Natural Burial & Embracing Decay

“We must give back to Nature what she has lent us.
We must return from whence we came.”

-Gomberville, La doctrine des moeurs

Matter cannot be created.

Matter cannot be destroyed.

So physics tells us.

There is only a finite amount of matter to go around.  At this very moment, dear living person, some of it belongs to you.  The atoms that make up your body— your liver, your hair, your brain, your fingernails— are all on loan from the universe.  While you are alive, the atoms have come together to make you.  As soon as you are dead, they begin their dispersal back into the wide world.

That is what decomposition is.  It is the science of sending back everything the universe loaned you.  The universe will reuse it as it sees fit.  Perhaps to help make an eggplant or an aardvark or perhaps even to make other, new humans.

Human beings have the somewhat unique misfortune of living almost our whole lives knowing that we are going to die.  No matter what we create, or how much money we make, or how many children we have— we will die.  Our own decomposition is a horrifying thought because it means that we have to give up the control we worked so hard for.  Our bodies are not flawless immortal temples.  Like it or not, they are akin to the deer on the side of the road or a cut of expired beef.  We are simply an organism on this earth like all others, made to rot, to decay.

If we work towards accepting, not denying, our decomposition, we can begin to see it as something beautiful.  More than beautiful— ecstatic.  The ecstasy of decay begins as disgust and revulsion, the way we feel when we imagine ourself as a corpse.  But disgust and revulsion turn to pleasure as we use that feeling to realize we are alive now.  We will someday be dead, but today blood pumps through our veins and breath fills our lungs and we walk the earth.

Daily meditations on decomposition are nothing new.  The Buddhists meditate on the ten stages of human decomposition of the corpse.  The masters would even visit charnel houses to interact with the decomposing bodies themselves.  Medieval Christians had paintings of decomposing, dancing corpses lining the walls of their churches to warn the living their time would come.  The philosopher Cioran wrote that each man should be “meditating upon his own carrion.”

“Nature here was something savage and awful, though beautiful.” -Thoreau

One step we can take towards accepting and living with our decomposition is to plan for a natural, also known as green, burial.

Natural burial means your body is placed directly into the ground with only a shroud or biodegradable casket.  It is how humans have been buried for thousands of years.  The simple equation of body, dirt, bugs, bacteria, and decomposition.  A few short weeks and you are nothing but skeleton, all other parts of you having gone their separate ways.

Natural burial is horribly out of place in our modern death system, where we are sold $10,000 caskets with titanium plating and a vacuum seal, sold the idea that they will preserve us— protect us from the vile, natural elements.  Then we take those expensive caskets and bury them with a concrete or metal burial vault surrounding them, another layer of protection.  Then it’s only a matter of a gravestone, like a cherry atop the death denial sundae.  It is a false promise of everlasting preservation that we’ve been terrified into embracing.

When making choices about what to do with your body, be creative.  Spend your life dreaming big dreams of being set alight on a Viking ship, having your ashes scattered in the Alps, or being suspended from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel— you yourself can be the art of mortality.  If you can make it happen, live that death dream and be a hero to us all.  But if those dreams do not come true, please consider choosing to decompose.  It’s what your dead body so clearly wants to do.  Give it what it wants, won’t you?

Green Burial Council- US

Natural Burial Providers- UK

Natural Burial Association- Canada

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  • AndrewFromReception

    what if you did a thingy where the x axis was time and the y axis was decay and you ended up with a line that looked like a butterfly or a rocket ship or an ice cream cone?  that would be sweet.

    • Anonymous

      I thought this was funny.  But now I’m convinced it is a powerful visual metaphor.

  • Pktravis

    Caitlin you mean you don’t believe in God. I thought we went to Heaven or Hell. Please reply

    • Mia

      Whatever your views of religion, burial is about the body. If you really think your actual physical body floats up to heaven or down to hell, your impending mortality is the least of your worries. Methinks air travel would be much more complicated dodging all those flying corpses.

    • SC

      Not sure how you got that idea. She is simply reporting the facts. This is what happens to an organisms when it ceases it’s life function.

