After You're Dead

Home funerals, memorial reefs, natural cemeteries and the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Humboldt


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What happens after you're dead? The exact nature of the afterlife (if there is one) is debatable and far from certain. What is certain is that we leave behind a body, a mass of flesh and bone that someone has to deal with.

Have you made plans for the disposition of your remains? Chances are you have not. People don't like to talk about death, particularly their own. Offering directions to family and friends regarding what to do with your corpse is not typically high on the to do list — it's left until the end is near.

And what are your options? You'd think it's a simple choice between burial and cremation — you just have the corpse picked up by the local undertakers and tell them which you want. But it's a bit more complicated than that. Should you have the body embalmed? What sort of casket will you use, fancy or simple, wood or metal? Even if you choose cremation, where will your remains end up? Do you have a burial plot, or will your ashes be cast to the wind, or left on a shelf somewhere? And how much is all of this going to cost?

According to a price survey by the National Funeral Directors Association, the average funeral cost in the U.S. (circa 2004) is more than $6,500, and that does not include cemetery expenses.

Are there other options? There are. Some of the alternatives being explored across the country include DIY home funerals and "green" burial in what are known as natural cemeteries. Locally those new (or sometimes old) options are explored by a group called the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Humboldt, along with that pesky question about the cost of deathcare.

The local FCA chapter descended from an earlier group called the Humboldt Funeral Society founded in the early '60s by Arcata lawyer John Stokes and his secretary Wilma Johnston. Similar organizations popped up across the country at that time, at least in part in response to the 1963 book The American Way of Death, by self-described muckraker Jessica Mitford.

Mitford's exposé of the funeral industry laid out a simple truth: There are people working in mortuaries and funeral homes who are more than willing to take advantage of grieving families and soak them for as much as they can. Funeral societies were formed as a line of defense, to inform the public and often to negotiate on behalf of members.

On a sunny Sundayat the end of March, members of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Humboldt gathered in a house overlooking Humboldt Bay to prepare to mail out the spring edition of the organization's newsletter, something they call One Foot In...

Sitting around the dining room table of Alliance chair Jan Rowen, they talked of death, corpse disposal and related matters.

The question arose: What exactly does the FCA do?

"Our purpose is to give people knowledge about what their options are, to help make a choice," said Gretchen Ziegler, who serves as FCA-H treasurer and edits the newsletter.

"We're consumer advocates. That's the bottom line," says database manager Lionel Ortiz.

"A lot of people have been screwed by the funeral industry and they need to know their rights," said Rowen, who is the member services point person, answering a couple of calls a day, many from prospective members.

Of course there's more to it than consumer education: The Alliance also offers a bargain deal for its members: simple funeral services, either burial or cremation, for under $1,000 (taxes excluded).

"We negotiate with the mortuary to have lower prices for simple services," said Rowen. She emphasized that the FCA's deal, which lowers the cost by half or more, is strictly a basic no-frills service: no viewing, no ceremony, no options.

Rowen, a nurse and a former childbirth educator, now works in end-of-life care. (Her business card reads, "From the Cradle to the Grave.") She noted that a number of families dealing with hospice care often sign up with the Alliance at the last minute to save money, but find that they want more than the basic package.

"A lot of them say, 'Wait, the grandkids are coming in and want to see Gramma.' I tell them 'Gramma's not available to see,' not unless they come to the house. I tell them not to call the mortuary until you're ready to have the body picked up. I say, 'Keep 'em at home.' I know that's not in everyone's comfort level."

Former board member Tracy Jordan French takes that idea to the next level: home funeral. At a national FCA conference, French learned the ins and outs of DIY deathcare.

"Most people think, 'Oh my god, someone just died. What do I do?' Many think it's illegal not to go through a funeral home — it's not," said French. "You can get a death certificate filled out and signed by a doctor without having a funeral director take care of it for you. You can transport a body yourself. You need a permit from the county office of records, but you can do it. When your relative or friend dies, family and friends can act as the funeral director. It's a do-it-yourself thing — outside of a funeral home or a mortuary. You don't really need a funeral director."

Another myth the FCA works to dispel is that you need a professional because you need embalming, which is sometimes falsely described as mandatory by law.

"There's no good reason for embalming," said French. "One of the things we learned about was keeping a body cool on dry ice, wrapping it in towels and laying a blanket or something over it. They say you can keep a body for several days, but it depends on the climate. Up here three or four days should be no problem. It can be very healing for the family to sit with the body rather than having it whisked away. You can let it sink in, find closure."

Of course things can get complicated if the death is at a hospital or convalescent home. According to Rowen, local hospitals do not have facilities to store the dead, even short-term, and with bed space at a premium they want the body whisked away as soon as possible. Since a transportation permit is required, the county health department has to be open. On weekends, that can be a problem.

