What follows is perhaps the best contemporary speculation on the awesome passage from Life to Death – by Ernst Jünger, from his “Das Abenteuerliche Herz” (The Adventurous Heart”). My own unofficial translation. Enjoy…!

“Death resembles a foreign continent about which no-one who travels there can send back reports. Its secrets engage us so intensely that its shadows darken the very path that leads to it – which is to say, we don’t differentiate sharply enough between death and dying. The difference is important in that much of what we ascribe to death completes itself we die, as our glances and imagination penetrate again and again into the intermediary zone. As distant as death might still be from us, we can already taste the climate surrounding it.

Then there are the cases which teeter on a razor’s edge, where a man already senses death lying like a reef behind the near breakers. But then life returns into him, as flames reawaken in an almost cold hearth. Such cases resemble false alarms; and, as on a ship in which the captain only comes to the bridge when storms threaten, so here an otherwise hidden authority appears and makes its preparations. Man possesses capacities which he carries about with him like a sealed portfolio; he does not use them until he needs them. Among these is his ability to comprehend his situation – and, in fact, this is the case: after a moment’s bewilderment, realization anticipates the approach of his death.

As we cool his brow, the dying man is already infinitely far from us – he lingers in landscapes which reveal themselves after his spirit has crossed the burning curtains of his agony. Time and space, the two germ leaves between which life blossoms, fold in on themselves again, and, in this dwindling away of the surrounding environment, his inner eye gains a new outlook.

Life now appears to him with new significance, more distant and distinct than otherwise. He is able to survey it like a region on a map, and its development, which stretched over many years, can be seen in its core, like lines on the hand. He comprehends this change within a framework of the necessary, for the first time without light and shadow. Images surface less than their essential content – it is as if, after the opera and the lowering of the curtain, the main theme was played once more in the empty space by an invisible orchestra, lonesome, tragic, proud and with deadly significance. He understands a new way to love his life, without any compulsion of self-preservation; and his thoughts gain sovereignty as they extricate themselves from the fears that cloud and weigh down every notion, every judgment.

The question of immortality, which so deeply disturbed the spirit in life, is already solved at this point. The solution is extraordinary in that the dying man reaches a point like on a mountain ridge, from which he can look over into the landscapes of both life and death – and he gains full assurance by perceiving himself as much in the one as the other. He experiences a pause in his journey, like at a lonely customs house in the high mountains, where the local currency of his reminiscences is changed into gold. His consciousness reaches forward like a light, by whose radiance he recognizes that he was not being deceived but rather that he mistook fear for safety.

Within this space – which still belongs to time and yet already does not – one could imagine those regions described by religious sects as Purgatory. This is the path on which human dignity undergoes restoration. No life has entirely protected itself from baseness, no-one has escaped without loss. But now, in the narrow mountain pass, evasion is no longer possible, nor hesitation, whatever obstacles might loom up. Death determines each step now, as a distant cataract determines the flow of the current. On this lonely march which nothing can hinder, man resembles a soldier who wins back his position on the field.

As a child is furnished with organs to facilitate and allow birth, so man also possesses organs for death, the formation and strengthening of which belong to theological procedures. Where this knowledge is extinguished, a form of idiocy spreads with respect to death; this reveals itself in an escalation of blind fear, but also in an equally blind and mechanical disdain of death.”

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A CNN “developing story” today described the cemetery and funeral crisis that is accompanying the Haiti disaster. Just two days after the earthquake there is insufficient space in cemeteries to bury the casualties, no time for real funerals, and not even enough coffins to put the bodies in. The desperation on the faces of survivors waiting in long lines to get their loved one’s body into the cemetery, who have to bribe officials for even the most wretched space to bury the body or who are forced to bury them unmarked in a field or watch them disappear in a mass cremation – this is heart-wrenching even beyond the tragedy of the deaths themselves. For not only are loved ones suddenly dead, there is not even the possibility of a dignified and loving farewell for them.

These tragic images should not only awaken our compassion – they should also be reminders that death is not always as manageable as we experience in our relatively peaceful and organized world. The “thronging in the lifeboats” has become completely foreign to us in our protected world. But by watching what happens in Haiti, we can get a preview of how it will be when a similar catastrophe strikes one of our cities. For we are naive if we think that we will be spared similar trials – in the long term, nature makes no favourites.