  • Anon

    I think I need to read more of this stuff and I’m glad I’ve found this. I’ve become really death obsessed over the past two years or so. Sort of like trying to prepare myself for that moment I will die (it became an obsession in trying to deal with it for I’m not religious and I feel I need to comfort myself in some way). The thought of returning to the earth and universe and knowing I’m not a single thing but a small part of a great whole brings me comfort. I wish this idea was discussed more. I really like the idea of allowing the body to decompose as quickly as possible too, although I think this will be a very difficult idea to promote in Western culture. I think it should be however because caskets and head stones do put many families through financial strain which they really don’t need while grieving especially if the family isn’t well off (two of my grandparents funderals come to mind).  

    • Benjamin Eugene NElson

      A funeral is not for the dead.  It is for the living.

      Me, I want to follow my grandma’s wishes.

      She didn’t like the thought of people crying over her.

      She wanted, and got, a wake.

      Do not mourn me because I am gone.  Celebrate that I was here.

      RIP grandma Dorris.

      You were a inspiration and still will be.

  • Gelmar21

    Caitlin,
    I found your site while of course looking for something else, but I am so grateful you are doing this.

    My mother died in 2003, and that’s when I began to really think long and hard about what happens to our bodies, most especially hers.  I was desperate to know what stage her body was in, every week, but I really didn’t know.  

    I also began to realize just how taboo death is in Western cultures, as it’s not something anyone wants to ever talk about, but I love talking about it.  I love to talk about my mom and to talk about how people should prepare themselves and their loved ones when possible for time of death and any rituals to commence.   

    I have a friend, who’s mother has cancer, and he nor anyone in his family will discuss her wishes or plans.   

    That makes me far more uncomfortable than being open and talking about it.  I also consider it a gift to inform your family what your wishes are, as it releases some of the burden at the very difficult time of death.  

    So thank you so much for your work, and continued success.   

    Sincerely,

    Marc G.

    Vancouver, BC

  • Chris_chicky

    Came across this blog whilst researching other stuff as I see other folks have done.  Thank you for your visions!  I am obsessed with death and everything involved.  I wish I had a memento from my mom besides her ashes, your lovely  hair locke picture in the “Your Mortician” essay reminds me of that……

  • Rick

    G-day and greetings from Sydney Australia!

    Caitlin, I have a really frustrating problem, my wife ( for as long as I can remember is afraid of death ( well duh you might say, and aint we all? ) – but I mean to the extreme!. – She has NEVER attended a funeral, ( this includes) relatives, friends ( and even says she will refuse to go to her own parents funeral. when I ask her why, she says they might open their eyes or  move or something.

    To be fair here, I myself  had the same issue with death ( but to a much less extent ) – my mother took her own life when I was 18 and she was he first  dead person I had ever seen.

    However, when I spoke with my doctor about my ” frightening dreams and fears ” he called a friend of his that owns a funeral home – and I went there firstly ONLY to the front of the building and spoke to the guy from the outside.

    Then slowly, over the course of a month, I went from the offices, the “trim-shop” ( as you know that’s where they construct the caskets )  -  to the freezer and finally the ” mortuary ” where all the  hard work is done that people never get to see.

    Point here is I managed to face these fears but my wife is so bad ( and Im not kidding here ) – on the last occasion, we went around to a friends place to say hi to the widow after hearing her husband passed away.

    By that time, the body had already been removed an was at the funeral home.
    .
    However, as a sick joke, while walking up the steps to the front door ( which was already open ), the guy next door ( who didn’t like the dead husband much anyway ) made a comment to use… he said  ” just go right in mate, I think ” John ” ( referring to  the dead guy ) might still be on the kitchen floor where they found him….I haven’t seen the contractors turn up yet ”

    My wife went almost as stiff as a board! then quickly went very pale, – seconds later she started to shake quite a lot, and she couldn’t breath properly as a result of this “fear”.

    Seconds later, she collapsed on the landing and seemed to stare into space and shook like she was having  some kind of fit or something.

    After about a minute of cuddling, and stroking her hair, and speaking softly to her telling her she was  fine ( etc ) – she burst into tears and I helped her up, and I put her back in the car and took her to the doctors to get her checked out.

