The inescapable truth about life is that nobody gets out of it alive. Yet in America, death and dying are discussed in hushed tones, if at all, and often carried out behind closed doors.
Big corporations, as with many other economic sectors, largely control the funeral industry. Corporate-owned funeral homes often make it difficult for mom-and-pop undertakers to compete, and may steer bereaving families towards more expensive options, up-selling embalming services, coffin and headstone choices, casket liners and other extras.
Additionally, memorial parks are extensively single-use consumers of open space at a time when a growing population of baby-boomers inexorably approaches their moment of destiny—letting go of their physical bodies.
Maui residents are fortunate to have the opportunity for valuable inquiry into what happens at the end of our lives and the lives of our loved ones. In 2006 interfaith minister Bodhi Be founded Ipuka I Ke Ao—Doorway Into Light—with his wife Leilah and Ram Dass as a non-profit foundation promoting environmentally responsible “green burials” and a community educational series, which includes ongoing death and dying support groups.
As a hospice volunteer since 2001 and minister for 27 years, Be recognized that such events are “incredible community bonding experiences. When someone close to us dies, something happens to us. We may feel more fragile, more authentic.”
Part of Ipuka’s mission statement is, “To teach awareness of death as a natural and sacred, family centered and community centered experience, and to ‘invest’ it with sacredness and ceremony.”
As Be researched current funeral industry practices, he realized how toxic and wasteful their practices are. The following list of materials that also get buried with our loved ones in the U.S. comes from the Natural Burial website:
• 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid (mainly formaldehyde)
• 90,272 tons of steel (caskets)
• 2,700 tons of copper and bronze (caskets)
• 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (vaults)
• 14,000 tons of steel (vaults)
• 30-plus million board feet of hardwoods (much tropical; caskets)
“Embalming is incredibly toxic,” Be says, noting that body fluids drained from the body are often just sent “down the drain.” Europe, he says, is banning embalming in many locations because the chemicals are beginning to show up in the groundwater.
Apart from the Egyptian culture around the time of the pharaohs, embalming is a relatively new practice. It began around the time of the American Civil War, and a historical photo of Abraham Lincoln lying in his coffin is one of the first-recorded open casket ceremonies of the era.
The United States is the only country in the world with widespread embalming. Still, the majority of states do not require it, and in some places the Federal Trade Commission requires that funeral homes inform customers of other options.
Be is looking for a site on Maui to establish as a natural burial ground. These grounds—where people would be buried in biodegradable containers, cardboard boxes or cloth shrouds without embalming fluid or synthetics and returned to the earth to compost into soil nutrients with a forest of trees marking the spot—are an emerging trend across the nation. In a way, it’s the ultimate “back to the land” movement.
His vision centers on changing cemeteries from a single purpose use that removes land forever from the public domain to a reforestation project/park/botanical garden with conservation easements that protect it and keep it in the public domain forever. The site would include a crematory and ceremonial hall or gathering place. Families could help dig graves and create individualized ceremonies for their loved ones.
“Become a native tree when your body dies,” Be says. “Even the practice of ‘six feet under’ doesn’t make sense. All the soil micro-organisms that assist the natural decomposition process are in the top two feet.”
According to the beatree.com website, “a natural burial that makes one’s body available as a full-spectrum nutrient source for the soil web does more for the planet’s biological system than cremation.”
Cremation, too, is on the rise. Nearly 40 percent nationwide choose that alternative, with the Hawai‘i percentage even greater at 60 percent. From an ecologist’s point of view, cremation may be deemed more eco-friendly than a conventional burial, with the exception that it requires burning fossil fuels in a crematory, thus producing emissions.
Long interested in environmentally friendly, healthful and spiritual solutions to the issues of everyday life, Bodhi Be has lived on Maui since 1975. He owned and operated Rainbow Menehune Sprouts, starting in 1982, and began Maui Juice Company in 1986. His juice blends—Ginger Blast, Strawberry Passion, Aloe Lime C Charge, Orange Garlic Rush and others—were the favorites of the health conscious crowd.
In 1997 he moved to Twin Falls as part of a hui of owners who vowed to keep the access open to the public while living off-the-grid and farming organically in the lush Haiku country setting. He has been happily married for 23 years and has helped raise five children.
Bodhi and Leilah Be have also helped organize and teach at Maui Sufi Camp for the past 25 years. “The Sufis,” Bodhi says, “refer to the day of one’s death as the ‘wedding day.’ It is the wedding of the soul with the Beloved or the Infinite.”
Few cultures view one’s death and burial at such a distance as Americans, he says. “It was the baby boomers who helped bring home-birthing out of the hospitals and back into the homes, back into vogue. Now with the boomers aging, there is the beginning of a movement to help bring the dying and burial process out of the ‘for-profit’ hands and back into the community’s hands.
“When we hear about someone’s death, we automatically say, ‘I’m so sorry’ without even knowing the circumstances,” Be continues. “It may be that the loved one’s death brought final relief from painful illness and need not be viewed as a tragedy. Not to take away from the grief and mourning that accompany someone’s death—the spiritual understanding that who we are is not our body, and does not die and that love transcends the body—is so very important.”
According to Be, people may also be unaware that they may legally keep the body of a deceased family member or friend at home up to 30 hours after death. That may allow the family and friends to bathe, annoint and dress their loved one as well as sing and pray together. After a medical examiner is notified to verify the passing, Hawai‘i statutes require burial, cremation or refrigeration within the 30-hour period.
Educating the community of their rights and choices around the dying process has been a central focus of Ipuka I Ke Ao. They have filled workshops with speakers like Jerri Lyons, founder and co-director of the Natural Death Care Project and director of Home Funeral Ministry. A second workshop featured Frank Ostaseski, who founded the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco in 1987—working with AIDS patients and others—and Metta Institute in 2004. A primary project of Metta Institute is the End-of-Life Care Practitioner Program that Frank leads with faculty member (and Maui resident) Ram Dass and many others.
“The reflection on death is life-affirming,” Ostaseski says. “When we come into contact with the precariousness of life, we also begin to appreciate how precious it is, and then we want to live more fully.”
Later this month is a third in the series of talks and workshops. Starting Feb. 21 and running to Feb. 23, I Puka I Ke Ao (co-sponsored by Hospice Maui) will feature an introductory talk and workshop with Ram Dass and Joan Halifax Roshi titled, “Living and Dying in Everyday Life.”
Halifax is a Buddhist teacher, author and founder of the Upaya Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Though she has been involved with death and dying work for thirty years, this is the first time she has brought her teaching to Hawai‘i.
The workshop will be held at the Rinzai Zen Mission near Baldwin Beach in Paia. Early discounts may be offered by signing up before Feb. 10. Call 280-2833 or visit www.hospicemaui.org for more information. MTW