Nancy Mairs was the author who influenced my writing life the most. Her first book, Plaintext, from 1986, introduced me to the personal essay; I realized, then, that this would be the form my writing would take. I never knew her personally, even though she lived in Tucson and the very last sentence of the book was an invitation to readers to “Come by and I’ll make you a cup of almond tea.” I did, however, try to attend her speaking and book signing events. I loved the little insider tidbits and jokes she would feed to her audience—like a secret meaning contained in her book title, Waist High in the World. Writing the book from her perspective in a wheelchair, she said she’d thought about calling it Cock High in the World, but her publisher nixed the idea.
I went to the Pima Writer’s Conference talk that everyone—including Nancy herself—suspected would be her last public speech. (She had multiple sclerosis, a life-shortening illness, and was 73.) That day she spoke about how much she loved her life, sitting outside with her husband George, and the birds, and the plants, and the rest of the desert nature in their back yard. That appreciation came from her understanding that she didn’t have many of those days left—and the fact that she had accepted her death.
Almost. She didn’t like the fact that there was no environmentally friendly way to die.
Death is a highly regulated aspect of life, with a broad network of laws associated with funereal practices. In some ways I guess it needs to be. You don’t want people disposing of bodies just anywhere, anytime. Public records, law enforcement, and even voter registration offices need to know who has died.
But some of the regulation prevents positive movement away from today’s established funeral business, which can have problems that go beyond environmental unfriendliness.
IN 2016, Nancy Mairs, at the end of her life, was looking at a choice between burial in an oversized, indestructible casket and an incineration process that used an extravagant amount of energy.
It wasn’t much of a choice. In my opinion, most coffins look like kitsch, and the bigger the price tag, the gaudier they look. I built my casita, my backyard guest house, for less than the cheapest model I could find online. (granted, I used salvaged materials in the building). It amused me to notice that the catalog descriptions of caskets never mention plastic as one of the materials—even though, when buried, plastics live forever, and isn’t that what we want in grave gear? It’s just not classy enough for our beloved dead, even though, until that endpoint, we are awash in plastics and even forced to ingest them. But the other materials that make up the coffin—metals, paint, fabrics, aromatic woods—have to be mined and harvested and shipped from somewhere, like all new stuff. The ugly things also use energy in construction and transportation. And the final resting sites they’re allotted take up a standard 2.5 x 8 square feet of land—not rocky outcrop, not sea, not swamp, not highway, not ice-covered ground. Diggable terrain for burials is limited. We’re not just talking about global acreage here; many U.S. states are already squeezed for cemetery space.
I thought cremation was a better option until I learned more about it. I won’t go into the grisliness of what the extreme heat (1400-plus, Fahrenheit) does—the popping, the sizz—oh, sorry, I promised. Anyway, none of that matters to anyone, nobody sees (or hears) it, and you just can’t have this reduction to ashes without it. But other aspects of the process do matter: the immense amount of fuel needed for one to two hours of extreme heat, and a smaller amount of energy to run the machine that grinds the larger bones into scatter-able pieces. On top of all this, by the time it’s over, some unknown volume of toxic gases—depending on what drugs and metals the person carried around in their physical life—has been released into the outside air.
After my literary hero’s last Pima Writer’s Conference speech, at the usual book signing, I brought up an earlier book from my bookshelf. As she was signing it, I shyly mentioned a friend of mine who was hoping to set up a small area on her property for green burials. This is a new-but-old practice that uses minimal “packaging” (like a natural-fabric wrap or person-shaped cardboard box) where the body will gradually support the plants and creatures of a semi-wild place. My friend had buried already a few pets in her cemetery area, and intended to set things up for human burial, but I had the impression she was still navigating the legal requirements.
The most she could do was to refer Nancy and George to the only mortuary cemetery that provided natural burial in southern Arizona: Marana Mortuary, north of Tucson. But that was a dead end, too—and perhaps still is; I emailed a request for info about availability and never heard back.
So they had to go with an existing option—I didn’t press George for details—but I felt bad that this compassionate, intelligent, nature-loving, creative woman was forced into a less-than-satisfactory solution at the end.
Out of logic and sanity, the situation is changing. Green solutions are cropping up all over the U.S.—though not fast enough, of course. (Will I get to choose one for myself?) This video is a charming story of one man’s journey toward land conservation supported by green burials. Have a look! And thanks for reading this opinion on a subject that most people would avoid. The solutions we need can’t happen in silence.