    I cant figure out what I can do…I have already tried talking to her about both of us going and doing the the “gradual” method that helped me…but her fear is SO bad, she wouldn’t even hear of  it!

    PLEASE help Caitlin, I love her so much, but I also fear that the next time we have a funeral or a friend passes away, this might set off another episode – or worse.

    Love your site and videos by-the-way – great work on rolling back the darkness and helping to put some daylight on an industry that’s just as much a part of life, as life is itself.

    Rick.

    P.S.

    ( just for the record…)  – a week later, I went back to the next door neighbors place that caused the wife to freak out I rang the door bell, and when he opened it – I PUNCHED HIM OUT-COLD! I broke his nose, and caused such damage, – that he had 2 black eyes and he couldn’t see out of them for almost 2 weeks! )….I haven’t heard a word about it since either..and he had known me for years prior – so I think there was a good reason the police were never called.

    • Benjamin Eugene NElson

      I can not speak for this website as I have no affiliation with it what so ever other than reading it and posting comments, but it seems to me that professional metal health help might be in order.

      No offense intended, dude, just saying.

      Phobias can be dealt with.

  • Anonymous

    This whole website is fantastic (so are the YouTube videos).  Everyone should have to read this.  Love it & hope to see many more writings.  Thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Suckerpunch-Sellty/100001712532824 Suckerpunch Sellty

    Hi Caitlin, firstly I love your YouTube videos (where I found you first) and now I love your site. My grandma died about 3 months ago, and at her funeral my Dad and I were the only ones who went in to view her in her coffin. I wanted to see my Grandma’s dead body cos a) I’ve always wanted to see a dead body and b) I thought this might be the only time I get to see one (sounds crazy hey, my Mum gave me the evils as I went in to view the body). As I looked into the coffin, I saw this sleeping wax doll that kinda looked like my Grandma, but I didn’t really recognise it as her. In that moment something clicked and I realised that I’m really alive NOW and that God didn’t really exsist and that I was kidding myself if I believed otherwise (not trying to preach, this is my personal opinion). Since then I’ve been trying to grapple with what happens after you die and get put in the ground, cos I had decided that it wasn’t heaven. I knew my Grandma didn’t exsist anymore (technically), but didn’t something happen? Your post above just slotted into place the missing info I have been looking for the last few months. The quote that got me is;

    “That is what decomposition is.  It is the science of sending back
    everything the universe loaned you.  The universe will reuse it as it
    sees fit.  Perhaps to help make an eggplant or an aardvark or perhaps
    even to make other, new humans.”

    This is the best non-religious, non-crazy hippy talk way of describing what happens after death I have ever heard. In fact, I think it is so good I am going to teach my children that this is the process after death. They can make up their minds later about God or not when they get older, but God or no God, the natural process of decomposition still happens when you die. So yeah, I love your work, keep it up, you are doing a great job! :D

  • Anonymous

    Decay is sweet like aging fruit.  One organism’s death is another one’s life.   We all like to eat, but no one wants to be food.  Life is a big paradox.

  • Dillon’s friend

    i buried a much loved kitten yesterday. i know people will think it’s trivial, but it’s just not. i suffer from mental health difficulties, and i am being plagued by thoughts and images. i wrapped her in a warmed towel and buried her about a foot or more down with her toy and some roses. reading this helped me so much. i’d like to plant a rose bush or something there. thank you for giving me some semblance of peace.

    • Scarsonslc

      I agree. The loss of a pet is NOT a trivial thing. It hurts deeply.
      I’ve read and study a lot on the soul and the “afterlife”, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we ALL have a place in heaven. Our bodies are all retuning to the earth but the essence of who we are will continue on; even our furry family.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/7DDUVHMJHTUDZ2LP2UEJ23VBCA Kerry