At that point, talk around the table turned to the movie Little Miss Sunshine, specifically the scene where the family steals Grandpa Edwin's body from a hospital. Ziegler notes that not all hospitals know the rules if the question hasn't come up.

"They need to get an education too," says Lionel Ortiz' wife, Nancy.

The One Foot In... newsletter includes a price comparison survey of local mortuaries, along with a comparison of prices for cemetery plots. The range is quite wide, from $1,450 for Table Bluff Cemetery up $4,485 for Ocean View and Sunset in Eureka.

Nancy Ortiz points out that their list is far from complete. "There's a whole list of little tiny cemeteries around here that cost much less." Among them are dozens of church cemeteries along with graveyards associated with organizations like the Masons or Moose and Elks lodges.

"Preplanning is important," Ortiz emphasized. "You should have an open discussion about death and dying with your family and your friends so they know what your wishes are and you know what theirs are. People don't like to talk about death, but it's a fact."

On that thought the gathering broke into a general hubbub about negative reactions from acquaintances and co-workers on learning that they are part of the Funeral Alliance.

"Death is nothing new," said Ortiz. "We're just matter-of-fact about it."

When it comes time to choose between burial and cremation, the majority of Alliance members choose cremation. That's in line with California statistics, which show more than half of all bodies are burned. (Nationally about a third of the dead are cremated.)

"We're not deliberately focused on cremation," said Ziegler. "It's simply the least expensive option [because it does not require a burial plot]. But our price is the same for direct burial. Home funerals have been more of our bandwagon than anything."

French has direct experience with cremation, having accompanied a friend who attended a loved one's cremation at the Arcata crematorium facility in the city corporation yard on South G Street.

"The bodies are in what are essentially cardboard boxes — and the Funeral Alliance will sell those to you. I have some in my garage, actually. The crematorium is a cinderblock building, so non-descript. They slide the box in on rollers into this big oven with huge jets on both sides. They fire them up incrementally. The weight of the body and the body fat determines how long it takes. Afterwards they pull the ashes out, scoop them into a container and put them in this spinner to get the big chunks out. You'll see bone fragments and things like that."

The front pageof the current One Foot In... shows author Mark Harris, who will provide the keynote speech for the coming FCA of Humboldt annual meeting on April 26 (at 1 p.m. at the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall in Bayside).

Harris will offer a slide show talk based on his book, Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.

The title describes the book's general trajectory. Harris starts with a detailed (and sometimes gruesome) description of mainstream modern mortuary practice, with a funeral director selling a family a full-on "traditional" service with plush-lined bronze casket, a mortician embalming the body and so on. He moves on to the increasingly popular alternative, cremation, and various means of disposing of cremated remains (popularly known as "cremains") including burial at sea and a more recent phenomenon, memorial reefs. (See side bar for the local version.) Then it's on to home funerals and the greening of the funeral business through "natural burial."

The epitome of the greening of funeral practices is a casketless burial in a natural cemetery, typically in a semi-wild environment with little landscaping, and without classic headstones or monuments to mark the graves.

"I see natural burial as a form of burial that returns one's remains to the environment as simply and naturally as possible," the author explained in a phone interview from his home in Pennsylvania. "In the end, it acknowledges that the natural end of all life is decomposition. Instead of working to fight off that inevitability with chemical embalming and bulletproof metal caskets, concrete burial vaults and the like, green burial advocates look to allow the body to decay and rejoin the elements."

Harris noted that shopping his book to publishers was not easy. When he began the project there were hardly any natural cemeteries in the country. The first was Ramsey Creek Preserve, a woodland cemetery in South Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains founded in the fall of 1998 by baby-boomer family physician Billy Campbell, a pioneer of the new method.

"Since I finished the manuscript we've seen a lot more of these natural cemeteries spring up," said Harris. "Now you have a half dozen of them around the United States. And Billy Campbell and his wife are weeks away from opening a [second] conservation burial grounds at a Trappist monastery outside Atlanta."

In his book, Harris notes that "many more [natural cemeteries] are in the planning or exploratory stages, including ... in California (Humboldt County)." He says the inclusion of Humboldt was a result of reading an opinion piece published in the Times-Standard written by someone from the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Humboldt. "They expressed interest in the idea; that was as far as it went."

Harris conceded that getting a natural cemetery started is not an easy thing. "People who want to be buried in a woodland [or natural] cemetery don't necessarily want to found or run a cemetery." What it takes is the right combination of perseverance, money, and perhaps most important, a piece of land.

According to Joe Sehee, founder and executive director of the Arizona-based Green Burial Counsel, one solution to acquiring appropriate property is to work with a land trust organization.

