Trees, Trees and more trees…..the hidden positives for Green Funerals

This post is based on the need for Urban Forests by Linda Lewis

It is important that our cemeteries become more GREEN in their practices by planting more trees to offset the negative impact of the underground environment. They should consider the practices of GREEN Burial.

The trees planted to honor our lives form a legacy of lasting stories.

Here is Linda’s story. It is important.

A Modest, Do-able, Green Proposal for the Year of the Wood Horse.

It is a little appreciated fact that city trees save millions of dollars, reducing storm water run-off, mitigating air pollution and reducing energy costs every summer by shading buildings.

Bonus: Seattle is planning to build a new city park filled with hundreds of edible plants- such as fruit trees, vegetable plants, herbs, etc- which will be free to everyone. If successful, it will be the first “Urban Food Forest” of the nation. (

And: Trees can capture over 50% of the particulate matter in polluted urban air.

Urban trees are much more than a perch and nest for songbirds and squirrels. But since the dollar is the only way to penetrate most politicians’ minds, our politicians should be informed that trees are the only form of city infrastructure that actually increase in value over time! But their beauty is enough to convince me of their intrinsic value.

Halifax, Nova Scotia only got around to urban forest planning in 2001. When Hurricane Juan hit Point Pleasant Park and leveled the white pine forest there, Haligonians began to realize that we had been taking our urban forests for granted. And like Joni Mitchell’s song instructs, we didn’t know what we’d had until it was gone.

Even after the devastating loss throughout the city, it took a while for the city to come up with a creative response.

Realizing that in the concrete of any city, healthy trees simply don’t grow themselves, in 2006 the Urban Forest Master Plan was developed, yet still was not adopted by council until 2012. Nevertheless, this plan is the most comprehensive urban forest plan in Canada, identifying 110 unique neighborhoods, including their historical contexts and ecological needs. And it is the only plan to be adopted by the Canadian Standards Association’s national standards for sustainability.

windhorseThe plan was launched in the spring of 2013 with plantings in five neighborhoods.

Along with the planting, since mid-January, streets have been briefly closed by pruning trucks, not as a reaction to storms, but as the start of the first ever program to keep mature trees healthy in Halifax.

This could be a model for all North American cities to follow. Yet initiatives like this, with value expressed in long-term savings, are often first on the chopping block. But no city can really afford to react tree-by-tree to the latest storm or disease outbreak, and with climate change we have been seeing more storms and the spread of more diseases making old trees vulnerable.

Individual citizens can do a great deal. I have a policy that every time I take an airplane I plant a tree. This may be tokenism, but it’s doing something.

Making a point to plant native trees is the most sustainable plan.

In Nova Scotia there are 30 different kinds of native trees, with softwoods like pine, spruce, hemlock, balsam fir, cedar, and tamarack making up 60 percent of the total volume. So one is not limited in what one can plant! Native hardwoods like birch, maple, aspen, and oak mix in beautifully with the evergreens, giving spectacular color every fall.

Elms, linden, poplars, French willow, horse chestnuts, and black locust may be attractive but are actually “exotic” and are not the most hardy for surviving Nova Scotia’s prolonged winters, where we tend to call spring “sprinter”!

The point is that trees are our allies.

Urban trees deserve our attention, planning, and care. It is my hope that cities and individual citizens throughout North America will realize that, with a little research and planning, this is a do-able benefit for this year of the Wood Horse.

About Linda Lewis

Linda Lewis met the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1972 and, following Rinpoche’s invitation, immediately moved to Boulder, Colorado to be a part of his young and vital sangha. The predominant themes in her life have been teaching in contemplative schools–Vidya, Naropa, and the Shambhala School in Halifax, Nova Scotia–and studying, practicing, or teaching his Shambhala Buddhadharma wherever she finds herself.


Are We Revolutionizing the Way We Die?

Reposted from The Daily DoseWritten by Katy Rank Lev

Christine Barker brought her mother home to die. Donna Cooper, then 59 years old, was in late stages of liver failure and each hospitalization seemed to drain her physically and emotionally. Barker moved her mother into her living room and personally provided around-the-clock care for her in the weeks leading up to her death. 

