Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ridiculous Idea #1: The Forest Cemetery


[In some ways, I think I was meant to be a capitalist. Like Seinfeld’s Kramer, I come up with a new idea or invention on an almost weekly basis. The problem is that my ideas are all implausible, inane, and downright ridiculous. And without the time, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit, these ideas will never realize their potential. Nevertheless—with no other forum to showcase them other than this blog—I present to you my first of several ridiculous ideas: The Forest Cemetery.]

So grandpa was as sturdy as an oak? Maybe he should become one…

I view nearly everything with a skeptical eye. It’s a tiresome way to live and, in some ways, a curse that I, and those close to me, will forever have to deal with. I can’t help but question everything: how we live, eat, travel, raise our children. Everything. Customs like sweaters on dogs, the phrase “god bless you” after a sneeze, giant inflatable grinches on lawns, boob jobs, and metrosexuals befuddle me beyond measure.

Our burial rituals are no exception. To me, it’s amazing how few of us deviate from the traditional way of doing things even when they make little sense. The custom of burying loved ones in sealed, air-tight caskets wearing their Sunday best is just—I’m sorry—insane. Same goes for turning someone into ash and displaying their remains in a glorified Tupperware container surrounded by Christmas cards.

Tapping into our society’s newfound love for all-things eco-friendly and revitalizing the age-old myth that with death comes life, I have another way of doing things. Instead of plopping a stone atop the deceased, why not plant a tree? As the body decomposes, the tree’s roots, soil, and what’s left of grandpa will become one. Instead of placing fake flowers around an immutable stone, families and friends can spread mulch and admire the tree’s (and grandpa’s) growth.

The body will be lowered in a bio-degradable wooden casket packed with rich, nutritious soil. Trees to be planted atop the grave will be selected either by the family or by the person-to-be-buried who can make arrangements beforehand. You want to be a maple, you get to be a maple. (Of course there will be regional limitations since a palm wouldn’t survive in New York, or a spruce in Hawaii.)

All parties involved will be welcomed to visit the tree and watch its growth. But it should be understood that the tree—like any life form—will not last forever. There will be floods, forest fires and disease. It must be emphasized that the tree is no longer just a tree, but a part of an ever-revitalizing ecosystem. It’s now part of a continuous life and death cycle—a natural process ignored by current rituals. Our current rituals seem to imply that death is the end; that whatever afterlife there may be certainly does not exist (on this planet, at least). Even the most casual observer of nature knows that this isn’t the case. A fallen tree becomes home to bugs, rodents, animals, fungi. Its bark breaks down and becomes soil for future trees. Just the same: when a human passes, a door is opened for new life to enter.

The Forest Cemetery could be instituted in many places. Perhaps a farm gone fallow or a vacant city lot. Eventually the trees will grow long and healthy and thick and begin competing for sunlight. It will be impossible to protect each and every tree, but the forest will be protected as a sacred grove—a place to celebrate life and death; a place that will give solace to the bereaved who now can see the beautiful processes that govern our mortality unfurl, blooming, withering, growing, dying, but always continuing.

19 comments:

George Carlson said...

How about making a wooden casket. Then cutting a hole in the top. Then dig a hole in the middle of your loved ones chest and plant a sapling's roots in the chest's hole. Then pack the rest of the casket with dirt and bury it about half a foot below ground level. This way the tree will quite literally be growing from the deceased's body.

Ken said...

George--interesting, yet creepy idea. I'd have to consult an arborist. Not sure how well the roots would do in someone's organs. Plus, I don't think people are comfortable yet with the idea of shoving a spade into their loved one's pectorals. Baby steps.

Spork said...

I am hoping to die far away from civilization, my remains scattered by coyotes or whatever. That is, assuming I have some foreknowledge of my demise I will be able to get away from it all just before the end.

Otherwise, my remains will be condemned to suffer a fate defined by the municipality in which I reside...in which case I think your idea would be a nice option in the instructions in my will.

Driven Mad said...

I was at a funeral just this week and took pause to contemplate the absurdity of the ritual. It suddenly felt all wrong to me. Odd that I should read your words, their publishing so aptly timed. You make perfect sense.

brian said...

I have considered doing just this for my aging dog. I haven't found just the right species for her though.

I'm not sure I would chose a fruit bearing tree. Eating fruit that was nourished by a loved ones decomposing body would feel weird.

I think a whole grove planted in bodies would be sort of spooky. Like a haunted forest.

Anonymous said...

Ken, it's called a green funeral.

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&source=hp&q=green+funeral&aq=f&aqi=g10&aql=&oq=

Anonymous said...

Skepticism should be the first response to any new situation. We have been raised in a sheltered environment and therefore are led to believe that we can trust our elders who are much wiser. You only have to get screwed a couple of times before you realize that not all are wise or have your best interest in mind. Your idea is good but the number of people involved in the current system (both governmental and private)would not allow it to happen. My family tried to do that with my mother but were only able to use the ashes.

