Sunday, 30 December 2007

HOW GREEN IS YOUR DEATH: A Green Funeral for my Dad

It is with a sad and heavy heart that I write the last blog for 2007.

It's at this time we look back at what the passing year has brought and look forward to the new one and the unknown things it may bring. I for one would like to draw a line, Etchasketch-like, under 2007 and give a good old shake of the sand to erase some of t
he past...but of course that is not possible...

With the turning of the year came the passing of my father.

My Dad died on the 9th of December a month before his 77th birthday. An only child, he was born and grew up in Edinburgh. It is to my Scottish f
ather that I attribute my red hair! He was a loner all his life. My brother is a manager in the music industry and my sister is an actress like me. It was always a mystery to us that a man so removed from the world in so many ways could have all three of his offspring make their livings in the performing arts.

The brief inquest revealed there had been a fire in his room. A space heater ha
d caught some clothes on fire. The post mortem confirmed he had died from inhalation of smoke.

Dad lived alone, separated from our mother these last 20 odd years, and he died alone.
That is the saddest part.

It fell to me to arrange the funeral and since I had blogged about Anita Rodick's passing in October and had met Peter Rock with the Ecopod and Natural Death Centre stand at The Sustainability Fair in October, I knew I had all the information at my finger tips (and all the links on my own blog) to make the funeral as eco-friendly as possible.

However, this was the first funeral I had ever arranged and I and my family wanted it to be as simple and as green as possible so I was in need of a lot of i
nstant help and advice.

After sepaking to the coroner's office in Bury St Edmunds, my first phone call was to Adeline O'Keeffe at the Natural Death Centre, a charitable organisation that advises on green burials.
Adeline was amazing and so kind, generous and understanding. Not having the time or the where-with-all to order the handbook they publish on green funerals and burial sites, the information she shared with me was invaluable.

She gave me numbers and addresses of green burial sites in Suffolk. She explained
the role of the undertaker and why many families who want a green burial opt to not use one. However, she gave me the number of Tony Brown, a funeral director in Saxmundham. He runs a beautiful green burial site near Snape (The Greenwood Burial Ground). One phone call to him and I realised I was in safe and green hands. He does not believe in embalming (a highly toxic and unnecessary procedure) and was so lovely on the phone with a slightly wicked and oh so dry sense of humour that I'm sure helps him through his day.

His opening line to me when we met for the first time at the burial site was
"Am I better looking than you thought on the phone? Say 'Yes'!"

He had just the right tone to stop the proceedings getting too sombre. My Dad would have loved that. As simple as we wanted the burial to be, he listened to what we had planned and advised on the right order of things to make the moments run smoothly.


The advantage of using Tony's services is that he 'undertook'
certain things that we as a family could not have done; like picking the body up from the hospital and putting it in the coffin. Adeline explained that some hospitals are reluctant to work with anyone but a professional and as I don't have a burly uncle or a brother-in-law with a Volvo who might have helped with this (can you imagine what a big ask that would be, too?) Tony Brown's services were vital.

Just lowering the coffin into the grave would have posed an impossible task for us. Until I stood at the edge of the grave I had never realised before that six feet under is a long way down! Adeline explained that green burial sites can help with pall bearers and other things so when you don't find a gem like Tony, there are other options and people able to provide these
services, even if you take on everything else yourself.

As the coffin has to be biodegradable on a green burial site, Tony Brown
uses willow coffins hand made in Somerset. They are very reasonable priced, but unfortunately they look rather too much like a laundry basket to me. No offense, but I didn't want to feel like I was burying my Dad with the dirty linen. I also heard that they can make a rather strange noise when carried. What? Creaking? Squeaking? I didn't want to risk a dark, if humorous, moment.

As I'm an eco design nut, I ordered one of the E
COPOD's I had seen at the Sustainability Fair designed by Hazel Selina. She was lovely and very helpful too. The coffin she has designed is made of 100% recycled, naturally hardened paper and is beautifully organic in shape, based on an Egyptian sarcophagus.

For my US readers, Hazel told me she is about to send a consignment of Ecopod coffins to the States. They are working with Cynthia Beal at the Natural Burial Company in Portland, Oregon. The New York Times Magazine and USA Today who have featured Cynthia's story.