Sehee called from San Diego, where he'd just given a speech on "Going Green" at a convention for the International Cemetery and Funeral Association (ICFA), a trade organization for the death-care industry.

Why was he invited? As noted in the conference program, "[The funeral] profession cannot afford to ignore the 'green consumer.' Today, more than 63 million people regularly purchase green goods and services. It should be no surprise, then, that these individuals would turn their environmental concerns toward the cemetery, cremation and funeral industry."

Sehee was happy to be there talking to the mainstream. "They have to be involved," he said. "You've got a highly entrenched, very threatened industry, and I've been courting them, just like I've been courting the conservation community. You need to have a bunch of people come to the table or it doesn't work."

The growing number of natural cemeteries noted by Harris would seem to show that the idea can work.

"The [Green Burial] Council has a consultancy group and we've brokered about five deals thus far between land trusts and park service agencies and cemetery, funeral and cremation companies," Sehee said. "We're having a lot of success and have another dozen projects in the pipeline. What we have to do is convince people that burial needs to be sustainable for the planet, meaningful for the family and economically viable for the provider."

The local FCA group has in fact been thinking about natural cemeteries for some time. Two years ago a pair of green cemetery advocates, architect David Schroeder and Tiffany Smith, spoke at FCA Humboldt's annual meeting.

"We invited all of the local land trusts to attend," said French. "I don't know that any of them did. I guess we got the furthest with the North Coast Land Trust, but I don't know that we've made a formal presentation to any of them."

As it turns out, a local land trust facilitator has also been thinking about green burial for some time: Rondal Snodgrass, one of the founders of Sanctuary Forest, the Southern Humboldt preserve encompassing 12,000 acres in the headwaters of the Mattole River.

Snodgrass worked with Sanctuary Forest for 14 years. During that time he was approached repeatedly by people who wanted to create memorials for loved ones.

"At first there was momentum to plant trees in special areas, and we did some of that," he recalled. "Then people wanted us to provide space to place an urn with ashes. We considered it — we had an area called Ancestor Grove that seemed like it might be a possibility — nothing was ever developed, but the idea came up. There's definitely an interest out there."

In October of 2007, Snodgrass attended the annual national convention of the Land Trust Alliance in Denver. Among the workshops he attended was one on the interface between land trusts and green burial.

"One of the motivating factors [for establishing natural cemeteries] is to protect land in open space or to protect watersheds or species," he said. "Another motivation that you might think of is as a fundraiser. There is that potential, but to go into it [only] for that reason isn't smart because the funereal industry is thinking along the same lines."

As Sehee noted, the key thing is forming alliances.

"I think the idea will be increasingly investigated by land trusts," said Snodgrass. "One of the reasons is that land trusts cannot be perpetually at the grant trough — they can't survive that way. It's a nonprofit, but it's a business. You have to have ways to earn income."

What's common is for a land trust to seek major donations through wills and planned giving to establish an endowment. "Another way is to be in business where there's an income related to your mission. I think there's potential there, especially when we have the baby-boom burial bulge."

And the two can fit neatly together. According to Snodgrass, the way an organization gets to the point where someone wants to leave money to them in a will is by establishing a strong connection. "You're always asking, 'How can we connect with people where their spiritual and political commitment is the same as our mission?' When you connect, you have a long-term partner."

And what stronger bond is there than having a loved one buried on a piece of land? As Snodgrass put it, "That's a deep connection," adding with a laugh, "six feet."

What would it taketo establish a natural cemetery in association with a land trust locally? "The donation of a piece of land for that purpose, the designation of a piece of land," said Snodgrass. "Conservation easements are being purchased from ranchers locally with a partial donation. In such an easement, you could designate limited use on a portion of the land for a cemetery, and it would be in perpetuity. Something like that could be negotiated with a favorable landowner who's already doing an easement. Then they'd have however many acres and they could start the legal process, and they'd be in business. It's that simple."

Snodgrass already knew a bit about funerals of both sorts. His great uncle was the undertaker where he grew up in La Grange, Ore. And his time with Sanctuary Forest taught him something about natural burial. The initial call to action to save the forest came from Abbess Myriam Dardenne of the Redwoods Monastery, a nunnery of the Cistercian (or Trappist) order.

"They have this beautiful way they take care of their deceased," said Snodgrass. "When a Cistercian dies, they are not embalmed. They are placed on a funeral bier; they go into the chapel and have a ceremony. Then they are wrapped in sack cloth and buried directly in the ground."

That describes a green burial almost to a tee, and shows that the supposedly innovative idea is far from new. What is new is an awareness of the impacts of what have become standard deathcare practices: embalming fluids polluting ground water, byproducts of cremation polluting the air, fossil fuels used to burn bodies.

