green funerals

In Washington state, humans can be turned into compost (Catholics have a problem with that)

In Washington state, humans can be turned into compost (Catholics have a problem with that)

It’s never boring living in Washington state, the land of legalized marijuana, orcas, lots of rain, a quasi-socialist city government and now the chance to become at one with the soil — extra quick.

Literally. We’re the first state to legalize human composting.

It’s not quite “Soylent Green” (the 1973 dystopian movie where dead people are made into food for a starving world), but it feels like a step in that direction. Some are calling it the chance to have “a better, greener death.”

This slogan goes better with some religions than others. The Christian flocks with ancient roots have lots of problems with this,

Let’s start with how the Seattle Times reported on it:

On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed SB 5001, “concerning human remains,”making Washington the first state in the U.S. to legalize human composting.

The law, which takes effect May 1, 2020, recognizes “natural organic reduction” and alkaline hydrolysis (sometimes called “liquid cremation”) as acceptable means of disposition for human bodies. Until now, Washington code had permitted only burial and cremation.

It’s part of a project called “Recompose,” also known as the Urban Death Project before being renamed, for obvious reasons.

The Recompose model is more like an urban crematorium (bodies go in, remains come out), but using the slower, less carbon-intensive means of “organic reduction,” or composting.

The process, which involves using wood chips, straw and other materials, takes about four weeks and is related to methods of “livestock composting” that ranchers and farmers have been using for several years. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a soil scientist at Washington State University, says that practice can turn a 1,500-pound steer — bones and all — into clean, odorless soil in a matter of months.

So that’s what farmers do with all those dead cows and horses. Do you get to tell your family where “you” get to be planted once you’ve turned into dirt? With the tomatoes out back? In the front flower bed?

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Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Life is unfair, and then you die, and then your survivors throw one hell of a party

Karen Heller’s “The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic — just in time for a death boom” for The Washington Post is a nearly pitch-perfect roundup of how egocentric choices seem to diminish every cultural and religious custom they touch. 

For all the language about not denying death and “hollow platitudes that barely relate to the deceased,” the “celebration of life”  movement is just as death-haunted as some funeral traditions in the cultural past — and, as shown in Heller’s report, silent on larger questions about an afterlife.

After leading with a solid illustration from a “Memorialpalooza” for entertainment agent Howard West, Heller turns to the factors (hello Baby Boomers) driving the trend of funerals as parties. This passage is long, but essential reading:

Death is a given, but not the time-honored rituals. An increasingly secular, nomadic and casual America is shredding the rules about how to commemorate death, and it’s not just among the wealthy and famous. Somber, embalmed-body funerals, with their $9,000 industry average price tag, are, for many families, a relic. Instead, end-of-life ceremonies are being personalized: golf-course cocktail send-offs, backyard potluck memorials, more Sinatra and Clapton, less “Ave Maria,” more Hawaiian shirts, fewer dark suits. Families want to put the “fun” in funerals.

The movement will only accelerate as the nation approaches a historic spike in deaths. Baby boomers, despite strenuous efforts to stall the aging process, are not getting any younger. In 2030, people over 65 will outnumber children, and by 2037, 3.6 million people are projected to die in the United States, according to the Census Bureau, 1 million more than in 2015, which is projected to outpace the growth of the overall population. …

Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.

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Yo, Baltimore Sun: Are modern 'green funerals' completely different than ancient 'traditional' religious rites?

Yo, Baltimore Sun: Are modern 'green funerals' completely different than ancient 'traditional' religious rites?

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.

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Pod people: 'Green funerals,' Baby Boomers and the American way of death

Pod people: 'Green funerals,' Baby Boomers and the American way of death

For some reason, I got a bit fired up during the recording of this week's "Crossroads" podcast, with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in). The subject wasn't all that controversial, but it really got under my skin. We were talking about my recent post on the topic of the spiritual wanderers called the Baby Boomers (talkin' 'bout my generation) and the trend toward "green funerals." 

Now, that is a topic that has interested me for several decades -- dating back to when I taught as "Communicator on Culture" at Denver Theological Seminary (right after my exit from full-time religion-beat reporting at The Rocky "RIP" Mountain News).

At that time, 1991-93, America was still in the (a) New Age religion era, while also (b) experiencing a wave of death-and-dying movies at the local multiplex (biggest hit, of course, was "Ghost"). Thus, I led a seminar on "The Good Death" and how traditional Christian views on the subject were not what was being sold at the local shopping mall (or most funeral homes).

The main takeaway from the seminar was that the spiritual adventures of the 1960s era were leading Americans in all kinds of different directions, from Eastern religions to traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism, from Oprah spirituality to damned-if-I-don't secularism. There was, in other words, no one trend dominating the death-and-dying landscape.

That was true then and I would argue it's still true today, which is why the recent Washington Post report on "green funerals" bugged me so much.

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