When Cooper did finally pass on, the Barker family tended to her body at home and also held a funeral in the family’s living room. In doing so, the Barkers joined a movement of Americans quietly changing their approach to end of life care. Increasingly, families are utilizing services like hospice care, the National Home Funeral Alliance, deathbed singers, and even doulas who specialize in gently guiding people across their final threshold.

Home Funerals

Much like those who choose to birth their babies at home (and the Barker family has indeed birthed babies in their living room), families choosing home funerals are doing so because they find the current model overly medicalized, ripe with interventions, and coldly impersonal. Within the checklists and procedures that help hospitals and mortuaries run efficiently, individuals feel lost. 

Barker watched a documentary about “home death” and felt drawn to the idea of personally tending to her mother’s body, honoring her memory in her own home, and then transporting her remains to be cremated. But the idea is not so simple as that—each state has regulations regarding the preparation of bodies and the transportation or burial of human remains. When people request forms or paperwork outside the norm, they often run into resistance, since this very old way of tending to our dead has become extremely foreign to our modern-day culture. Barker enlisted a friend who had had home funerals for her own loved ones, to make sure she had an outline of what specifically she needed to do when the time came. 

Kateyanne Unullisi, public relations chair for the National Home Funeral Alliance, says Barker’s experience is becoming increasingly common. The NHFA, whose membership has nearly quadrupled to 530 individuals in the past year, came together as a resource to support families looking for minimal, non-invasive, environmentally friendly care for the deceased. They aim to facilitate maximum involvement from family members in taking charge of the funeral process. 

While the term “funeral” typically brings to mind a ceremony of sorts, Unullisi is quick to remind me that a home funeral might just mean visitation in the home or even preparation of the body before driving it to the cemetery for a traditional funeral service. A home funeral or home death allows grieving families privacy, space, and time to be present with the body instead of saying farewell under glaring lights at a funeral home.

The NHFA offers information about everything from how to file necessary paperwork to how to physically prepare and clean a body once a loved one has died. “People are more and more wanting to do death and end of life in their own way, with values that match their own,” Unullisi says. “If you want to be more hands on and take responsibility for your loved one, we want everyone to know that is legal and available.”


Death Doulas

The comparison to homebirth continues with the terminology used to describe individuals who work with families planning to care for a dying loved one at home. Job titles like “death doula” and “death midwife” are creeping up across the Internet. People, overwhelmingly women, are doing all different kinds of work around the end of life and since this type of work is new for our culture, there is a struggle to identify terms and job descriptions. In a broad sense, a death doula can be understood as someone who knows something about this life transition and can advocate for the dying person or family.

Before there is even talk of a funeral, however, there is the person who has been given a terminal diagnosis. This person quickly becomes a “dying person,” and Amy Levine, founder of the Doula Program to Accompany and Comfort, says this becomes very isolating. She trains volunteers who commit to spending one-on-one time each week with patients to focus on their life. 

“Our mission focuses on minimizing physical and psychological isolation and loneliness,” Levine says. The client drives the relationship, which means the volunteer’s time with them might be spent watching Wheel of Fortune, not discussing big issues. The volunteers are not medical professionals—there are always medical teams overseeing a client’s care—but are simply committed to fostering a relationship until their clients die. Doula volunteers undergo specialized training to bear witness and provide a human connection to a person who is still living through the completion of a terminal illness.

Deathbed Singers

Kate Munger notes that the first sound we all hear is that of our mother’s heartbeat. So, it makes sense to her that the last sounds we hear might be the soft voices of women, singing a cappella in harmony. She founded a network of deathbed singers called Threshold Choir, women who practice together and go, when invited, in trios to sing at the bedsides of the dying. 

There are over 100 chapters of the choir throughout the United States, Canada, and Australia, singing original songs in dozens of languages. Cindy Harris has led the Pittsburgh, PA, chapter of Threshold Choir since 2008. There are about 30 women involved, singing at bedsides at least once a week, though Harris says she would need at least 20 pairs of singers every day to cover the demand in Allegheny County alone.

Harris, a musician who studies the effect of the singing voice on the listener, describes a range of effects from the choir. She wrote via email, “The stories range from the sublime—a woman who hadn’t spoken or opened her eyes for a week who heard us singing, came up from the depths to say ‘Wow!’—to the hilarious, such as a patient with dementia who joyfully sang tunelessly and loudly along with us and was joined by the hospice dog, who raised his voice in a howl.” She says she can tell all the patients hear the singers, responding visibly in some way. “I’m pretty sure those who have not yet figured out how to let go hear our voices as the voices of angels and take that as permission,” she says. “It is extremely common for us to hear that a patient we sang to has died within 24 hours of our visit.”