What happens to death care during a catastrophe?
"Thronging in the life-raft" - what happens to death care in catastrophes?

We are equally naive if we think we will be able to manage our catastrophes much better. Sure, we have far superior infrastructures and disaster responses. But when the earth shakes violently enough, or when the wind blows strongly enough, we will be in the position of the Haitians today.  Then not only will our life-infrastructure be handicapped, but that which takes care of death will be equally overwhelmed.

When a society is unprepared, then when the worst comes, which it always does in the end, it must scramble desperately to deal with the practical and spiritual consequences.

Like in Haiti, a similar disaster in San Francisco or New York or London or even a smaller metropolis will create an acute burial space crisis. Farmers’ fields, parks and wildlands near the cities will be appropriated for burials. If the disaster is bad enough, anonymous mass cremation will be the only choice to avoid contagions. There will be no time for meaningful funerals, for erecting a worthy memorial, perhaps even for recording where a body has been laid to rest.

What we see in Haiti should be a wake-up call to us to prepare ourselves now, as best we can, to deal with the mortalities of catastrophes. So that when they come, we can treat our dead in a half-way decent manner.

By locating and preparing enough suitable land for cemeteries in advance, we can avoid a good part of the indignity and the unnecessary additional tragedy that results when death care is forced to become a desperate, purely hygienic matter. By prepared the right kind of land, we can also save precious farmland and wilderness from being used for burials.

Hopefully we will be spared these mass catastrophes – but even then, such preparation can only help us for the inevitable rise in deaths which demographics is bringing our way in the next 3 or 4 decades.

All the more reason to move forward with Perpetua’s Garden now.

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Obviously death always includes the material need to deal with the dead body. But how this is done – with what accompanying beliefs, ulterior purposes, everything beyond the actual physical disposal – is where the question of “body or soul”, of material or spiritual, becomes relevant.

If the material disposal element is always present, what of spiritual elements? Are they altogether absent, as some would claim today? Can we even say definitively which practices and aims are material and which spiritual – and to whom are they that?

As we will see, these distinctions are not objective but personal and cultural in nature, since the very same act or object can have spiritual or material significance or both, depending only on the person or culture. Moreover, if we look carefully, below the surface, what seems at first a material goal or value might reveal itself as spiritual, and vice versa.  Body preservation and cremation are good cases for analysis.

Embalming and body preservation

The distinction between the physical and spiritual content of a practice is quickly apparent if we compare body preservation practices between modern North Americans, ancient Egyptians and fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

North America

Here embalming seems to concern only the body, whose appearance it preserves until the family makes its farewells; it also claims (falsely) to be an indispensable hygienic act. But at a deeper level, embalming in America is a non-material need, that is, a spiritual or psychological one. And this does not automatically make it a positive thing – on the contrary! For in our culture embalming maintains the possibility of a collective subconscious denial of death through the preservation of the body as if it were still living. Through embalming we can avoid looking death in the face – as if that were a healthy or desirable thing….

Such schizophrenia is a product of a materialistic culture and its fear of admitting to spiritual needs which cannot be satisfied materially – we pretend that we embalm for hygienic and aesthetic reasons, whereas in reality we do it to keep an awareness of our mortality at bay, to keep the pain of the absence of a spiritual solution to death at bay.

Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians were far more self-aware and coherent on why they embalmed. It was explicitly for spiritual reasons, so that one of the many souls of the departed would have a permanent physical home to return to after its flights away from the tomb.  The purely spiritual importance of embalming for the Egyptians is underlined by their installation of symbolic facsimiles of the dead into the tomb, usually little statues. If the embalmed body did disappear in time, the soul would still have a substitute body in which to dwell. They evidently understood the embalmed body as a symbolic, not a literal home.

Clearly what seems a common practice may have nothing in common when the aims and world views of its practitioners are examined closely. If we were honest enough to admit that our embalming was actually an attempt to deny death – albeit a rather pathetic one – only then would we have something in common with the ancient Egyptians. But they wanted to survive death, we only try to deny it.

