Gregory Dennis: From the Big Lebowski to green burial

There’s a classic scene near the end of “The Big Lebowski” — the best bowling movie ever — where The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and Walter (John Goodman) stand on an ocean cliff. They’ve clambered out there to spread the cremated ashes of Donnie, their recently deceased friend and bowling partner.
But it’s windy out there. When Walter releases Donnie’s remains after a hilariously inappropriate soliloquy, the breeze blasts the ashes directly onto The Dude’s face — where they stick into a pasty mask.
The hell with it, says Walter: “Let’s go bowling.”
When Dad died and my brother and I went to spread his ashes, we knew just where to put them: on a trail called Paradise at one of the Mad River Valley mountains where he had taught us to ski.
It’s probably illegal to do that but we didn’t care. We found a spot for our little ceremony along the edge of Paradise, near a couple of birch trees and a nice little powder shot.
Sure enough, when we opened the canister and went to spread the ashes, the wind whipped up and coated my ski pants and parka with a fine gray dust — all that was left of Dad’s physical being.
“The hell with it,” I said. “Let’s go skiing.”
I wore that sticky gray dust for several more ski days. The Dude would’ve been proud.
I’m sure my brother and I aren’t the only ones to have spread cremated ashes on our mountains. Though Vermont is dotted with beautiful old cemeteries, cremation is by far the preferred alternative today.
A recent article by Viola Gad on VTDigger.org reports that, according to the latest statistics from the Vermont Department of Health, 2,992 people were cremated in Vermont in 2009, compared to only 1,441 burials.
But cremation has its own issues for some people, even though it has traditionally been seen as a simpler alternative to burial. Cremation requires burning greenhouse-producing natural gas, and the process in some facilities may (this is controversial) release toxic gases such as mercury.
As Gad reports, a small but committed group of Vermonters is promoting “green burial,” which they regard as a more natural alternative to cremation and a less costly process than cemetery burial in a casket.
Definitions vary, but green burial generally involves placing the body in a simpler coffin or none at all, and burying it somewhere other than an established cemetery. The idea is “dust to dust” — to take a more natural approach that enriches the soil and forgoes the ornate caskets and embalming fluids used in many cemetery burials, as well as the potential environmental effects of cremation.
As one commenter on VTDigger jested, “I’ve been told I’m full of (BS), so why not use me as free fertilizer?”
There are about 40 green or “natural” burial grounds around the U.S. Though Vermont does not yet have one, Gad quotes both consumer and funeral industry sources to show that interest in the practice is growing in our state.
“We get weekly inquiries about green burials,” said Beth Perkins, director of the Westerlund Funeral Home in Brattleboro.
In Addison County, advocates have identified the Waterworks property in Bristol as the potential site of a natural burial ground.
Metta Earth Institute, in Lincoln, is also interested in establishing a natural burial ground somewhere on its 158 acres, and perhaps even providing for forest burials.
Gillian Kapteyn Comstock, co-director at Metta Earth, says of the institute, “We are interested in the passages of life, and death is certainly an important one. We support natural burial if it’s done in a way that’s ecologically sound.”
But Comstock acknowledges that before proceeding, the institute would have to discuss things with its Lincoln neighbors as well as local and state regulators.
The question of state oversight of natural burial grounds is one that’s been briefly discussed in Montpelier, as a result of a bill introduced in the last legislative session.
But it’s clear the bill is going nowhere fast, so state involvement will have to wait awhile.
The eventual hope, says green burial advocate Ron Slabaugh of Middlebury, is that rather than restrict natural burial grounds, state legislation would establish simple and readily achieved ways in which these grounds can be established and protected.
How would unmarked graves be denoted? One solution could be to record their precise location using GPS — thereby uniting one of humanity’s oldest traditions with one of its newest technologies.
Vermonters interested in more information can call the hotline of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Vermont at 802-223-8140, or visit www.vermontfca.org.
But would-be green dead people don’t need to wait for the establishment of natural burial grounds. If, that is, they own property in Vermont that can accommodate a home burial and the practice is not banned by local law.
A home burial site needs to be at least 150 feet from a water supply, 100 feet from a drilled well, and 25 feet from a power line.
“Vermont is very permissive” when it comes to home burial, says Slabaugh.
As the website of the state Department of Health notes, “Family cemeteries are an American tradition, and many Vermonters are proud to own such land.”
Just like The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” home burial abides.
 So long as he’s still kicking and the editor says it’s OK, Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday. It’s also archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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