Hospice Revolution

At the center of this movement to provide ease and comfort at the end of life lies hospice care. Threshold Choir partners with hospice organizations for referrals, as do Levine’s doula program and many families planning a home death or funeral.

Unfortunately for the Barker family, Cooper passed away before the Affordable Care Act opened hospice care to more individuals (the services are now covered by Medical Assistance and Medicare). Where Christy Barker personally provided around the clock care for her mother, she would now be eligible for home health aides and in-home nursing support if she chose.

Cooper was eligible for some hospice services toward the very end of her life, and Barker says, “they were always available for phone support and they are still involved. I get letters from them with information about bereavement groups and they sent me roses on the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, which I thought was phenomenal.”

Larua Sokolovic, public relations chair for Three Rivers Hospice and Palliative Care in Pittsburgh, PA, says hospice care provides support wherever their clients reside, offering assistance with everything from bathing to social workers, funeral arrangements, and spiritual support. Sokolovic’s organization even provides companions for clients, much like the doula volunteers who work with Levine’s program. Because hospice providers are bound by regulations, Unullisi explains that families receiving hospice services still appreciate additional services from doulas or guides, who can help with special requests or remain with families longer than the hospice time frames.

For Barker, bringing her mother home and caring for her body personally was a healing experience for the whole family. Her wishes for her mother were new to the hospice agency, and Barker felt like the group learned from her desire to involve her whole family in a home funeral. 

Barker says, “My husband made my mother’s coffin from a pine box, planed the wood from a tree cut by our friends. My son helped him build the coffin and painting it provided art therapy for me.” Barker, who had previously been estranged from her mother, says, “I wanted to know I did everything I could, to know in the end that I did right by her.

A growing number of Americans seems to agree that “doing right” at the end looks different from the status quo.

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Greening: The American Way of Death

This is a post from the Huffington Post Blog by Tanya D. Marsh…

As Jessica Mitford explained in her 1963 blockbuster, The American Way of Death, American funerary and burial practices are incredibly consumptive and expensive. Our strongly entrenched social norm is that the appropriate way to express grief and show love for the deceased is by spending money — on flowers, a viewing, a casket, a vault, and a prime burial spot. Our practices are in stark contrast to those in other developed countries that seek to hasten decomposition and minimize the land dedicated for burial purposes.

The standard American burial employs a number of strategies to retard decomposition –embalming, using hardwood or metal caskets and steel and/or concrete vaults or grave liners. These practices generate significant environmental consequences. Dozens of hazardous chemicals are utilized in our preparation of human remains for cremation or burial, chemicals that are routinely released into septic and sewer systems. A leading embalming textbook lists 45 “toxic chemicals” which are routinely used in the modern embalming process, most notably formaldehyde and phenol (carbolic acid). A typical 10-acre patch of cemetery ground contains enough furniture-grade lumber to construct 40 houses, nearly 1,000 tons of steel, 20,000 tons of concrete, and enough embalming fluid to fill a small backyard swimming pool.

To environmentalists, the modern American cemetery no longer resembles “God’s Acre” — a garden for the living to remember the dead and contemplate their own mortality. Instead, the modern American cemetery, an unnaturally green field of mowed grass sparkling with pesticide, is regarded as a toxic landfill, leaching chemicals and metals into the soil and groundwater; filled with remains trapped in an anaerobic environment and denied the natural decomposition of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

Many environmentally-conscious Americans have therefore eschewed ground burial in favor of cremation. The American cremation rate is growing fast, but it poses its own environmental problems including consumption of fossil fuels and discharge of mercury into the atmosphere.

A 2007 survey on death planning conducted by the AARP found a significant level of interest in more environmentally-friendly methods of disposition. Organizations like the Green Burial Council promote these methods. For example, “green burial” typically involves burial without a casket or in a casket made of sustainable, biodegradable materials such as woven seagrass and bamboo. There are a number of dedicated green cemeteries in the United States, such as Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, South Carolina.

A new twist on the natural burial concept by Italian designers proposes to encase human remains in an egg-shaped burial pod which serves as a source of nutrients for a newly planted tree.