Keep thnking the "implausable" and remember to write them down because the next piece to any puzzle could be right around the corner.

Heb

Anonymous said...

Ken, I nominate you to be the one who digs the graves in the forest... Have you ever done much digging in forests?

You know, ultimately your plan will come to be anyway... Have you ever seen a 4000 year old cemetery?

As for me, I'm going to have a head stone shaped like a dog-- a small yappy dog. My family will come and put different sweaters on the dog. The sweaters will be seasonal, or support whatever sports team is winning at the time. I've always been a winner, and this way I'll always be within about 6 feet of a stone dog wearing the sweater of a winner, and that's good enough for me. I mean, after all, at that point I'm dead...

Surgeon

Ken said...

Spork--eloquently said. Your coyote idea sounds like the Tibetan "Sky Burial" where the body is hacked apart and eaten by vultures.

Driven--Yes, absurd is the appropriate word. So many stodgy old customs that may have made sense in another age that seem senseless now. It'll be a cold day in hell when I begin saying "God bless you" after a sneeze again.

Brian--I'd feel a little weird, too, about eating fruit that is in someway your dog. I don't mean to sound cheesy--but a dogwood is a damn pretty tree.

Anon-- I suppose this means that my ideas are not only ridiculous, but unoriginal. Thanks for the link.

Heb--some sagely advice. I think something like this will be plausible, legal, and could even become the norm in due time. Hazy horizons and climate change are awful, but they're certainly raising awareness for the wellbeing of our planet.

Surgeon--In fact I have dug in forests so I know to gracefully decline your nomination. The forest cemetery will not actually be in a forest, but open land that makes digging through (rootless) ground possible. (Eventually it will become a forest and no more burials would take place once capactiy is filled.) I haven't been to a 4000 year old cemetery, though I suspect that they go feral due to negligence, and I suspect the parties involved didn't foresee it altering character; with the forest cemetery, on the other hand, everyone would know what they're getting into. Good luck with the small dog stone. I hope you have a diligent family--it would certainly be difficult keeping up with so strange a task.

Michael said...

Ken,

I've thought it preferable to be buried in a burlap sack rather than a finely crafted coffin. Let the craftsman spend his time on banisters, bars and cabinets that can actually be appreciated for a hundred years, rather than a 2 hour ceremony.

Much more sensible your way. Though, as the posters have pointed out, you're a little late to the party with your idea as it's already being implemented. Just means it was a good one I suppose.

Another upside is that reserving areas for natural burials is also conserving natural spaces, for people to enjoy, against the impending creep of urban sprawl.

Sonia said...

It's a good idea to have, even if you weren't the first to have it. It often takes more than one person with the same idea to change the status quo. Good reading on the topic is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Anonymous said...

This is always how I wanted to be buried. You artiulated my feelings on it very well. If you opened the forest cemetary I would be the first to buy a plot. I read recently about some cardboard, biodegradable caskets that would be very useful for this.

Ken said...

Michael--agreed about the craftsman. And yes! Checking urban sprawl was another benefit I forgot to add.

Sonia--well said. Can't say I'm too interested in cadavers--but thanks for the recommendation.

Anon-- If I get a plot of land and you croak, you're more than welcome to be my first client. Not sure if cardboard will hold soil/body weight, but it's an idea nonetheless.

George Carlson said...

It would be funny if all the trees in the cemetery wore faces (and maybe a name tag).

http://www.google.com/products?hl=en&source=hp&q=tree+faces&oq=&gs_rfai=&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=lTqmS7fGCMGAlAfm_ZjHCw&sa=X&oi=product_result_group&ct=image&resnum=1&ved=0CCcQzAMwAA

Ken said...

George--interesting idea, though I think treating the trees like Mr Potatoheads might foul the sacred aura I'd hope to foster.

Anonymous said...

My father had just such a burial in the UK. He was buried in a field owned by the Woodland Trust charity and then a tree on top a few months later. Unlike many UK cemeteries residence is forever; in others you get dug up after 80 years as they need the space. He did it because a friend a year before had one at the same place and most of the mourners agreed that it was a much better idea than a tradition graveyard. And of course in the UK, you can always do with an extra bit of woodland.

Ken said...

Anon-nice anecdote. Proof that it works! We could use an extra bit of woodland here too.

BryanW said...

I recently visited a natural cemetery in Wellington NZ. Cemeteries exactly as you describe are common though not well utilized. I think such things are destined to remain on the fringes of society until western culture as a whole embraces some major paradigm shifts

Pam E-P said...

I know this is an older post, but here's what I'm going for...

http://bigthink.com/design-for-good/this-awesome-urn-will-turn-you-into-a-tree-after-you-die