Fundamentalist and mystical Christians and Muslims

Fundamentalist and orthodox Christians and Muslims have something in common with the Egyptians because they also believe in preservation of the body for reasons of the individual soul:  the body must rest undisturbed and intact in the earth until the Second Coming and the body’s resurrection.

But within these groups we must separate the external similarities from the internal spiritual differences. For the most simplistic fundamentalist, the resurrection is literal, and so the body must be preserved for its miraculous rising in the flesh-and-blood from its grave. More mystically-minded Christians and Muslims understand it rather as a resurrection in a higher body – an “astral body”, a “gloried body”, the names vary -  in any case not the dead flesh-and-blood body. The attempt at preservation is symbolic rather than literally essential. Fundamentalists reveal themselves to be surprisingly materialistic in this sense.

Cremation

Fundamentalist and mystical Christians and Muslims

For fundamentalist Christian and Muslims, cremation cannot be accepted, since it utterly destroys the body that is to be resurrected. For a higher mystically-minded Christian or Muslim, cremation should in theory be acceptable, since the body to be resurrected is not the one destroyed in the flames. The ancient Egyptians could also have accepted an accidental cremation of the body, since a symbolic substitute was made available to the soul.

Hindu Indians

For Hindu Indians, cremation has an altogether different meaning. Here it is clearly a matter of the soul, but paradoxically one that requires the material destruction of the body. The soul of the deceased, seeing the utter destruction of its former body by fire, understands with absolute certainty, that its old life and body are gone, that it must make a clean start into a new incarnation – or risk becoming a “hungry ghost”.

North America

Secular cremation in the New World appears on the contrary to be purely materialistic, a utilitarian matter of body disposal. It is a cheaper, less complicated and perhaps also a “greener” method of disposal. Yet spiritual elements are also present, even when they are denied by the most secular or atheist proponents of cremation.

For example, the common aversion to the idea of being eaten by worms or “going into the cold damp earth” reveals a spiritual belief which subconsciously may be similar to the beliefs of materialistic fundamentalists. If there is no soul or afterlife to be concerned about, then what does it matter what happens to the organic refuse that our body becomes after death? Or do these self-named atheists and secularists subtly believe in some kind of continuing life or significance of the body after death? And would not the “burning heat” of the cremation oven be at least as uncomfortable as the cold damp ground and worms? If the whole matter was a purely material affair, none of these confused though sincere feelings would even be felt. A subtle persistent belief in a spiritual element reveals itself in these self-proclaimed non-believers. *

Conclusion

It is invalid to justify materially-driven practices in one culture by their spiritual motivations in another. We cannot justify the spiritual nature of cremation in the west by using the ancient Indian tradition as proof.  Similarly, we cannot justify embalming by any comparison with ancient Egypt. There may be other good reasons for cremation or embalming in the West, but they have nothing to do with ancient Egyptian or Hindu practices.

We leave it to the reader to extend this “body or soul” line of analysis to other aspects of funerals and cemeteries.  We will analyze green burials this way in a future posting.

* Some proponents of cremation may claim that cremation is a return to cycles of nature, and thus a “spiritual” affair, a reincarnation of our matter. Physically, this is of course true – and beyond that, to see one’s marvelous integration into the eternal cycles of nature has a spiritual component. But this is a nihilistic spirituality which cannot tolerate the mere possibility of survival of the individual soul. Unable to believe this (and the consequent self-responsibility?), it opts for the only survival it can accept – a non-individual survival of its physical matter, dispersed to all corners of the universe.

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The Green Burial Council has set itself up as a watchdog to ensure that burial becomes “more sustainable, economically viable, and meaningful” in North America.  We applaud such an effort – our Mother Earth can only benefit from any help. And burial is no insignificant environmental factor when the earth’s massive population and consequent burial needs are considered.

We reviewed their environmental standards for burials and find them excellent … as far as environmental factors are concerned. However, as a new initiative, we should not expect its aims or ideas to be perfect from Day 1.  In fact, we find that in certain aspects green burial favors environmental aspects at the expense of human ones.  Following their standards will certainly make burial “more sustainable and economically viable” as they hope – but not necessarily more meaningful for human beings.