Another new concept is the ritualized composting of human remains. The Urban Death Project, a non-profit based in Seattle, has created a Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $75,000 to fund the second phase of development of its composting system and the creation of a 3-D model and engineering drawings. The goal of the Urban Death Project is to build the first composting facility in Seattle and then create a toolkit to duplicate the model across the United States and around the world.

All of these ideas — green cemeteries, burial pods, and composting systems — reveal a growing discomfort with the expensive and consumptive nature of the American way of death. But change will not be easy. Our social norms are highly entrenched, and the death care industry (funeral homes, cemeteries, and casket manufacturers) are heavily invested in maintaining those norms. Funeral homes and cemeteries are regulated by the states, largely by occupational licensing regimes with high barriers to entry that discourage innovative market entrants. At the same time, laws rooted in traditional Christian beliefs about death and resurrection establish rules for the treatment of human remains.

It is a general principle of American common law that every person is entitled to a decent burial. Before interment, human remains must be treated in accordance with “ordinary requirements of decency and common morals.” Cases have held that human remains may not be “cast out so as to expose [them] to violation or so as to offend the feelings or endanger the health of the living.” No person may “cast [a corpse] into the street, or into a running stream, or into a hole in the ground, or make any disposition of it that might be regarded as a nuisance, be offensive to the sense of decency, or to be injurious to the health of the community.” As recently as 2002, the “improper disposal of a dead body” has been recognized as a common law offense. The Model Penal Code includes a crime called “abuse of a corpse” that is committed when a person “treats a corpse in a way that he knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities.” This vague standard is the law in approximately 15 states. It seems likely that, at least in the foreseeable future, burial pods and human composting would “outrage ordinary sensibilities.”

The law of human remains is complicated and largely unexamined by modern legal scholars, courts, and legislatures. It is often far more restrictive than we would guess. Those proposing innovative alternatives to the modern American way of death may find that in order to accomplish their goals they will need to change more than social norms — they will first need to change the law.

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The grief of losing a child: How my daughter’s difficult yet magical life inspired me to write children’s books

Repost from

Two weeks ago, I emerged from Waitrose, rather pleased with my purchase of reduced edamame beans and a jar of artichoke hearts, when my eyes locked on to a Citroën Berlingo in the car park and I started to sob uncontrollably. I’m not normally one to cry so easily, particularly at the sight of a green leisure activity vehicle, but that’s how grief attacks you – it swallows you up in the most unexpected places, at the most inopportune times; without warning you are suddenly awash with the hollow, helpless, desperate feeling of losing someone, missing someone, loving someone who is no longer there.

My 10-year-old daughter Clementine is that someone. She had cerebral palsy and was officially termed “life-limited”, but she was always surprisingly healthy and we had thought she would be with us for many more years. We were wrong. Early on 8 December last year I came downstairs to get my toddler son his milk. While it was warming, I went into my daughter’s bedroom, and as I bent down to kiss her, a sickening shiver ran up my spine as I realised that she wasn’t breathing. I remember the rest of the morning only as a foggy nightmare – screaming to my husband, calling 999, doing chest compressions on my little girl although I knew she had already left her broken body, trying to keep our two young sons calm; ambulances, teams of doctors making frantic, futile efforts, a nurse’s voice saying, “we’re sorry for your loss” before I’d even processed just what I had lost, and then a hospital room with just me clinging on to the still-warm body of my darling Clementine.

I am not an attractive crier. Some folk can shed beautiful, delicate tears. I, on the other had, gurn horribly, my mouth widening like an Aardman character, my eyes disappearing into my blotchy cheeks, snot dripping from my scrunched-up nose. So at the supermarket that day, I quickly retreated to my car, hiding this weeping monstrosity from the world, and by the time I got home all I was thinking about was why I had spent so much money on an edible thistle.

And that’s how it is. Despite our horrendous loss, aside from the odd unexpected bout of car-park crying, we superficially revert back alarmingly quickly to our normal selves. We laugh and cook and shop and get drunk and make stupid jokes, just weeks after this enormous juggernaut has crashed into our lives. Yet underneath it all remains this dark, visceral thing we call “grief”. And we don’t know how to deal with it.

