'Dust to dust' would become literal in green burials [Commentary]

Howard County Times/Columbia Flier
Human remains would be buried, unembalmed, to decompose into the earth

If the example of a Baltimore County couple takes hold, what we do with our dead could have a positive impact on how we live.

A recent story in the Baltimore Sun outlined Doug Carroll and Deidre Smith's plan to turn 66 acres in the county's rural north into a bare-bones burial ground. Instead of being reduced to ashes in high-energy crematoria or sealed up in lead-lined caskets and concrete vaults under bulky headstones, human remains would be buried, unembalmed, to decompose into the earth, as they were before the emergence of the modern funeral industry.

Forgoing formaldehyde and fossil-fuel-powered incineration devices in the disposition of the deceased constitutes a greener, cheaper option. It also could provide another way to preserve land and stem suburban sprawl.

Carroll and Smith figure that the burial fees they will collect will cover the minimal upkeep required and the taxes on the property, thus permitting them to keep the land rural. They would not face the choice confronted by many sitting on large undeveloped parcels: Sweat out the constant uncertainty and perpetual indebtedness of farming or sell off the land for residential construction.

The Baltimore County Council is considering legislation that would grant the zoning change necessary for Carroll and Smith to implement their plan while also providing for similar setups elsewhere. The bill would allow "conservation burial grounds" in a particular rural zoning category.

The Green Burial Council, a national organization that promotes chemical-free internment in biodegradable containers, has worked extensively with conservation groups, land trusts and parks agencies, but situations such as the Baltimore County example are a relatively new wrinkle in the movement, said founder and executive director Joe Sehee.

"There's a lot of potential there," Sehee told me. "It could be a great, market-based conservation tool."

With the state in full-budget cutting mode and Howard County's agricultural preservation program easing back on its purchase of easements, officials would do well to consider such a tactic as a tool for containing suburban sprawl. At no cost to the taxpayer, the local government could encourage landowners to engage in a self-sustaining method of preservation. Meanwhile, we'd all have a more environmentally friendly option for our remains and those of loved ones.

Currently, the closest green-burial facility is in Annapolis. Bestgate Memorial Park contains mostly conventional graves but devotes a bit of ground to the back-to-the-soil variety.

In his 2014 book, "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End," Atul Gawande -— a surgeon who also happens to be a staff writer for The New Yorker — profiles patients facing mortality and explores end-of-life choices. In so doing he casts a critical eye on modern medicine and its practitioners, including himself.

A physician's instinct and training combine to create a laser focus on prolonging life, on fixing what ails us, no matter what it takes. His or her preparation often falls short, however, when it comes to being realistic with patients facing critical illnesses. Exhibiting the very human desire to sustain hope in their patients and themselves, doctors can find themselves pursuing treatments that are unlikely to cure and almost certainly will cause further suffering.

Gawande, who also was featured in a recent installment of public broadcasting's "Frontline" program, advocates more honest dialogue between doctors and patients about priorities as death begins to catch up with us.

One of the patients seen in the "Frontline" segment exemplifies that sort of accounting. Obviously at peace with himself and his decision to forego further treatment for the cancer that is killing him, he takes to a hospital bed set up in his living room and spends his last days at home with his wife and family. He has a frank but loving conversation with a grandson about his imminent demise in which he and the boy express their feelings about it.

I think we all might hope to show that kind of caring, courage and acceptance at the end.

This brings us back to another aspect of the movement away from the conventions of the mortuary trade, the home funeral. A growing number of families are returning to practices that were commonplace for most of history, allowing their dying loved ones to expire at home and then honoring the deceased in the home, with the body still there before it is taken to be buried simply, sometimes in the family's own yard.

It might seem like a stretch, but this approach could give us one more way to free ourselves from the corporate imperative, to live — and die — without heed to what the marketers would tell us.

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