Going Out Green

Charles Cowling

Rupert Callender made this observation of Dan Cruickshank’s The Art of Dying:

I was surprised by how little thought Dan had apparently given the matter. I thought everyone mused endlessly about their own deaths.

I don’t know that they do, Rupert. When, over in the US, Bob Butz was asked by his publisher to write a book about green funerals in three months, this was his response:

“Three months?” I said, incredulous. “That’s some deadline. Har. Har. But seriously, what do I know about planning a green burial? I’m no expert.”

For all his ignorance, Bob is predisposed to a green funeral:

Green burials came to interest me because, frankly, all the traditional ones I’ve seen over the years were a real drag. They left me thinking that there had to be a better way.

He’s a realist:

Although a reviewer once called me a nature writer, I’ve never been accused of being an environmentalist. I do what I can where the planet is concerned … At this point, I doubt very seriously that “going out green” will come anywhere close to rectifying the environmental mayhem I’ve wrought simply by virtue of being born

Bob embarks on his researches:

Only three weeks into this project and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m cut out for thinking about being buried all the time. For one thing, and I know this is going to come as a shock, it’s depressing.

He tracks down the Natural Burial Company, which is run by a good friend of the Good Funeral Guide, Cynthia Beal, with whom he tangles. He is withering about Ecopods:

…the Ecopod seemed to run contrary to the fundamental tenets of the natural burial movement … In the words of Jim Nicolow, “shipping a $3000 recycled coffin 5000+ miles to reduce burial’s environmental impact feels a bit like selecting the rapidly-renewable bamboo trim package to reduce the environmental impact of your Hummer.”

Bob digs his own grave—to see what it feels like. He reflects on the way people don’t discuss funerals:

I found this odd given that every other life-defining decision up to that point—getting married, having children, where to school those children—involved long and careful deliberation

He researches home funerals and embalming. He goes to see his father’s grave for the first time in years, to see how it makes him feel. He concludes:

For three months I thought about death more intensely than I think the average person should have to.But in an odd sort of way that was also the best part, too—that maybe in trying to die and be buried green I may now live my life a little bit better, too.

I hope this has whetted your appetite. This is an unpretentious and informative blunder through some of the mysteries of death and dying written by, this is important, an industry outsider. It is serious, funny and highly readable. At £11.25 it is a tad pricey—but heck, you can’t take it with you.

One thought on “Going Out Green

  1. Charles Cowling
    Cynthia Beal

    Hi Charles,

    Your comment about Butz’ being ‘withering’ on the Ecopod was apt and, since there’s nothing else here to give it context, I thought I’d best reply.

    1) I’ve not read the book. I did just check on amazon and there’s over 50 copies available, so I picked one up for 2.00.

    2) Bob called me for an “interview” and we spoke for a long time. Throughout the conversation I found him to be a man with his mind made up, with the POVs he intended to put forth, and not really a ‘researcher’ per se, but more someone looking for support for his position. Since he’d said he was researching something he didn’t know anything about I thought that a bit odd, but realized he was making a product (the book) with a pre-determined outcome, and not necessarily really looking for actual information.

    3) He missed all the highlights completely:

    * A coffin is shipped ONCE in someone’s life. They deserve what they want, not what some rainy-day-environmentalists say they should have, or at a maximum price that New Puritans require they pay (what happened to choice without shame or guilt???).
    * The Ecopod’s carbon footprint can be EASILY offset by not buying bananas or oranges out of season – probably a year would do it! – or any of the zillion other things people do DAILY that accumulate far greater impact than a one-time shipping charge. In fact, using Bob’s logic people probably shouldn’t even go to a funeral unless they can walk! No funeral air-trips allowed, not even if they’re frequent flyer miles!
    * The Ecopod is the only coffin like it in the world. It’s a hand-made work of art, very difficult to produce. It’s made from 100% recycled newsprint and takes a tremendous amount of physical labor to craft (along with a lot of artisan coaxing as no two coffins are alike). Most wooden or paper coffins have a huge production system with tons of embodied energy involved. The Ecopod simply cannot be made by a machine and it’s a tribute to the handarts for just this reason. (We’ve been working to get a shop set up in the US for sometime and hope to do that someday.)
    * Does Bob condemn US artists, craftspersons and sculptors for selling their work overseas? It’s doubtful. Bob flies all over the world in the name of nature. He touts products (sporting goods mostly) made from in other countries and has ‘carbon footprints’ all over his work. It would be interesting to compare the carbon footprint of his career with the Ecopod’s…
    * I explained to Bob when he did the story that the Ecopod was an eye-opener, a conversation starter; people see the Ecopod and they say “I didn’t know you could do that!?!” and all the sudden there’s a lot more to talk about than just “the coffin”. People benefit from seeing a coffin like the Ecopod and having them at a funeral is a great way to get the ecological aspects of end-of-life matters discussed.
    * The Ecopod is historically very important in the history of natural burial. It served an enormously important leading role in the UK as a “game changer” and is rarely acknowledged for that job it – and its creators – have done. Instead, it’s maligned as being “too expensive” when, in reality, I’d say that its critics are just “too cheap.”

    I’ve always thought Bob made his comments in ignorance, but I also felt it was a willful ignorance since I explained this and a whole lot more in our discussion. However, one can’t take the time to correct everyone when they get it wrong but here, on your page, where I find value, I’m glad to add my two cents.

    I’ll be reading his book and perhaps even do my own review, since he seems to be getting lots of mileage out of it still, and if he was so wrong on the Ecopod who knows what else needs correcting. I do feel a little bit guilty – I paid 2.00 for the copy online but the air-shipping was twice that. Of course, it doesn’t make sense for me to drive to Michigan to buy his book, does it? And I suppose I can’t expect him to show up here at a local market store and sell it direct, can I? But then, there’s always a pot somewhere that doesn’t think it’s black.

    Yours in trees,


    Charles Cowling

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