By Sister Miriam Therese Rau, ASC

On Ash Wednesday, the priest reminds us that “to dust we will return,” the phrase uttered as he makes the sign of the cross on our foreheads with blessed ashes.

We cannot change the fact that we will die, but we can choose how we return to ashes.

When a person dies, typically a mortician will prepare the corpse for display at a wake by draining the deceased’s blood and replacing it with a formaldehyde-based embalming fluid, to slow decomposition of the body. These chemicals are harmful to the earth.

The Wichita Eagle recently reported that “each year in our cemeteries, the U.S. buries 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based fluid, 2.3 billion tons of concrete, 4 million acres of forest worth of wood, and 115 million tons of steel.” 

Moreover, cremations – a more recent alternative to embalming — release an estimated 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air.

I find this alarming.

When I read these statistics, I knew that I did not want my body to be embalmed or cremated. I want to reduce my carbon footprint, even in death, in keeping with my values of not harming the Earth. Our ASC Land Ethic proclaims that, “As women we celebrate the rhythms of creation; with Mother Earth, we live the Paschal Mystery of life, death, and new life, and with others, preserve and nurture creation.”

Fortunately today, we have another option, what’s known as natural or green burial. Put quite simply, with natural burials, the body is taken to the mortuary and refrigerated, and the funeral service is held within 24 hours of death.

The deceased is dressed in clothes made of cotton or other organic material, and is placed inside a container made of biodegradable material such as a cardboard box, a wicker basket, or unfinished wooden box.

A number of the nation’s cemeteries is now setting aside sections for green burials.

Ascension Cemetery in Wichita, Kansas, has designated a section for green burials and named it “St. Francis Garden.” It consists of five acres of land planted with indigenous prairie grasses. A memorial wall lists the names of those buried there.  Markers and flower containers are not allowed. A large wooden cross greets those who enter this part of the cemetery.

As someone who has always found God in nature, this type of free, open landscape really calls out to me. Those of us of a certain age might remember the television program, “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” starring Jane Seymour as the doctor. In one episode, she came across an elderly woman who was dying in a valley in Colorado. The natural beauty surrounding them was breathtaking. Medicine Woman attempts to carry the woman to a shelter, and the woman gasps, “But I want to die here.” Her remark and the image of natural beauty made a deep impression on me. Her spoken desire resonates with me.

Having been made aware of climate change, I want to do all that I can to heal our planet Earth. I am excited and energized at the thought of making my last act one that contributes to life on our planet.

Natural burials are also much less expensive than ones involving embalming or cremation.

If you are interested in pursuing this topic further, you can find a lot of information by Googling “natural or green burial.”

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