Burial – human needs vs environmental ones

Human meaning is not at all irrelevent, for burial and death rituals have been a cultural and spiritual cornerstone of humanity, perhaps the most important, ever since Man understood that he was mortal. The environmental factor in burial on the other hand is a modern phenomena – starting with Napoleon’s removal of the Parisian cemeteries to the catacombs under the city. We should remember this relation – for if we disregard what has always been of importance to humanity exclusively to benefit a temporary (albeit acute) environmental factor, we do so at our own cultural, psychological and spiritual risk.

Now I am not suggesting the Green Burial Council excludes the human factor altogether. They certainly understand that a conflict between man and environment, nature and culture is natural and unavoidable. And that nothing is black and white, that compromises are inescapable – one simply cannot have it all. But in their compromise between nature and culture, the Green Burial Council has clearly chosen to err on the side of the environment. That is their perogative – but it necessarily entails compromises for humanity, for the cultural and spiritual aspects of burial.

In fact, the environmental factors in a burial are far easier to understand and change than the cultural and spiritual ones – we must return to what mankind did until very recently. (In fact, even that is no longer so simple – today’s population size does complicate matters. But the green burial movement as a whole does not address this more global issue -  see Green Burial’s Shortcomings ).

The shortcomings in human terms of modern burial practices take more creativity and sensitivity to overcome: creating attractive, meaningful new ways of memorializing; discovering new mechanisms to guarantee grave perpetuity in an overpopulated and ever-changing world; finding acceptable new aesthetics to replace the gloomy old Victorian one we have inherited.

Freedom of expression in memorials

Returning to the Green Burial Council’s Standards, we find nothing specific to take issue with at the lower two levels, which essentially aim to eliminate ground pollutants (concrete, formaldehyde, pesticides etc) and conserve energy. It is at the third level of standards (the second-most stringent) that we cannot agree with them – at this point the nature/culture conflict emerges in the question of memorialization, an archetypal human need with no possible environmental benefits.

Here we see that a “natural burial ground” must:

  • “Develop a plan for limiting the types, sizes, and visibility of memorial markers/features to preserve or restore naturalistic vistas in the cemetery landscape and (where appropriate) to landmarks outside its borders.”
  • “Develop a plan for dealing with unauthorized grave decoration and landscaping.”

Certainly enduring monuments and personal grave decorations will interfere with the natural aesthetics of a site – but should we be limiting the last freedom of expression left to human beings, the one that will represent them long after all other reminders of their existence have melted away? I can’t accept this personally and I suspect that a majority of society will feel the same way, if they reflect on it. This will self-limit the popularity of green burial.

In regard to freedom of expression in memorials, I believe the Perpetua’s Garden concept offers a far better compromise between nature’s needs and humanity’s.

Grave perpetuity

In the past, the perpetuity of a grave site, the eternal “Rest-in-Peace”, was considered a sacred right, perhaps the most important consideration of all in a grave. That has long since disappeared in the modern world, with whole cemeteries turned into parking lots, golf courses and shopping centers. And unless a radical new solution is found (Perpetua’s Garden?), the future can only be even darker in this respect.

But instead of addressing this grave cultural deficiency, the Green Burial Council first addresses perpetuity in their last (and least accessible) level, the “conservation burial ground”.  Here their highest goal becomes transparent – the perpetual protection of the land, not the grave sites:

  • Conservation Burial Grounds, in addition to meeting all the requirements for a Natural Burial Ground, must further legitimate land conservation
  • A Conservation Burial Ground must protect in perpetuity an area of land specifically and exclusively designated for conservation.
  • A conservation burial ground must involve an established conservation organization that holds a conservation easement or has in place a deed restriction guaranteeing long-term stewardship.

Perpetuity is nowhere expressed as a benefit to humanity and the dead who can rest in perpetuity, but only in terms of the perpetual stewardship of the land. And the perpetual stewardship of the land does not necessarily imply the perpetuity of the grave sites – indeed, there is no mention anywhere of the perpetuity of the individual graves. According to their phraseology, it is only the “land-as-nature” that will be conserved, not the “land-as-cemetery” and not the individual graves.  One wonders if this last point has even been thought of…? Or does the Green Burial Council anticipate grave recycling in the European model? This would be a very bad compromise – but we don’t know,  this question is not mentioned on their site.

