By Sue Muncaster // Photograph by Ryan Dorgan
Here in the Tetons, we pride ourselves on living life to the fullest, while also protecting the environment that sustains us. But what happens when we die? While the traditional funeral is one of humanity’s oldest rituals, modern funeral practices are not exempt from adaptation and change. Today, many families seek a more hands-on approach to caring for their loved ones after death, as well as more environmentally-responsible body care and disposition options.
Identifying Your Beliefs
When considering a funeral and options for body care of a deceased loved one, David Shlim, MD, a Jackson-based physician who teaches Tibetan Buddhism, points out that it’s important to first identify your beliefs about what happens at the time of death.
“Does consciousness continue, and if so, where does it go?” he asks.
There is no right or wrong answer. Shlim simply encourages an awareness of the decisions made. Think about what decisions are made for the benefit of the deceased, and which are made for the benefit of the living.
For example, traditional Christian and Jewish practices might involve a public viewing, an elaborate casket, and a headstone reflecting the belief in a future resurrection. In the Tibetan Buddhism tradition, once the spirit leaves the body after death, the body becomes an empty vessel and the living are encouraged to focus their ceremonies on helping the dead transition into their next karmic life. Muslims believe that the dead should be buried as soon as possible, funerals should be simple, and graves commemorating the dead should not attract attention. Many non-religious people believe that death is not a transition, but rather the only life we have, and that a soul lives on only in the memories of friends and family.
Saying Your Goodbyes
The most common first step at the time of death is to call the local funeral director to retrieve the body. These professionals are trained to counsel families on the mind-boggling range of post-life options that respect the family’s beliefs and traditions. Locally, Valley Mortuary in both Jackson and Driggs serves this role, and Schwab Mortuary and Crematory provides services for Star Valley. According to Wyoming state law, once a funeral director takes possession of a body, they have 36 hours to freeze, embalm, or cremate it.
This brings us to some big decisions: The first is embalming. Embalming is required if the family intends to offer a public viewing or when there’s a public health risk due to an infectious disease. Forgoing embalming, however, is one of the top ways to reduce your environmental footprint, due to the toxicity of the formaldehyde used in the process. There are now several formaldehyde-free, biodegradable embalming fluids (usually made from essential oils) that will adequately preserve the body for up to several weeks.
The second consideration is a home funeral. Home funerals represent a minimalistic and non-invasive way to care for your loved one’s body between death and disposition. Home funerals were standard in the United States up until the 1930s. According to the Home Funeral Alliance (homefuneralalliance.org), bringing a loved one home after death is legal in every state. Every state recognizes the next-of-kin’s custody and control of the body in a way that supports a home vigil.
“Being at home, you are able to take your time, and to revisit as many times as you need,” says Rhonda LoPresti, a Buddhist end-of-life coach based in California. “To have this spaciousness in time allows for a graceful letting go, for an emerging acceptance, for an unrushed goodbye, and … it invites us to mingle with the sacred.”
Home burials, also an option, are more intimate, economical, and environmentally friendly. Home burials are legal in Idaho and Wyoming, and many private plots already exist in small family cemeteries. Burial in a family cemetery on private property is usually limited to family members and is subject to local county restrictions and permitting regulations.
Considering Green Options
In light of the climate crisis, people around the world are feeling morally compelled to reconsider common burial practices in favor of eco-friendly ones. The Green Burial Council (greenburialcouncil.org) defines a mindful burial as “a way of caring for the dead with minimal environmental impact that aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions, protection of worker health, and the restoration and/or preservation of habitat.”
Today’s typical standard burial and cremation practices are not environmentally friendly when you consider the trees cut to make coffins, tons of steel and concrete used for vaults and headstones, and embalming fluid that shields the body from degrading in the dirt surrounding it. Cemeteries take up vast amounts of land and require pesticides in their upkeep. In fact, a single cremation requires two SUVs-worth of fuel to reach up to 1,800° Fahrenheit. The process also releases dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Tyson Clemons, the funeral director and mortician at Valley Mortuary, notes his local clienteles’ booming “green burial” demands, recognizing there’s no correct answer to the “cremation versus burial” dilemma. That being said, 85 percent of people who die in Teton County, Wyoming, are cremated. Contributing to this is the transient nature of the people who die here (some may be visiting or don’t have family ties in the Tetons and need to be transported), the lower cost of cremation, and the general trend toward secularism in our society.
If you choose a traditional burial, forgoing the embalming process, replacing toxic burial containers, and eliminating the use of concrete vaults are all eco-conscious alternatives. Instead of purchasing an expensive wood casket, choose a biodegradable casket made of cardboard, willows, or wood, with no coatings or metal. These type of products allow the body to decompose over time and become part of the local ecosystem. (Vaults, on the other hand, create a barrier between the casket and the earth, preventing decomposition.) Valley Mortuary offers products from Passages, a company whose product offerings are made from sustainable or renewable resources, are biodegradable or recyclable, and are fair trade certified or made in the United States.
Choosing where to bury your loved one is the next decision. The Town of Jackson’s public cemetery, Aspen Hill, carved out of the hillside on Snow King Mountain, is considered a “natural” cemetery. Here, families are responsible for plots, and no water-gulping landscaping is provided. The town maintains the right of ways, but otherwise, the plots are allowed to revert back to their natural state. In other “green” cemeteries around the country, bodies are buried shrouded or placed in biodegradable caskets with no headstones. Sometimes trees are planted in honor of the dead.
While there are no certified “green” cemeteries in the Teton region, Aspen Hill’s cemetery manager Al Zuckerman says, “The cemetery has plenty of room, with a whole section set aside that hasn’t even been surveyed yet.”
The funeral industry now provides creative ways to handle cremation, too, with urns that contain seeds, so you can plant a tree when you bury your loved one. Other options include floating biodegradable containers, like gourds, containers made of cornstarch that dissolve in a body of water, and “eternal reefs,” an urn made of environmentally-safe cast concrete that can be placed underwater, becoming part of an artificial reef.
Alternatives to standard cremation are not available locally but are becoming popular in larger metropolitan areas. Resomation (also known as “bio-cremation”) uses 90 percent less energy than a traditional cremation. The process involves the body being placed in a tank with a high pH material, similar to lye, where high pressure and 365° Fahrenheit heat reduces the body to a sludge that can be disposed of like fertilizer. Another option, promession, involves freeze-drying a corpse with liquid nitrogen, and then breaking the body apart. The powdered remains are buried in a shallow grave and act like compost.
Preserving and protecting our environment for the next generation is our responsibility, both in life and death. Ethical and compassionate death practices should nourish the relationship between the living and the dead and also between us, as human beings, and the planet we live on. It’s a final act to which we can all aspire.
The hope with this article is to urge people to talk about these complex issues before it’s too late. While local clergy and funeral directors provide a great start, death doulas (also known as “end-of-life coaches”) work alongside professionals, like doctors, nurses, and hospice workers, offering time-proven emotional and spiritual support to individuals and families. At the time of this writing, there were no death doulas practicing in the Teton area, but with the advent of Zoom, you can find and connect with practitioners at deathmidwife.org.