      Dillon’s Friend, whether or not one has mental health difficulties or not, losing a pet to death, esp. a sweet kitten who should be bounding about & growing into a feisty & great furry friend of a cat, whould be something to mourn.  Our pets, so unlike people, love us unconditionally, do not judge us & all they really ask of us is to share with them our love, a little food & water & perhaps a place to share a good snuggle.  Saldy, I have had to bury many a kitty & was denied burying our dog as the ground was frozen & buried beneath 27 inches of snow so we opted to cremate her & can relate to the loss, but while the pain is often similar, we are all individuals & our feelings are our own.  Many of my critters nourish all sorts of plants.  Some under our wisteria, some buried under rose bushes, some with spring bulbs such as hyacinths & daffodils & I find it a lovely way to remember them when I see the plants bloom or grow greener & stronger with the Spring & Summer.  All of my cats were lovingly wrapped in a shroud of some sort & with a memento, be it a small bouquet of flowers, big, smelly buds of catnip which grows everywhere in my yard now, or with a toy.  “Our Mortician” is such a great person & so eloquently shares her thoughts & experiences that, like you, I’ve found her various mediums to be of comfort or really good for a chuckle.  Here’s hoping that when we are to leave this plane of existence, that we are met by our old furry & feathery friends. Unlike many here, I don’t believe we snuff out like candles when we die.  Matter o’ fact, I was hit by a car at age 5 & resuscitated twice, then was in a coma for 4 day but came out of it laughing & with many stories of people I was with & calmed my dying grandmother’s fears of dying by telling her or my other worldly exploits & hope, very much, that I am rejoined with my lost pets.  Sorry to have prattled on, but I wanted to send my sympathy & understanding of your lost kitty.  Pets really are very hard to lose, no matter how long or short their time with us was.

    • http://www.facebook.com/graemebr Graeme Bregani

      I was moved with the thoughts of you warming the towel. Every act of caring is precious.

    • Anonymous

      Oh, don’t worry. You did right. I have half a dozen cats buried in my large rural yard.

  • http://twitter.com/greenburialguru Melissa Stewart

    What a great article!  I particularly love ”
    a gravestone, like a cherry atop the death denial sundae” I’ve only just come across your site and intend to work my way through all the articles one by one. I bet you’d like what we do too http://www.naturalburialgrounds.com

  • http://twitter.com/sarahmowat sarah mowat

    Wow! Thank you, is the first thing I would like to say.  Im a 28 year old female Brit and I have to say this is so refreshing to read because I have finally found someone who shares my own thoughts on death.  From a young age, I have never been scared of death, of course its heart wrenching when a loved one dies, my mum passed away 5 years ago, but I mean my own mortality. I truly agree that this is natures way and we should honour it and give back to the earth for the amount we have taken from it to live our lives. When my mum died  5 years ago (i was 23) because of the circumstances (she had been found dead for about 3 weeks) despite actually seeing and having to touch all the decomposed liquids on her floor (which strangely didnt bother me at the time), i developed an obsession with needing to know what she would have looked like when she was found.  Clearly ive smelt what it was like as had to clean her untouched flat, but it was all the pictures i was trying to create in y head of what she looked like, what she black, blue, green, grey, purple, was she swollen, or sunken… all of these things haunted me so i thought sod it, and i went on the internet and found out. Since then Ive not needed to worry.. hmm worry isnt the best word, ive not had to puzzle piece these pictures together and since then have looked at a lot of questions I had about Mortality and feel so invigorated to know the truth and really dislike how much its hidden away to society like a tabboo behind closed doors.  Everyone should read this sites information.  I feel honoured that the universe gave so much to create me and so I feel blessed that I may offer myself back to it when I die. :) xxxxxxx Please keep posting your ‘Ask a Mortician’ videos on youtube, its clear a lot of people are very curious, as they should be and you really provide a very matter of fact and natural delivery to explaining these matters.  Rock on! :) xxxxx

  • Marcia Lind

    What beautiful, loving, respectful work you do… and fun, too.  Love your YouTubes.  Growing up on a farm in Kansas (I’m 70 years old), and being a part of a Mennonite church, I was used to going to every funeral of our people and the open casket was always there.  I was 8 years old when my little sister of 4 1/2 yrs died (from a severe illness caused by reaction to vaccination).  We had the open casket in our home several days until the funeral.  Death and dead bodies were a natural part of life, nothing I ever feared, though it was startling to touch my sister’s cold and hard body.  I am shocked to discover that that was not everyone’s experience and there are so many people who do not want to see and “remember” the person by their dead body.  Well, never has that been the only memory, or even the primary memory of anyone I ever witnessed as a lifeless body. 
    Thank you for your work, your humor, in bringing death back to life! haha  It is as natural as birth which we laud.  Same thing really, only coming into and going out from different realms.
    Thank you thank you thank you again!