Conclusion

We agree that the elimination of ground pollutants and the conservation of energy in burials are important goals and we wish the Green Burial all the success in the world here.  And though we are skeptical about the long-term effectivness of it, we also love the idea that nature can be conserved because our bodies protect it from redevelopment.  But if the human questions of memorials and grave perpetuity are not better addressed, then we suggest the Green Burial Council stick simply to their pollution-reduction goals and let others address the human questions.

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Typical anonymous ash-scattering common grave in Switzerland
Anonymous ash-scattering grave in Switzerland

Browsing through landscape architecture magazines in search of promising architects and architectural ideas for perpetual cemeteries in the 21st century, I at least found exactly what Perpetua’s Garden must never become!

In Germany and Switzerland, recent demand has led to the creation of various forms of Gemeinschaftsgraebe, that is, common areas, usually plain flat lawns, where ashes are scattered or buried with no individual grave markers.  At best, the names of the individuals whose remains lie there are inscribed on common plaques or pillars at the edges of these featureless lawns, along with the other unrelated people whose remains lie equally randomly there.

Often the scattering is completely anonymous, so that no-one except the cemetery register and the surviving families know who is buried there.  In one example, urns were deliberately buried randomly under the lawn, so that survivors would not know even more or less where on the open expanse of lawn their loved ones lay.

I cannot deny that I find this personally abhorrent. It is an unsurpassable symbol of the heights that nihilism can reach, that there is no higher meaning to life beyond a one-time physical existence. No,  that there cannot even be a hope of a higher meaning, be it only the memory of others. Therefore we should make an active effort to erase all memory of a life lived, loved and suffered through. No individual physical marker, no name or image or symbol to stir the memory of future generations. No, these individuals are dead and gone in the most absolute way possible.

To counter a possible objection…. Hindus also scatter their ashes and leave no sign of their existence once their physical existence is over. But they actively believe in reincarnation, that is, an aspiration to something beyond this physical temporal life. Those buried in these anonymous graves on the other hand actively believe in the meaningless of anything beyond this once-only purely physical existence. There’s is an attitude of hopelessness, the Hindu’s is full of hope and belief. There is no comparison to be made between the two.

For the record, the anonymity and hopelessness illustrated by these Gemeinschaftsgraebe is the perfect antithesis  to what Perpetua’s Garden will be.

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That motorcade, that gold casket, all that incredible media and popular interest in this prominent funerals. Where was the environment in all of this? And why was everyone so fascinated by it all, especially Americans who are so afraid of anything to do with death?

In the microcosm of burial and cemeteries, more immediate and personally relevant considerations than environmental effects are present. In the last moments of Michael Jackson’s world, as well as that of his millions of mourners, the environment was non-existent. This is understandable for mourners, or for someone considering their own final arrangements: the end of a life is no light matter, and for the majority, the environment will always be secondary, maybe the last thing they care about at that point. In ultimate situations, people follow what they believe in, they don’t give a damn about what they are told or forced to do. Hence the only real solution for green burials would be to gradually change the predominating beliefs so that people do the “right thing” willingly, almost instinctively at the moment of crisis.

Such a change will not come about by simplistic “holier-than-thou” green dogma, public indoctrination with the 3-R’s, renewable energy, green-industry, etc – or, in the case of green burial, citing fearful statistics about how much formaldehyde and concrete goes into the earth etc. Instead of fear-based negative preaching, green burial should be presented in positive terms of higher human integration into natural cycles, including the non-material spiritual aspects, indeed based on them. Almost all traditional religions (even nature-hostile Christianity in its original form) integrated man far more effectively into the environment than we will ever do with our technical “environmentalism” – so too, our world will only reintegrate itself properly into the earth’s processes if it finds a “higher” reason to do so and then works downwards from the spiritual belief to the material action.  The environmental benefits will then be positive side-effects of a different worldview, and not the primary goal.

