As delivered to the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County on Sunday, April 19, 2009:
I believe in natural burial. By natural burial I mean that we stop cutting down trees to make coffins, that we refrain from destroying rock face to make headstones, and that we don’t poison the earth with the formaldehyde in embalming fluid. Natural burial means we don’t contaminate the air with mercury that results from cremation. Cremation also consumes energy and doesn’t replenish the land. In my idea of natural cemeteries we don’t create gardens that require the use of pesticides and herbicides, and we certainly don’t mine the land for mausoleums of marble and granite. Just put my body in the ground to decompose, let the nutrients nourish the earth for the plants that sustain wild animals. I love the idea of providing habitat for wildlife by my death. The way we organize ourselves in cemeteries now is by religious groups, families, municipalities, and military service. Not by habitat preservation. At least, not yet. In order to sustain eagles, bears and other animals which need a wide range to survive, we need large tracts of land. If I want to plant myself to save habitat, a natural section in a conventional cemetery won’t provide enough land. So, in order for this to work, I need lots of company. A few years ago I looked around for natural cemeteries like one I had imagined, and bought a plot near Ithaca, New York. At that time there were only three like this in the country.
So why do I like to imagine my body helping to nourish a bush which might provide some berries for a squirrel which could feed an eagle? I feel related to all of it and, at heart, I think we all do. Last weekend I was at the computer when I noticed that a mourning dove had landed on the fire escape very close to my bedroom window. I felt my heart actually flutter a little bit and I watched its movements, riveted until it flew away. What is that connection about? And it’s not just me. Babies are always drawn to the sight of an animal, and the elderly are soothed by stroking a dog or cat. Our instinctive connection to animals seems to be hard-wired, yet we’ve betrayed them in so many ways. We have cut ourselves off from their pain in factory-farming, laboratory experiments, circus life, military uses and habitat destruction. In my own life, I haven’t been able to rid myself of animal products successfully enough and, as a culture, we’re still working out how to coexist. But in my death, I might help a bit to restore the balance. Laws still protect burial grounds as sacred. We could make them even more sacred by giving some of the earth back to the other beings among us. As green awareness become more trendy, maybe it’s a chance at collective redemption for the animal suffering we’ve caused. I believe in natural burial as habitat restoration. Let’s push up some daisies. This I believe.