  • Punsterdo

    The photo of the gravesite strewn with flower petals is really moving. What a lovely way to go to the core of it all—just give your body back to the earth. It made me think I’d like to be wrapped in beautiful fabric with flowers in my hair and really nice socks and gloves on. Laid right there in the dirt, with flowers scattered over me, and some of the things I’ve loved. My horse’s bridle. Pictures of my parents. And (in a sealed box) pictures of people I loved who scorned me, who I still love. They’d be embarrassed or maybe angry. But I love them anyway. Drink whiskey. Play music. Toss the dirt on yourselves, my friends, and go home together.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AKJR63UR32BRGNF6HEOPLWYIBE Lily

    Hi Caitlin! My state will be getting an outdoor forensic lab (News Article: http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/outdoor-forensic-laboratory-known-as-a-body-farm-coming-to-western-colorado). Would you consider this a viable option for natural burial?

  • Nick Atkins

    I have always thought about death and have made a conscious decision to make sure that everyone I know (since you know, I’m still alive and all – at the moment, that is) that I want a green burial – in fact where I am from [New Zealand] it’s not that unusual.

    However, although I love the idea of a green burial, if I was to somehow come into a HUGE amount of money – I have better and more productive plans of utilizing my corpse.

    I want to be transformed into a working satellite.
    Not only would it take my primarily useless corpse and make it something useful – once redundant – the idea of falling back to earth in a natural cremation sounds wonderful.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. What a site!!! What interesting comments, too! This brought forth an early memory: As a small child in the 1950s, living on a small farm in a poorish area, far away from any funeral home or embalmer, my family and I attended a wake at a private residence on another farm. A casket was in the living room. (My dad told me many years later that caskets were locally made, and of solid oak.)

    My memory is of some adult lifting me up so I could see the dead body. I don’t remember this myself, but I was told by others that they would tie a scarf around the deceased’s head & jaw so the mouth didn’t spring open.

    I don’t know why, but I am dead set against cremation; it is so horrible in every imaginable respect. Natural burial is the only way to go. Hope I can arrange this for myself. I also don’t want to donate any organs to anybody. What a crime, doing this.

  • 456

    I wish government rulings would get out of the way to allow us to decompose privatly as accelerated compost or wildlife feedings mamals or marine. I have taken so much from my universe. Why cant I recycle my particles as I see fit?

  • Kate

    As a young adult, after the death of a friend, I was captivated by a story of a human corpse being devoured by and nourishing a pack of wolves. It sounded like freedom: the wildness that one’s phyical matter could transform into.
    Later, as I expanded my notions regarding our atom’s reincarnation into infinite universal forms, I began thinking of this dispersal on the level of the soul as well. The way we adapt each others mannerisms and world visions and are constantly exchanges pieces of soul with those we love. I decided I’d like to begin my physical reincarnation through those who already held pieces of my soul.
    A friend told me of a tribal culture she studied who mash ashes of their beloved dead into a gourd and use it to prepare a soup. This ceremoneous taking into ones body and person who is already part of ones soul, to me, feels like a beautiful and comfortable way for a body to begin its dispersal into the universe.
    Just wanted to share my own death dream. Thank you for providing the forum.

  • Kelly

    I want a green burial. I love the idea of going back to the earth. How fast does a funeral have to happen considering, you don’t exactly stay fresh for very long?

  • Theresa

    I so wish I could find a way to email you, but since I can’t I’ll just comment it here– Every february (the 3rd weekend of, to be specific), there is a huge gathering in Michigan called ConVocation. Nora Cedarwind Young used to come every year and do several classes on green burial, natural burial, etc. and we miss those classes (and her) very dearly. Should you ever consider teaching these sorts of things at conventions, I can promise you that you’d find a large excited audience at ConVocation. :D In the meantime, I’m subscribing the blog and the youtube videos.