In some societies, grief is embraced, encouraged even, but in ours it is most often avoided; our apparent return to normality is taken as a sign that we are over it, nothing more to be said. Just two or three weeks after she died, most people stopped talking to us about Clemmie. Good friends don’t ask us how we are any more; and I don’t know if it stems from the thought that we don’t want it brought up, the fear that we may break down, or whether they think that we’re fine now so why bring it up. Either way, I know it comes from love. But it is always there for us, at the back of our minds, whatever we do, however jovial an evening we are having, and sometimes it would be nice just to be asked the question, “How are you?”, even though we will probably answer, “Fine, thanks”, happy just to have it acknowledged that we’re still going through something huge and devastating.

And the truth is that even we who are in the eye of the storm don’t know how to deal with it. In the first couple of months, crying became a guilt-laden competitive sport between my husband and me. “Have you cried today?” “No, have you?” “Yeah, really went for it this morning.” “You lucky thing.” You want to cry all the time, but you physically can’t. We make jokes and then feel guilty for laughing; we worry that we’re talking to our sons about Clemmie too much, or not enough; we worry that we look too upset, or not upset enough; and when a new mum at the toddler group asks how many children I have, I am totally thrown. I have just met her and don’t feel it’s really fair to her to say, “Well, my daughter died last month” – I mean, what’s she supposed to do with that?

But I can’t bring myself to just tell her I have two sons – it would feel like I was writing Clemmie out of our history, and most likely she would follow that up with questions like, “Did you ever want a daughter?”, which would result in an ever increasing web of macabre lies. So instead I mumble and stutter an answer which probably makes no sense and leaves the poor woman perplexed as to why I was vague about the number of children I had.

So why can’t we talk about it? I don’t mean in a “let’s all get our feelings out in the open and really emote this thing out” kind of way, but rather in an everyday way? In a “how’s it going?” way? In a way that understands that while grief lasts a lifetime and not just until after the funeral, we learn to live with it not by ignoring it but by being able to talk about the person we have lost without it being a big embarrassing deal for everyone involved in the conversation.

Why is it that death is such an awkward taboo, when it is something we will all, without exception, have to deal with at some point in our lives? I can’t help but think that if we learnt from a young age that death is sad but is also something that can be talked about, we might not have such a problem with it in adulthood. I am no child psychologist, but as a writer and illustrator, I do know children’s books; and I know that for the most part, Western children’s books cover little more than bears and mice having a cuddle.

As well they should, of course. But surely, alongside the cuddly reads, children’s books can also deal with more interesting issues? Children are naturally inquisitive and accepting. This is the perfect time to talk about disability, adoption, different family set-ups, different coloured skin, bullying and, yes, even death. If gently introduced, these topics can be raised in a way that allows questions to be asked, and what better way to do that than through picture books?

I have long thought that children as young as three or four are not only capable of enjoying stories that cover meaningful issues, but are actually eager for them as long as it is done in a funny, enjoyable way. I have been lucky enough to find a publisher who has encouraged me to include such issues; disability in Just Because, illness and hospitals in Sometimes, adoption in Zoo Girl, the arrival of a new sibling in Mr Super Poopy Pants, and death in my latest book, Missing Jack. I should point out, however, that Missing Jack is about the death of a cat, which is clearly utterly incomparable to the death of a person. But I hope it at least introduces the ideas of loss, grief and moving on to little ones who will inevitably experience these things at some time, be it a goldfish or a grandparent. The book was written before Clemmie left us, but it feels right that it should come out now.

As for me, I have spent the past 10 years being inspired by my daughter, who did nothing, said nothing, and yet had such a huge, calming, joyful effect on everyone who met her. She will continue to inspire everything I do. And perhaps eventually I will be able to look a Citroën Berlingo in the eye without gurning like a snotty tree frog as I remember our many family trips in Clemmie’s motability model. My husband trying in vain to listen to a Radio 4 programme, Benjy in the back shouting “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, Toby listing all the Lego sets we simply must buy him, while Clemmie sits serenely in her wheelchair, the boys holding her hands, just the five of us. Always the five of us.

‘Missing Jack’ by Rebecca Elliott (Lion Children’s Books, £9.99) is out now


Our pets are members of our families and the stories of their life intertwines with the stories of our lives. We share their stories as the memories bring us comfort and peace. Our pets stay alive in the stories we tell each other.

Write your stories in the comments and they will bring comfort to all who read them.