I chose the green coffin with a Celtic cross and knots as part of the design. It has a beautifully natural and organic shape. It was so moving watching the hearse pull up - a very traditional vehicle - with this futuristic looking pod, containing my Dad, inside it.
My Dad was an atheist. He believed that most of the world's wars have been caused by religion. I tend to agree with him, so we did not h
ave a church service. My theatrical side wanted to hear someone say 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...' but the committal prayer has religious overtones too.


We buried him at 11am on the morning of the 18th of December in a winter wood with leafless trees. It was very beautiful. My brother sang 'Wish You Were Here' by Pink Floyd. I don't know how he got through it. Tony told him to look up to the trees to help stop from crying. Good advice that seemed to work. I read a poem. My sister brought her portable iPod speakers and played 'Yesterday Once More' as they lowered the coffin into the grave.

Dad loved Karen Carpenter's voice and played The Carpenter's greatest hits over and over in the car when we were kids.
We realise we all three still know all the lyrics.

"Every sha-la-la-la, every wo-wo-wo still shines....
Every shing-a-ling-a-ling that they started to sing's so fine..."


The whole ceremony took less than twenty minutes and then we all drove to Glemham Hall for drinks and sarnies (that's sandwiches for my American friends). The setting was highly appropriate as my father had been butler to the Marquis of Bristol at Ickworth Hall for many years. I'm so grateful too to our hostess, Raewyn Hope Cobbold, who knew my Dad very well as she had once owned the house where he had lived.


We sang more songs and drank, cried and laughed til there was no more singing, crying, drinking and laughing we could do.

Watching the coffin being lowered into the grave knowing my Dad was inside and about to go back to the earth has to be one of the most profound moments of my life. We see it so often in the movies, don't we? But when it is happening for real, you feel like you are watching the movie of your own life from a slight distance. That night when I went to bed I reflected on the day and that little video of the lowering moment kept playing over and over in my head as I cried myself to sleep...

A friend who had recently lost both of his parents wrote to me this week.
As the saying goes...
"You have to dig deep to bury your father"

This is the poem I read:

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,

I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush

Of beautiful birds in circling flight,

I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I did not die.


My Dad used to say that he could die happy when he saw all of his children sorted out and doing well. So he didn't have to worry about us anymore, I suppose. I'd like to think that he is now in each lovely thing in our lives and won't worry about us any more.
We will be just fine but will miss him terribly.



With the new year comes new hope and new opportunities to do well and in my case do the best I can for a stylish and eco-friendly environment too.
I look forward very much to sharing the things I do right here on my blog in the months to come.


Here's wishing you all a happy, green, peaceful, healthy and abundant 2008

4 comments:

NelsonAspen said...

Alexandra, your Eco-burial and memoriam for your charismatic dad sounds beautiful and a perfect expression of you & your siblings' love for him. I'm going to share this with others and, of course, keep you in my thoughts and prayers...as I always do! Thank you for this exquisite blog entry. Much love & good wishes for a healthy, peaceful '08.

Anonymous said...

Deepest sympathy for your Dad's passing.
I lost my father in June this year after nearly two months of him being in hospital, we were lucky to get him home, but his gradual/and sudden deterioration was not kind for anyone to go through.
I'm really glad you were able to write about your Dad on your blog, I think it is important for people to share experiences like that. It is not a very easy time to go through.
We actually buried my Dad in a willow coffin under a tree (his wishes), as he lived in Somerset. I thought the coffin's simplicity was beautiful.

earthartist said...

Very sorry for your loss.

Natural Burial is becoming an option for people around the world

The modern concept of natural burial began in the UK in 1993 and has since spread across the globe. According the Centre for Natural Burial, http://naturalburial.coop there are now several hundred natural burial grounds in the United Kingdom and half a dozen sites across the USA, with others planned in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and even China.

A natural burial allows you to use your funeral as a conservation tool to create, restore and protect urban green spaces.

The Centre for Natural Burial provides comprehensive resources supporting the development of natural burial and detailed information about natural burial sites around the world. With the Natural Burial Co-operative newsletter you can stay up-to-date with the latest developments in the rapidly growing trend of natural burial including, announcements of new and proposed natural burial sites, book reviews, interviews, stories and feature articles.

The Centre for Natural Burial

New Leaf said...

Thank you for sharing this very personal moment of your life.

I'm just in the process of investigating an Eco Funeral with an Ecopod in mind. Yes...I'm planning ahead.