Mother’s Day is forever tinged with a certain sadness for me because it’s the day I accompanied my mother eleven years ago to the cemetery where she’s been interred ever since. Well, that’s not entirely true. She didn’t die that very day—death wouldn’t come for another six months yet.
We were in the funeral home shopping for a shiny new casket and to make final arrangements for her corpse, an unwelcome visitor that would be arriving sometime soon, though precisely when even the doctors couldn’t say. For her peace of mind if nothing else, she was intent on tidying up the financial and administrative minutia that comes with dying as a human being. As soon as the umbilical cord is cut, after all, we’re attached to another made of red-tape, and that one grows longer with each passing year, so that we die tangled up in it in the end.
I don’t know why she chose Mother’s Day of all days for such a lachrymal task as this, but she did have a tragedian air to her—one, I might add, that was well-deserved given all she’d been through. Before she was forty, she’d had a mastectomy from breast cancer along with several long bouts of chemotherapy. This was followed by cancer in the other breast a few years later and another mastectomy. Within the decade, my parents would have a sudden and bitter divorce, and within a few months of the divorce, just as she was "getting back on her feet," she was dealt another heavy blow, diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, more surgeries and seven more embattled years of chemotherapy. She died—begrudgingly—at just fifty-four.
It’s a very sad story, needless to say, and unfortunately one that is shared by too many other loving and wonderful mothers who will not be with us on this Mother’s Day. The fact that I was conducting my PhD research on people’s afterlife beliefs at the time of her death stemmed almost entirely from the many theoretically inspiring and insightful conversations I had with her as she tried to imagine her own afterlife. (She leaned towards scientific materialism but she wasn’t an atheist and had an "open mind" about the whole affair, I think it’s safe to say.)
Among the more unpleasant aspects of this tale—both for her at the time and for my siblings and I still now—were the gloomy logistics of arranging her burial. What sticks out in my mind most of all from that Mother’s Day of 2000 is the image of my mom with her trembling hands flipping through an L. L. Bean-looking catalogue handed to her by a pleasant enough but benumbed funeral home director. It was a rather hefty booklet filled with glossy images of all the latest models of caskets, vaults, urns, catafalques, headstones and other new products then in funerary vogue, this particular collection especially suitable for middleclass cadavers. Since she died near Fort Lauderdale wanting to be closer to her own mother, she found herself in a part of the country especially profitable to the death industry, the area being a geographic hub of the elderly.
The whole affair that day left a bad taste in my mouth. There was something so plastic, so slick, so "commercial" about this business of death that—much like the rest of an overdeveloped South Florida where this bland, freeway-hugging cemetery is laid—felt much too cold to me. Modern cemeteries, with their zero lot lines, perfectly manicured hedgerows and identical-looking headstones, have become eerily similar to the suburbs; or perhaps the suburbs have become eerily similar to cemeteries. Either way, what bothers me most of all is that, looking back, it didn’t have to be like this.
Death is rarely pleasant, of course, no matter how one’s body is disposed of. But in recent years, I have become increasingly interested in green burial, a blanket term that refers to any "alternative" funerary practice in which the deceased is buried in a biodegradable casket or shroud, often in nature preserves and without embalming preservatives (fluids that keep a corpse pretty, usually just for viewing purposes) that dramatically slow down and disrupt the natural decomposition process.
Although it’s the subject of continuing debate and the actual health implications remain unclear, these embalming chemicals may become contaminants as formaldehyde and other potentially carcinogenic agents are absorbed into the soil and groundwater. Green burial advocates have cast the issue almost entirely in terms of avoiding the staggering environmental impact of traditional burial. Consider that before this year is over, Americans will bury 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, 90,272 tons of steel (caskets), 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets),1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults),14,000 tons of steel (vaults), and 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods (much tropical; caskets). And don’t forget about the countless of acres of land bulldozed over for these bald landfills of synthetic human remains.
Cremation isn’t much an improvement over things. Going up in smoke may use fewer natural resources than traditional burial, but it also consumes a significant amount of fossil fuels. According to a statement by the Trust For National Legacies, Inc., a nonprofit land conservation organization working to drive the sustainable growth of green burial practices in the Midwest, "… you could drive about 4,800 miles on the energy equivalent of the energy used to cremate someone—and to the moon and back 83 times on the energy from all cremations in one year in the U.S." There’s also the non-negligible problem of mercury being released into the atmosphere whenever a person with amalgam dental fillings is cremated.
These environmental concerns alone make green burial a no-brainer to me. But as a psychologist, and one that’s also had a negative personal experience with burying a loved one in the traditional manner, I think our conception of death and burial needs a serious rethink. Let’s close the lid on those anonymous, revenue-driven, laminated cultural practices of commercial burial that we’ve all become so complacent with. There’s got to be a better way to go about it than what we’ve been doing all these years. And green burial of one specific form, which I’ll outline soon, is a win-win.