But, said Harris, there's more to it than that. "Green burial is not just about the environment. It's about good, old-fashioned values like thrift and simplicity, self-sufficiency, a love of family, a respect for tradition. Those broad values appeal to more than just environmentalists. And it's because of that that I believe natural burial will become a mainstream phenomenon."

How will that come to pass?

"People from the margins will continue to push natural cemeteries along," said Harris, "but I think what you'll see soon is that mainstream funeral directors will start offering these kinds of services. Yes, they'll still offer embalming, metal caskets and the burial vault, but I think you'll see them start adding things like refrigeration and bio-degradable caskets to their price lists. I'm already starting to see that."

Change is coming, but is it coming fast enough?

"There's not a lot of choice at this point," said French, at least not locally. "I really want a green burial when I die, so I'll just have to keep on living until we get one locally. That's my plan. Not that I'm ready to go, but I hope it happens sooner rather than later."

Journalist/author Mark Harris will talk on green burial and other topics from his book, Grave Matters, A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, Saturday, April 26, 1-3 p.m. at the annual meeting of the Funeral Alliance of Humboldt at the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall, Jacoby Creek Rd., Bayside. Additionally, on Friday, April 25, at 7 p.m. Harris will discussGrave Mattersand sign copies of the book at Northtown Books, 957 H St., Arcata. On the

Pacific Rest
Offshoring your body

In his book, Grave Matters, Mark Harris devotes a full chapter to "The Memorial Reef," specifically to a Georgia-based company called Eternal Reefs, pioneers in the business of encasing cremated remains in structures used to augment damaged reefs on the East Coast and elsewhere.

The company's founder, Don Brawley, was a skin diver who spent spring breaks during his University of Georgia college years exploring coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Over the years he saw the coral die off, and with it the habitat for all sorts of related sea life.

He did not forget it, and later in life he and a group of friends decided to take action. At first they started up the Reef Ball Development Group and the Reef Ball Foundation to design and ultimately place cast cement "balls" on the seabed. (The balls are actually more like jars with holes in the side.)

The idea worked. Sea creatures took to the reef balls as if they were, well, reefs. Since the early '90s more than 400,000 reef balls have been placed in projects worldwide using private and government funding.

About 10 year ago, Brawley's father-in-law, nearing the end of his life, suggested that his cremated remains be added to the cement used for a reef ball. His dream was to spend eternity as habitat beneath the sea (he specifically requested red snapper and grouper habitat). He got his wish, and Eternal Reefs was founded.

A few years ago, Eureka resident Marty Potter heard a radio piece about the creators of Eternal Reefs. The idea was something completely new for Potter, who was formerly employed in the electronics field, but it stuck with him and he decided to build a business around a West Coast version of memorial reefs — the name: Pacific Rest.

"I thought it was something that would be perfect for our culture up here," said Potter. "People in Humboldt are entwined with the ocean, with the fishermen and our environmentalist-type attitude."

Potter sees the offshore memorials as an alternative to burial on land. "We're trying to give a form of legacy, something you hand down not just to your family, but to posterity. We do that by taking cremated remains and placing them within our reef components."

The term "reef" is used loosely in this case, since there are no coral reefs locally — a better description might be artificial rock outcroppings. The collection of cement domes, designed much like the original reef balls, will be the first on the North Coast.

Another part of Potter's plan is to repurpose a decommissioned fishing boat to use to lower the 850-pound structures about 50 feet down to the ocean floor. He figures as many as 3,800 of the structures will fit in the two-acre area he's looking at near Camel Rock south of Trinidad.

"The reef will act as habitat for sea life, primarily cash crop fish like cabazon, rockfish and the cod family," said Potter. "We'll be working with [Humboldt State] University. The college is looking forward to having this as a laboratory to study how the artificial habitat works for those fish and with other sea life."

With help from Tim Mulligan, a professor in HSU's Dept. of Fisheries Biology, and geology grad student Danny O'Shea, Potter is striving to avoid any sort of negative impact from the structures.

"We hate the term 'environmentally friendly,'" he said. "We think that's kind of a stupid term — we like to consider ourselves environmentally responsible."

In fact, he'll have to demonstrate the responsibility of the plan to meet extensive environmental oversight. He's been dealing with the Coastal Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers, and so far, he says, he has not met with any resistance to the idea.

"If everything goes as planned, we're hoping to open our doors starting the first of the year," he said.

While he's been exploring a number of ways to fund his start-up, he could get a substantial boost from the Eureka Reporter's Economic Fuel contest. He entered in February and will find out later this month if he makes it to the finals.

Win or lose, he says he's moving forward with the project. He's already pre-sold several memorial reef balls to families who have been holding onto cremains for years unsure what to do with them. And among the first batch of Pacific Rest memorials will be one for his own mother, whose cremains are currently stored in a cabinet in his living room.


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