can even prolong the mental anguish associated with losing a loved one. “The elaborate expensive display of an open casket with all the makeup in the slumber room enforces the belief that the person is only asleep and in my personal opinion would only help prolong the state of denial.”
Not only that, but our deathly traditions have been warped by capitalism. Caskets cost thousands of dollars, the mortuary costs more, “recepticals” can cost hundreds, and the list goes on and the bill mounts until your loved ones are left pouring money into your dead body that they could have otherwise spent on a vacation to Tahiti.
So, what’s a mortal to do?
Well, organizations like the Order of the Good Death are advocating for a return to nature. Literally. The founder of the Order, Caitlin Doughty is a former mortician, and she believes that natural conservation burials are the way to go.
“Natural burial means your body is placed directly into the ground with only a shroud or biodegradable casket,” she writes in a blog post on the Order’s website. “It is how humans have been buried for thousands of years. The simple equation of body, dirt, bugs, bacteria, and decomposition. A few short weeks and you are nothing but skeleton, all other parts of you having gone their separate ways.”
Needless to say, as a mortician Doughty has had a lot of time to reflect on death. She sees it as the end of a lease – when our contract runs out and we must return our borrowed parts to whence they came.
“The atoms that make up your body — your liver, your hair, your brain, your fingernails — are all on loan from the universe,” Doughty writes. “As soon as you are dead, they begin their dispersal back into the wide world.”
From dust to dust, right?
Well, a lot of people aren’t into that idea. Even though it is the natural way of things, even though it is the most ancient way of dealing with dead bodies, and even though it is a form of recycling yourself back into nature, lots of people don’t like the idea of having small animals, bugs and bacteria nomming down on their corpse until it’s been reduced to mush.
That’s fair. But, it doesn’t mean you need to go buy a $15,000 casket and start laying concrete – because companies like Bios-Urn are taking a different approach to returning your body to nature.
Bios Urn started in 1997, and it is an affordable and sustainable way of dealing with death and remembering your loved ones. These urns are made from biodegradable materials, and are meant to be planted in the ground, and eventually, they turn the remains of your loved one into a tree.
“Bios Urn is much more than an urn — it’s a catalyst for life,” their website states. “It is made using 100% biodegradable materials, and is respectful to the environment in all the ways possible. Built with a special capsule that meets the needs of any type of tree, it’s the perfect medium to allow for the proper growth of a tree or plant when planted with the remains of your loved one.”
So, you can still be cremated. But you don’t have to have your ashes fruitlessly spread somewhere – instead, you get planted and reborn (metaphorically speaking) as a tree of your choice. That way, the people you left behind and even people you never met in your life, can interact with you and can visit your tree instead of a headstone.
That’s poetic. And, it’s how things are supposed to work. Modern culture has warped our relationship with death through fear, and denial, and capitalism. It’s no wonder the subject makes people uncomfortable and scared.
Paul Koudounaris is an “International Corpse Explorer”, who documents charnel houses and ossuaries. He has several photography books published, including “Empire of Death” and “Heavenly Bodies” and, according to his bio on the Order of the Good Death website, “His other academic interests also include Sicilian sex ghosts and demonically possessed cats.”
(Photo credit Paul Koudounaris' Facebook)
I asked him about the modern relationship with death in western cultures, because, well, he seemed like the closest thing to a professor on the subject I could find.
“No one is actually afraid of death, people are afraid of dying, and they’re afraid of dying because they’re afraid of the unknown,” he explains. “Death is just the border between two different groups – you have the living on one side and the dead on the other.”
He likened it to a border between any two countries.
“When you have an open border – when there is a dialogue either figurative or literal between the people of those sides – where the living are allowed to and encouraged to interact with people who have passed on in some form or another… there’s a feeling and a comfort that you have a connection, that there is something other than just the black of the other side and that there is a familiarity with it.”
Whatever that is, it’s always going to be a mystery – an unknown. But, Koudounaris says, when we close down our “border” with death, that’s when people start to feel The Fear.
So, talk about it. Maybe not at a dinner party with new friends, and maybe not at a bar with people you’re trying to flirt with. But with friends and family, why not? We’re all going to go through it at some point. Everyone and everything will. Maybe if that dialogue opens up, the grim mystery of death itself might start to feel that familiarity Koudounaris mentioned.