It is really, really, really hard to write a story about death, dying, funerals and burial rites without discussing, even for a few lines, the centuries of religious life and doctrine linked to those topics. However, the editorial team at The Baltimore Sun -- the newspaper that lands in my front yard -- has managed to pull off this difficult task.
The hipper than hip topic, of course, was "green funerals." This is a subject that has been covered here before at GetReligion, in this age in which rising numbers of idealistic, post-Woodstock Baby Boomers are planning their funerals or, well, taking part in them.
Are there secular or non-traditionally religious people -- seekers or even "nones" -- who are interested in "green" rites and burials? Of course there are.
But what about traditional religious believers? As I wrote, concerning an earlier almost religion-free story in The New York Times:
... Is this simple funeral trend found only in alternative forms of faith and non-faith? The story makes this trend sound like a march away from traditional forms of religious faith, as opposed to a rejection of American business as usual. That simply isn't the case.
I'm Eastern Orthodox and the simple funeral is becoming the norm, among many in my church. Then there are the various orders of Catholic monks who are making simple, beautiful, natural and very traditional caskets.
Business is, well, booming as you know what generation moves into its final decades. In other words, where is the rest of the story? Or, in the context of New York City, are simple funerals not as hip as green funerals? Maybe it was time to dig a bit deeper.
Well, this Sun report -- "Seeking a natural end in rural Baltimore County" -- is way, way, way more faith-free than that Times effort. It is so religion-free that, to my eyes, this must have been a conscious editorial decision.
It's as if someone in the newsroom in a key gatekeeper position decided that "this is a story about some smart, environmentally friendly, nice people -- thus, there is no way that any of them could be acting with motives that include traditional forms of religious faith." Right. The Baltimore area contains no Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mennonites, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims and others who might prefer simple, natural, burial rites in keeping -- here's the point -- with centuries of their own faith's traditions.
Can you sense the religion ghosts here, at the top of this otherwise fine Sun report?
Under the shadow of tall trees, snow blankets Doug Carroll and Deirdre Smith's property in rural northern Baltimore County. Leaves crunch underfoot as their dog, Dewey, bounds down pathways and through the meadow grass, stiff in the cold winter air.
One day, the couple hopes to share their tranquil, rolling lands with families in grief. They plan to convert the farm fields and forests into a natural burial ground -- a place where bodies can quickly decompose and return to the earth. There would be no large headstones, no concrete burial vaults, no embalming.
"Hopefully this is a celebration of people's lives and values," Smith said. "I hope it won't look too different than it looks now."
The couple's proposal -- which needs county government approval to move forward -- reflects a nationwide movement for natural burials.
Lives and values, anyone?
The key is that the Sun editors fail to realize that, for many religious believers, this trend is not a new movement. It's either normal or it is a trend back toward their own traditions.
So the mistake starts here, the editorial decision that this is a story about "a" -- singular -- "nationwide movement for natural burials." There is no one movement. There are many, which overlap in key ways and differ in others.
If this is a story about secular people who are living what the text refers to as a "green lifestyle," as opposed to people doing the same thing for theological reasons -- THEN SAY SO. That would be an interesting story. The Sun team could, in a paragraph or three, mention the overlap with centuries of religious tradition on this subject, and then move on to the secular people who have caught their attention.
But, please, don't ignore religious believers. Don't ignore the past and its impact on the present, simply because you have decided that something is "new."
Sense the ghost here?
Americans are becoming more aware of natural options for caring for loved ones in death, said Joe Sehee, founder of the Green Burial Council. His group has certified about 50 natural burial grounds in the country.
"People don't want the conventional options," he said. "People do like the idea that death can connect to life."
What a new, gloriously secular concept?