Friday, September 21, 2012

Green Funerals 101

The publication of our book Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully, has opened the world of green funerals to us. Although our book doesn’t advocate for green funerals, it depicts our sister-in-law's home death, the decision not to embalm, a family-arranged cremation, and a family-directed wake and funeral.

A green funeral is one in which no embalming takes place and a body is buried without any toxic material being introduced to the earth, such as that found in standard metal and hardwood coffins, concrete burial vaults, and marble headstones. A whole movement has sprung up in the past decade that advocates an environmentally friendly way of handling people’s remains.

Becky and I have become more and more interested in eco-burial for ourselves, although at this point she would prefer some type of cremation—for herself and for me. Luckily, an alternative to clame-based fossil-fuel intensive cremation now is available in Minnesota.

One of the best, most comprehensive articles I’ve read on environmentally-friendly funerals was a 2008 piece in Cincinnati CityBeat. It included interviews with mourners, ministers, and funeral directors. The journalist even considers the circumstances of gay and lesbian couples, something I haven’t seen in other reports on green funerals.

I’ve quoted two paragraphs below to give a taste. The second paragraph echoes my brother Bill Manahan's foreword in Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond.

“Die the Way You Live: Befriending Death and Planning for the Inevitable” by Stephen Carter-Novotni

When local chiropractor Pamela Tickel´s husband Will passed away in 2006, she was convinced that he should be laid to rest in a way that honored their commitment to the environment and a natural lifestyle. Will, also a chiropractor, was buried without embalming or a vault at Ramsey Creek preserve in South Carolina, one of just a handful of green burial grounds in the U.S.

“When we had a home birth 25 years ago, people thought we were crazy, and now people are very accepting and interested,” Pamela says, explaining that even though green burial is foreign to most, her paradigm has shifted and contemporary burial practices seem odd to her now.


Reduce Carbon Footprint with “Flameless Cremation”

Minnesota is leading the way in “green cremation,” a flameless process of reducing a body to its basic elements using alkaline hydrolysis. The Mayo Clinic Medical School has been using hydrolysis in its body donor program for several years, but last month, the first commercial unit in the US was opened in Stillwater, MN.

For a Minneapolis Star Tribune article, see

For a KARE-11 TV story, see

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Radio show on on home funeral, green burials, and the new MN law

For a free download of the KFAI radio show Becky and I did with MN State Representative Carolyn Laine on home funeral, green burials, and the new law that gives Minnesotans more choices for caring for our own dead, go to . This Health Notes show, hosted by Kinshasha Kambui, was rebroadcast last week with a live update from Rep. Laine. The link will be active until May 17, 2011.


An Ancient Green Cemetery

As Becky and I approach Kerameikos, we know it is different from the other archeological sites we had visited in Greece. It is the land that received many thousands of bodies for over 1500 years, the most important cemetery of ancient Athens. The earliest tombs date from the Early Bronze Age (2700-2000 BCE). Athenians continued burying their dead there until approximately the 6th century CE (Current Era).

On display in a small museum at the entrance are prehistoric grave offerings, tall urns that held ashes of the deceased, and archaic tombstones inscribed with expressions of grief over the loss of loved ones. One ornate chest is labeled ossuary, used where burial space was scarce. A body is buried in a temporary grave, and after some years the skeletal remains are removed and placed in the chest, making it is possible to store the remains of many people in a single tomb.

At the far end of one room stands a graceful life-sized statue of Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris (arrogance before the gods). Becky and I marvel again at the powerful Godesses and human females depicted in ancient Greek art as well as the sculptors' skill in chiseling such realistic draped clothing.

The most interesting sign was about the Plague that struck in 430 BCE, killing thousands of Athenians. Physicians had no idea how to treat their patients and died themselves in large numbers. Each morning, the bodies were picked up, often near public fountains where the victims had tried to quench their terrible thirst. In violation of Athenian burial law, the corpses were dumped into a mass grave in Keramikos.

Outside the museum, sun-drenched and tree-shaded paths wind through ancient gavesites and the foundations of buildings and walls. (The Acropolis with its magnificent temple to Athena, is visible in the background.) Although we don't see any families lounging on the grass, my mother would have recognized this as a "fine and private place" for a picnic. Proponents of natural cemeteries can applaud Athens for maintaining this prime real estate as a public green space. Of course, Kerameikos was also green in the environmental sense: no embalming fluids, metal caskets, or concrete burial vaults went into the earth here. The cemetery, however, was full of marble tombstones, which contemporary green burial grounds do not include.

Once again, I'm reminded of "time's winged chariot hurrying near." Whether we succumb to hubris or live humbly, remorseless Nemisis pushes us toward the grave. May we drink deeply from the fountain and love our dear ones while we can.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Becky's article just published

Becky has an article in the premier issue of Natural Transitions Magazine on how a few citizens from the Minnesota Threshold Network with no funding and little legislative experience managed to change Minnesota state funeral law.

This first issue of Natural Transitions Magazine features beautiful graphics, interesting stories, and excellent resources on the home funeral movement and green burial movement in the US and other countries. To subscribe visit To link to a preview, or buy a single issue, visit

Photo at Minnesota State Capitol, April 6, 2010. L to R: Heather Halen, Marianne Dietzel, Nancy Manahan, Rep. Carolyn Laine, Becky Bohan, Kim Pilgrim.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lynn Redgrave’s Eco-coffin

Great Britain is way ahead of the United States, when it comes to green burial practices. Dotting the countryside from Devon to Yorkshire are 240 green cemeteries, free of toxic embalming fluids, metal coffins, and concrete vaults.

For twenty years The Natural Death Centre has educated British consumers about funeral choices outside the mainstream. NDC, which helped create the network of English woodland burial sites and runs the Association of Natural Burial Grounds, believes that “death lies at the heart of our humanity . . . and that if we so wish, we [can] face it on our own terms without the mediation of a doctor, priest or funeral director.”

The Natural Death Centre plans to investigate “new technologies to replace gas cremators, . . . to increase the dialogue between palliative care and the funeral industry, to assist our colleagues in other countries to achieve what the NDC has achieved, to hold the spiritual middle ground between fundamental religion and fundamental atheism and to continue to challenge the taboos surrounding death.” I love this vision for the future of the home funeral/green burial movement.

In the US, organizations like the Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Green Burial Council are infusing a new ethic into the funeral industry, one rooted in transparency, accountability, and ecological responsibility.
A recent example of an eco-funeral was that of Oscar-nominated actress Lynn Redgrave, who requested a bamboo coffin made by the British Fair Trade company, Ecoffins. Bamboo, unlike regular wood, is highly sustainable; it regenerates rapidly after harvesting -- no replanting necessary. Ecoffins made from bamboo, willow, banana leaf, and pine are available in the US from Final Footprint, the company that provided Lynn Redgrave’s coffin, pictured above ($420 plus delivery).

In Minneapolis, there will be a free screening of an award-winning documentary film about the conscious death and inspiring home funeral of an environmental activist August 25 at Southdale Public Library at 7pm. At his request, Jack Heckelman’s plain pine coffin was built by his niece. For more details, visit the Minnesota Threshold Network blog.

Photo of Redgrave by Annabel Clark,

Friday, April 30, 2010

Honor the Earth in Life and Death

In honor of Earth day April 22, 2010, Twin Cities Naturally magazine asked me to write about green funerals. To give you a flavor, here's a clip from "Honor the Earth in Life and Death" with thanks to my wife for the best line in the piece. Spot it?

"Our generation has led the way in so many areas--civil rights, home births, holistic health care, and the environmental movement. Now we can expand our thinking from living green to leaving green."

To read the short article, click here.