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Green Burials and Responsible Reporting

We submitted this piece to The New York Times @nytimes as an Op-Ed letter seven days ago and have never heard from them. We are publishing it here so our voices can be heard regarding this topic.

Recently, The New York Times published an article: Green Burials: At the End of Life, Thinking Outside the Coffin, (NYT, November 15, 2018)
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/business/green-burials-wendy-macnaughton.html

It was clever, and complete with eye-catching graphics and unusual fonts to draw the reader in. However, it lacked basic research to make it useful for those who interested in learning about funeral options. The premise of the article was, in a quirky way, to tell readers the reasons people might want to consider a “green” burial. What has been the problem with nearly all the stories and comments about green burial is that although they are touted as an up and coming way of disposing of human remains, the facts do not support the argument. This hype-driven alternative is the province of a small fringe group who make it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. You often read statistics that claim people are very interested in this type of disposition, but there is an astounding lack of reporting about what percentage of the general public is following through on this choice. If you ask funeral directors how often families select green burial, you will quickly find that this is not a trend at all. Although, funeral and disposition choices have changed over the years, clearly this is not a choice that is widely popular.

Looking at this specific article (many other articles quote the same statistics and material) there is a comparison between traditional funeral costs versus green burial costs at $1,000 – $4,000 for the green burial option. This is an exaggeration. By calling cemeteries that offer “green” options you will find that the burial space alone may take up more than half of the $4,000. The Green Burial Council’s (greenburialcouncil.org) website provides lists of approved and certified green burial funeral homes and cemeteries. For example, if you look at the list of cemeteries near New York City, you will find that the closest one is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, about one hour outside the city. This means that the deceased would need to be transported a long distance for burial (as is the case in many areas around the country where there is no green cemetery nearby), adding additional costs.

The article goes on to look at the type of caskets and shrouds that can be used. Some green caskets are no less expensive than those typically used in funeral homes on a regular basis. A Google search for green caskets and shrouds reveals pages of listings. Memorials.com offers many varieties of green caskets on their website from woolen caskets starting at $1,297.00, up to $2,099.00 for a bamboo casket. kinkaraco.com has a variety of products for green burials. Shroud pages show items costing between $225.00 – $995.00. Bear in mind, these prices do not reflect the funeral home’s charges nor do they include the cemetery space. Combined, these costs can easily exceed $4,000.

The article also mentions urns and a starred box advises that “…cremation isn’t so green. Cremating one body uses as much fuel as a 500+ mile road trip.” There is no reference for this comment (nor for any of the other items in this piece) so one can’t determine its accuracy. Flame-based cremation usage is at an all-time high and continues to be a very affordable method of disposition. And newer flame-based cremation units are much more efficient. Last year, Facultatieve Technologies, a manufacturer of cremators, introduced the FT USA v2 cremation retort which minimizes the burning of natural gas during the cremation process. Flameless and aqua cremations are considered more environmentally friendly, but since they are relatively new their availability is limited across the country.

An exchange between the author and two workers at Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley, California, (fernwood.com) discuss interments with misguided humor. Of note is that Fernwood Cemetery, which bills itself as “one of the country’s first environmentally conscious cemeteries” is not on the list of Green Burial Council approved providers. What’s more, on their price list for ‘Natural Burial Options,’ the least expensive option is $6,700, far exceeding the article’s suggested cost of $1,000 to $4,000. These prices are just for the burial space and no other goods or services.

In the end what does all of this mean for the consumer? We believe it means that while people may be curious about alternatives to tradition funerals that curiosity has not led to a greater demand for green burials. At a time when traditional funerals today are sometimes mocked and treated like vulgar, pagan rituals, the majority continue to find them normal and comforting. The funeral of President George H. W. Bush is a case in point. So, let’s validate the consumer’s choice by telling them that whatever they want for their final disposition is okay. Surely, each individual should have the type of final disposition — burial, cremation, entombment — that they want and can afford, and that includes adhering to time-honored rituals or trendy alternatives. Just don’t be taken in by the hype.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Those of us who witnessed the events 56 years ago of President Kennedy’s assassination, remember it vividly. He was so much more than just our President. He was of course a husband, father, son, brother, and friend to many. He was a decorated war hero and an inspiration to generations of people.

Rest on good and faithful servant.

 

 

Rosalia Lombardo

It was my great pleasure to work on the National Geographic program Italy’s Mystery Mummies. I had the opportunity to work two distinguished anthropologist, one of whom was a living legend at the time. Dario Piombino-Mascali known for his work with the Sicilian mummies made it possible for me to complete my fathers research interest in Rosalia Lombardo. Dr. Arthur Aufderheide was the best bonus one could ask for. His nickname, the “mummy doctor” says it all.

My father for years before his death had an intense interest in Rosalia. He corresponded with the monastery about her numerous times and they put him in contact with a living relative of Dr. Alfredo Salafia who embalmed her. Through Dario I was able to put the pieces together that he had been looking for. Below is a blog post by our dear late friend, Christine Quigley discussing the program. Enjoy, Melissa Johnson Williams.