Death, burials and funeral rituals may present a place for such a worldview to grow. There is no more personal form of recycling than “dust to dust”. To a limited degree, the green burial movement speaks of this. But it should go further and emphasize that our recycled “dust” goes to create new life, and that, in cycles of birth, death and rebirth for as long as the earth exists. All this only on a material level – more importantly, the infinite natural cycles of death and resurrection could lead us to new prospects regarding our own souls, that old forgotten concept in our mundane and nihilistic world.

But for this to happen, we have to integrate the human aspect better than the green burial movement currently does, make it the primary consideration again, and not merely a means to realize an environmental goal.

I thus find the image of a garden more appropriate for green cemeteries than a forest. A forest exists independently of humans, a garden on the other hand exists for and requires humans. Nevertheless it exhibits all the birth, death and resurrection of nature. The only question is of the degree of human involvement in the garden’s formation and maintenance. This is a matter of taste. In our world, where Man’s interference with nature has been radically overdone, a lesser degree of artificiality would be attractive. A Japanese garden for example, where nature’s owns forms are used to go even beyond naturally manifesting beauty.

Michael Jackson’s funeral (and his life for that matter) exhibited all the worst nature- and death-denying aspects of our artificial world. However, the incredible level of interest in his funeral – as in those of in other prominents like Lady Diana, Ronald Reagan, etc – shows that the problem of our mortality is as acute as ever it was in history. We are too afraid to face the fact of our own mortality directly, hence these celebrity deaths become mirrors in which we can work through the problem indirectly, without fear. Far from being disinterested in death and funerals, we are fascinated.

Beautiful garden cemeteries that had NOTHING of the hopeless and morbid atmosphere of traditional western centuries might be another place where we could come to terms with our mortality. Their “greenness” would be a positive side-effect, or a concession to the real needs of an overpopulated and overstressed environment, but not the main thing.

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Contemplation of the ravens that I feed on my terrace led to interesting conclusions about the importance of individuality in human relations, conclusions which can be extended to our graves and cemeteries.

Unique individuality is not obvious to me here
Unique individuality is not apparent to me here

I noticed that I was very curious if the raven that came each day to eat my offerings was the same bird or always another of the thousands that overwinter in Vienna. Since these birds appear identical to my non-raven eyes, I began fantasizing about complicated methods of marking the birds to establish their individual or collective identity.

How curious! Yet how characteristic of humanity. As humans, we strive to establish the unique identity of those with whom we interact, especially those close to us, and we do this through their individuality. Our closer relationships are with specific human beings, and we know and relate in unique ways to their unique individuality. Equally do we try to establish ourselves as unique individuals in the eyes of others.

Or here unfortunately....
Or here unfortunately….

In this way we are different from animals, especially lower forms such as insects to whom other individuals are merely interchangeable functional units of the social whole. In higher animals such as dogs, primates, elephants, dolphins and many others, individuality begins to become important. This is evident in the differing relations between individuals in the group, in a pack of dogs for example. The individual dogs are not interchangeable, and the relationship between any two is a unique phenomenon. When higher animals die, there is also evident mourning from the rest of their community. At the other end of the spectrum, the death of an individual ant is not even noticed; it immediately becomes mere food for the others.

As the most developed animal – and also more than animal – human beings are obsessed with individuality, even when it cannot be satisfied or has no functional purpose, such as my curiosity about the raven’s identity.

Roman cremation urn: a unique memory for a unique individual
Roman cremation urn: a unique memory for a unique individual

The desire for individuality extends even beyond death, which is obvious in the memorialization arrangements people have constantly made for themselves over the millenia. The greater the means, the greater the individualization of the arrangements. Thus pharoahs built huge pyramids and mausoleums with marvelous and unique art works; but even the humble Egyptian farmer spent as much as he could possibly afford for his own Book of the Dead and sarcophagus.

Differences in the importance attached to the individuality of grave memorials can also be seen between societies. Our own western society has recently tended towards minimizing this individuality, applying standardization even to our graves. We purchase anonymous  mass-produced urns, we are buried under rows of minimal and identical tombstones with only a name and date to distinguish ourselves from the other thousands near us. Or we dispense with the marker altogether and are buried anonymously or scattered to the winds or the waters.

One is tempted to ascribe this uniformity to a mass-produced modern human beings without individual tastes and desires. But I believe this cannot be true, because we live in an especially individualistic society. (The real reason, our lost hope for transcendence over death, will be the topic of a future blog entry).