Although the idea of green burials in wildlife preserves or park-like settings is not new, and it’s likely a desirable prospect for certain future dead soul who’d prefer absolute oblivion, it seems to me that this is not going to appeal to most individuals because we human beings tend to have a pressing need for "symbolic immortality." This was a term coined by the cultural anthropologist Ernst Becker in his book, The Denial of Death (1973), but which has since been empirically elaborated by scientists working on terror management theory. The basic idea behind the construct of symbolic immortality is that cultural artifacts that survive the individual’s literal death while also containing some reminder of the person’s special existence can meaningfully reduce human death anxiety.
There are many nuances to terror management theory and this construct, but the important point to mention here is that a sense of symbolic immortality can be obtained by concrete markers of prosperity, anything from benches in the park with dead people’s names etched in gold, to graffiti on boxcars, to initials carved into a tree, to headstones in a graveyard. So while conventional cemeteries may be unnecessarily gloomy, they do at least satisfy this psychological need for people to remain embedded, even if just symbolically by way of lifeless granite headstones, in the immortal culture. If the green burial industry is ever to take off and begin appealing to more people, I suspect that this is one key issue—physical memorializing—that advocates are going to need to address.
It seems to me that one way to solve this problem while remaining true to the central philosophy of green burial is to have people buried beneath a specific tree—a little sapling of your choice nourished by your decomposing body beneath. In favorable soil conditions, a non-embalmed body, skeleton and all, can rot away entirely within about 15 to 25 years. But many trees species, let’s not forget, can live for many hundreds of years (some thousands). Imagine that on making final arrangements at the funeral home some day, you and your loved ones were able to choose from among a wide variety of co-habitable tree species to find just the right tree to suit your fabulously unforgettable being—this instead of flipping through a catalog filled with caskets, coffins, and crypts as my mother found herself doing. Not only will your death nourish a new life, but you’re also saving another tree, the one that would be sacrificed for your sake in the shape of a mass-produced coffin with plastic handles.
In addition to offering a healthy dose of symbolic immortality, this form of specific-tree burial would tap into another central aspect of our psychology. In recent years, researchers have found that human beings operate with a strong essentialism bias. We tend to reason implicitly, and often explicitly, as though a person’s unobservable "essence" is transmitted through physical contact with that individual. You’d probably cringe to think of wearing a child molester’s eyeglasses, or a serial murderer's laundered tee-shirt, but have trouble articulating precisely why donning such material causes you so much aversion.
Likewise, you may have your deceased grandmother’s wedding ring or the old jersey of your favorite football player stashed away somewhere, and these objects are coveted because they’re so intimately linked to these adored individuals. In the present context, let’s say that you buried your beloved dog beneath a rose bush in your garden. If you’re anything like me, you’d have a special affinity for that particular rose bush over others, and it would be especially unpleasant should, say, someone uproot it and dangle it before you.
Now picture an entirely new brand of cemetery, a planned, verdant, protected land tended by trained arborists and filled not with row after row of bland, lifeless, crumbling headstones, but instead row after row of living trees. Each tree, selected for regional appropriateness and other suitability factors as advised by arborist staff, would symbolize a unique human existence. (Not to get carried away, but perhaps a plaque or marker might be added too, enhancing the symbolic immortality element, but aesthetics would of course vary.) These aren’t simply trees planted in memoriam of the dead, but leafy chimeras through whose veins absorbed individual human lives.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that even if one doesn’t believe in some ethereal or religious version of the afterlife, it’s rather difficult to escape the cognitive illusion that the unobservable essence of each person has been somehow gradually transmuted into his or her individual tree. Two massive walnut trees growing side-by-side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries ago. There’s no shortage of idyllic essentialist images like this—grandchildren climbing up their great-grandfather’s limbs, children who’d been sickly in life now bursting with the blazing colors of autumn, beauty queens forever fragrant with immaculate cherry blossoms, stillborn infants now magnificent oaks. It would take some time, of course, for this human arboretum to fully mature. But what’s the rush?
In fact, our species’ notorious difficulty in imagining our own psychological nonexistence is yet another cognitive factor that makes this particular form of green burial appealing. This is a topic that I’ve described at length before, but the basic idea is that, since we have no proper analogy for the stateless state of death (we can’t recreate consciously in our heads what it "felt like" to be under general anesthesia, or prior to our conception, or even during last night’s dreamless, non-REM sleep) the closest we can get to mentally grasping what it will be "like" to be dead inevitably reifies the stateless state of nothingness.
With specific-tree burial, this simulation constraint principle of the afterlife finds a nonreligious, or even religious, outlet. For example, you might not believe that you’ve been literally reincarnated or reborn into the tree, but in envisioning its growth and rejuvenation year after year through all the socially active centuries of human affairs lying ahead, it’s still rather difficult to refrain from attributing some of your own emotions to this living character of the tree.
So these are the thoughts that occupy me with the approach of this year’s Mother’s Day. It would sure be nice to hug an eleven-year old palm tree in Florida this weekend.
About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit www.jessebering.com, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).