At last night’s lively gathering, Michelle Acciavatti spoke to about fifteen of us about green burials. Michelle runs an end-of-life planning and counseling business in Montpelier; at 35 years old, she has a refreshingly open attitude toward death and dying, something she attributes to both going to funerals as a child, and experiencing the tragic deaths of two friends in college. After working in Boston hospitals where she witnessed what she described as a sterile approach to dying, she decided to become an end-of-life specialist and help to return death to the home setting-- to encourage people to rethink cemeteries, dead bodies and rituals around death, as she puts it.
The evening started with a short film, Dying Green, about a doctor in South Carolina who started a land preserve for green burials. At Ramsey Creek Preserve the deceased are buried in a simple shroud, a top stone marking the grave. The preserve is forested, a beautiful place for loved ones to visit, and has become a point of pride for the community.
Michelle talked about the negative effects of embalming, including funeral home workers' long-term exposure to chemicals. She said embalming became standard back in the Civil War era, when soldiers' bodies need to be preserved for shipping home. By the end of the 19th century, death and dying had been moved from the home to the hospital and funeral parlor.
While the cremation option has increased from 40% to 60% in just the last decade, Michelle shattered some assumptions, citing how much fossil fuel is needed and toxic gases released. Also, ‘cremains’ are so salty they can be an environmental hazard. Not yet available in Vermont is another option, “alkaline hydrolysis” where heat and water turn the body into liquid form, or “recomposition” turning the body into compost.
Thanks to progressive legislation in Vermont over the last two years, there are now less restrictions on green burials happening here; bodies can now be buried at just three and a half feet (used to be five feet), so simple decomposition can more easily take place, thus laying the groundwork for green burials. Michelle shared many other details about green burials, such as preserving using techni ice, which keeps the body cold and can work in a home environment. Since the body isn't quickly transported away, beloved ones can better process the passage from life to death.
What can we do in Jericho to provide the green burial option for people? Work toward changing zoning laws? Getting the cemetery commissioners on board? Michelle suggested opening the conversation with as many people as possible. As several members of Jericho’s planning commission and cemetery committee showed up last night, we’re at least getting the ball rolling!
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