No, I believe the desire to leave behind a memory of one’s unique existence, to be remembered as an individual and not a number, survives in all of us, if only latently beneath thick layers of socialized conformity. Similarly, I believe cemeteries filled with unique memorials of others satisfies our characteristic human desire to relate to unique individuals, even dead ones or ones we never knew. Nothing is more depressing to the spirit than walking through a cemetery with thousands of identical and utterly non-individual stones.  Except perhaps a cemetery without markers altogether, since here the individual has finally given up all aspiration to individuality.

In contrast, a cemetery like Perpetua’s Garden would strive to provide memorials for every unique individual, regardless of means. Memorials that express their individuality, their contemporary tastes, their personal beliefs, their private hopes. Of course, our own modern-day pharoahs have the right to create grand memorials for themselves. But our contemporary equivalent of the simple farmer should also have the right to be remembered and thought of as the unique individual that he or she was.

Making this possible for all is one of the most important tasks of Perpetua’s Garden. Alongside perpetual rest for all.

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I am unconvinced that green burial as currently conceived necessarily represents a healthier integration of death as a part of life – for some of its fans, it may be yet another subtle form of death denial. Moreover, although it claims to have an environmental motivation, it may also hide unresolved spiritual issues – that is, it as much a soul issue as a body one.

None of this means I don’t believe in green burials – on the contrary, some form of green burial is the way of the future – but at this point they need to be better understood in order to improve them.

Regarding the death denial possibility.

For many green burial may yet be another subconscious attempt to deny or exclude death by making it invisible, in this case by trying to hide death within nature, rather than visibly integrating it into nature’s cycles. Let me explain….

Yesterday I watched this Youtube video on green cemeteries. A man walking his dog through Forever Fernwood cemetery in California was interviewed (view from min 07:16).

He liked this green cemetery because it was a pleasant green space rather than a morbid traditional cemetery – a nice place for a stroll, to walk the dog in or relax on a bench in the sun. This is understandable – and I want the same …. Why not walk your dog in a green cemetery?  But a green cemetery should aim to be something more than just a pretty place to walk your dog.

When the park has people buried in it, then it should manifest this function visibly and consciously. In this particular “cemetery”, at least in its green burial section, there are no visible signs of the dead who are buried there. This makes it feels like a park – but nothing more, only a park. It is no longer a cemetery but a park whose link with death is nothing more than its use as a space for environmentally-friendly body disposal. It has lost all connection with the personal and cultural memorial function of a cemetery.

All the above holds true for all forest, woodland, or conservation cemeteries where the visibility of the dead resting there is eliminated. As I have said elsewhere, this will result in beautiful but anonymous forests, not green cemeteries.

Green burial – a soul issue, not a body one

No – this reveals a soul issue. Death has been subconsciously denied in these cases, excluded, not integrated. That no visible signs are allowed is not accidental, however subconsciously motivated – this is a new disguise for the old “Let’s try to live as if there was no tomorrow and no death, no end to reckon with.” A literal attempt to push death “out of sight, and out of mind”.

On the contrary, a healthy and fearless psychological integration would consciously and deliberately include visible signs of the dead resting there. Death might be scary, but it is not a sickness; it is normal reality and handled properly, it can be enormously therapeutic for living.

Let me be clear. I fully empathize with the contemporary repulsion for traditional cemeteries, which for most contemporary people are gloomy, pessimistic places full of meaningless, pretentious and overpriced symbols. They speak neither to my sense of beauty, my private beliefs in life and after-life, or my connection with nature and natural cycles. I also want little to do with them.

But I do not want to deny death – on the contrary! Nothing is unhealthier for the soul, the psyche. Death must be, therefore we must integrate it into our life. But it does not have to have the negative  association our traditional cemeteries arouse in us moderns. No – I want to find a way to deliberately and visibly integrate death with life in a positive relationship. Like many who embrace green burial, I love the idea of being buried in nature, be it a natural park or a forest. I love the idea that people will have picnics over my grave, play with their children, pick flowers or mushrooms, make secret love in the dark.