Embalmers and anthropologists

Three of my friends were on TV last night, and the program was fascinating! “Italy’s Mystery Mummies” aired on the National Geographic Channel at 10 P.M. last night (it will air again on Saturday at 7 P.M.). The team included physical anthropologists Dario Piombino-Mascali and Art Aufderheide, and Melissa Johnson Williams, practicing embalmer and executive director of the American Society of Embalmers. They had unprecedented access to the mummies in the churches and crypts of Italy, including that of little Rosalia Lombardo(1918-1920), one of the most perfectly preserved mummies in the world (and Dario’s favorite!). She was embalmed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia (1869-1933), but the ingredients of his formula have been a mystery–until Dario tracked down the niece of Dr. Salafia’s 2nd wife, who still had the embalmer’s papers, including a handwritten memoir in which he recorded the chemical components. They do not include the supposed arsenic, but instead formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. Dr. Salafia was one of the first embalmers to use formalin (a formaldehyde mixture), but also secured Rosalia’s preservation by lining the specially-designed casket with lead and sealing it with wax, making it airtight. The team confirmed with x-rays that her body is intact, but did not break the seal, so she continues to lie in state at the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily. Wow!

Remembrance Day 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day

Poppy field

IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row,
that mark our place: and in the sky
the larks, still bravely singing, fly
scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders’ fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
to you from failing hands we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high,
if ye break faith with us who die
we shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders’ Fields.

By Lt Col John McCrae

Formaldehyde

From a new study that looks at 30 years of formaldehyde studies.

“We now have much greater knowledge of the distribution of endogenous and inhaled formaldehyde at the molecular level. Two such findings are of great importance: (1) every living cell contains formaldehyde and measurable formaldehyde N2-hydroxy-methyl-dG adducts; and (2) there is no evidence that inhaled formaldehyde reaches sites distant to the initial site of contact. Indeed, there is strong evidence that inhaled formaldehyde does not reach any distant tissues.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3893912/

All Saints Day

From the first centuries after Christ, Christians who died a martyr’s death were considered saints, who live in God’s presence forever. Every year, on the anniversary of the martyrs’ deaths, Christians would visit their tombs and celebrate the Eucharist. This practice grew throughout the centuries to include remembering other outstanding Christians on the days they died. In the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV designated November 1 as the day to remember all the saints.

Dia De Los Muertos

Dia De Los Muerto, the Day of the Dead, is a formal holiday celebrated throughout regions of Mexico where it originated from October 31 – November 2 (All Saints and All Souls Day), each year.  The funeral related industries throughout the world have started dropping the word “celebrate or celebration of life” to replace the word funeral. But nowhere is there more a celebration of life and death then in these communities in Mexico over this formal holiday period.

Historical sources indicate this celebration to be more than 3,000 years old dating back to the Aztecs and possibly first witnessed by the Conquistadors 500 years ago.  There are reports that there were attempts to end the event – that was not successful and has evolved over the years.

Foremost to this celebration is visiting of the graves of deceased family members. In some areas, bones are removed from graves and cleaned, while others spend the day honoring their loved ones with food and activities that the deceased enjoyed in life. Today many outside the Hispanic community embrace this feeling of celebration.  Museum exhibits are observed throughout the US and other countries. A way to help people understand the culture not just of death and dying but of honor and respect for those who have died.  The movie “Coco” that premiered last year, was a good way for children of “all” ages to understand the life and death cycle that so many today say is denied.  Let’s take a moment to remember that we all have the capability to remember, honor and acknowledge our dead. Not just on special designated dates but throughout the year.

 

 

 

The Woman in The Iron Coffin

There have been so many stories related to the discovery of a woman in an iron coffin this week.  Here is a link to one of those stories.

https://www.newsweek.com/woman-iron-coffin-new-york-mummified-remains-smallpox-martha-peterson-1148869

Many have been fascinated by the fact that she was in nearly perfect condition; “She looked like she had been dead for a week, but it was 160 years” stated one of the articles. The iron coffin was first  developed before the Civil War. The “air-tight coffin of cast or raised metal” was patented on November 14, 1848 by Almon (also shown as Almond) D. Fisk of New York. The patent that was granted would be different than what would be produced in the coming years. I have only seen one picture of the original patent version. This was probably a prototype and appeared to be at the scene of a disinterment.

The first coffin was built in 1849 at the Fisk & Raymond Co. Foundry in Winfield, Long Island. Through several years of challenges, Fisk was finally able to go in to full production by 1850, with coffins of every size from infant to adult. Ranging in price from $7.00 to $40.00 depending on the size and finish. There were 3 designs; Mummieform Model 1, Mummieform Model 2 and Model 3 that was an imitiation Rosewood finish and less like the other two models. The first 2 coffins were two pieces with a groove were a sealing compound was placed to make them air-tight. They were then screwed together with bolts. They had a window for viewing and a place for a name plate. They were made to fit the form of the body hence the name “mummieform”.

The patent for the coffin expired in 1862 but was not renewed because of illness and subsequent death for Mr. Fisk. The lapsed patent allowed others to produce similar products for a short period of time.  However, Fisk’s wife was able to petition Congress to grant a seven year extension to protect his work. From the 1870’s onward until about the mid-1880’s there are publications showing designs created and sold by others. From the mid-1880’s forward though there are no further publications related to this type of coffin.

See the source image

But what was the most astounding thing about the Fisk Coffin would be when they were discovered after being buried.  Most frequently they were found when there was a disinterment or when a cemetery was moved.  In situations where the outer surface of the coffin was not breached, the remains inside were in near perfect condition, including preservation of the body and clothing.  Where breaches did occur it depended upon how long the coffin remained open and exposed to the elements, that determined the condition of the remains.

By all accounts of the days when these coffins were in use, they were considered a luxury item because of their cost. Something possibly on the order of the casket that we saw Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin laid to rest in, of that time period. With the most recent discovery in New York City we once again are shown the durability of this invention.  I have no doubt that these will continue to be found in future years.