But in doing this, they should be given material to reflect that this is where I and many others lie, many others also who played and loved and picked flowers like them – but who have now moved on … as they will. This – and not denial – is healthy and brave. A cemetery should be a momenti mori, a reminder, not a denial of death.

Done with positive meaning and a timeless nature-oriented aesthetic, the bitter-sweet contrast between life and death could add greatly to our appreciation of life, to enjoying what we have while we have it.

Unfortunately what I describe here is NO LONGER in the spirit of traditional cemeteries. But it is also NOT in the subconscious spirit of denial apparent in much current green burial thought. This is why I am developing the Perpetua’s Garden concept: perpetual and green cemeteries, where time and human death are not denied but integrated with nature and life, symbolic and hopeful places where life and death meet and make friends.

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“All that we call history is largely dependent on stone. This is true for earth, natural and world history in the broadest possible sense; thus it holds true also for the creation of the planet, the arrival of plants and animals and of Man, from his primeval and prehistory all the way to the present day.

Just as we can only learn of the earth’s early history through fossils, so we know incomparably more about lost cultures that built with stone than about those that built with wood. Stone temples, stone graves and stone law tablets.

It is not the material per se that creates a historic culture but rather the time consciousness connected with that people, people who chose stone not randomly to eternalize themselves with and in. This consciousness has documentary power; it plants fixed points like obelisks, by which the past can be measured very far back.”

Ernst Jünger, Steine (my translation)

Ancient Buddhist graves hewn into the stone
Ancient Buddhist graves hewn into the stone

This simple yet penetrating insight from this exceptional German author (1895-1997) captures far better than I could the relevance of returning to the use of stone in any new cemetery that aspires to perpetuity, that wants to go beyond time. And why conversely in our newest cemeteries the fragile materials of cement, steel and glass predominate.

The development towards ephemeral or even non-existent cemeteries is part of the global development towards ephemerality. We are now reaching the apex of a movement to ephemeralize all aspects of life, including culture and personal memory. We focus only on the present and the near future – our buildings, even our largest ones, are built of glass, steel and synthetics, and are intended to last a few decades at most. Our arts have “progressed” over the millenia from painting on stone cave walls and carving in stone, thus preserving memories and meanings from many thousands of years for us today, all the way to our virtual age, where most art exists only as non-concrete electromagnetic information that might last from a few seconds to a few years. Even paper photos are old-fashioned – our images, our memories now reside precariously in hard drives and other digital storage and viewing devices.

Ancient Corsican memorials - memories in solid rock
Ancient Corsican memorials – memories in solid rock

As that aspect of life most intimately connected with the passing of time, Death and the ways we deal with it in funeral rituals and cemetery practices have remained more immune to the surrounding ephemeralization of life. But even the supposedly timeless realm of the dead can no longer resist the change. Continental Europeans now get grave plots for just 20 or 30 years, North Americans and the British are moving towards burials with anonymous tree markers which might last a century, and in the most “advanced” parts of our world tangible markers are now disappearing into the ultimately fleeting realm of virtuality – centralized electronic displays of the deceased’s information at the cemetery or online markers. As Jünger says, this is a reflection of the time-consciousness of the culture, in our case one fixated on the present only, concerned only with acceleration and change.

Ancient Etruscan family tomb - in stone
Ancient Etruscan family tomb – in stone

But things are changing. Or rather, our sense of reality is improving, and we are beginning to see beyond the dead-end road our shortsighted “now-mentality” has led us down. In fact, this dead-end road will end, for our cultures and for each of us, in the same place it has since mankind has existed – in the grave, in the earth. When we begin again to realize our mortality, not theoretically, but palpably, directly in front of us, as aging individuals and cultures, then we will once again understand the ancient impulse to transcend time through leaving enduring memories.

In this connection, as contrary to current trends as it may appear, stone is the way of our future. The monopoly of NOW has come to a head, after which the pendulum will swing back towards a re-evaluation of time, memory, experience, and history – and we should add, of the long term future. At that point, closer than we may think, Perpetua’s Garden will be there as a place to create lasting memories of our culture and ourselves – memories hewn into, and with, the stone of our mother earth.

Learn how we can guarantee that Perpetua’s Garden cemetery will be truly perpetual.

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