A Natural Burial

Every few months Terry’s natural burial process comes up – people want to know what it was really like. It seems like just as often someone puts out a blog post or news piece on natural burial, but I think those can lack the intimacy that comes with caring for our beloveds who have passed. They also lack information on the natural burial version most of us go through – which is the totally unprepared version.

Even when you prepare, you’re unprepared.

I always knew Terry would want a natural burial. One night, early in our relationship, she declared her burial intentions to my father over dinner.

“When I die I just want you to throw my body beneath a tree in the forest. Just leave it there, don’t even bury it!”
My Dad did not miss a beat. “I take that very seriously. Should that day ever come, we’ll see what we can do!”
If she hadn’t already charmed Dad by then, that moment clinched it. He prided himself on his stark view of the hard facts of life, Terry managed to top him.

She rejected many things most of us take for granted. When we partnered I had to rethink how I ate, dressed, cared for myself and approached my daily life. Terry went to extreme lengths to avoid foods and behaviors that would expose us to carcinogens. Tragically, by the time she was diagnosed with breast cancer (for the second time) a standard medical approach had very little to offer her.

“Surviving past 2 years would be almost unheard of.” Later we found out that the average life expectancy for women with plural effusion (fluid in the lung) from breast cancer was ten months.

Fourteen months later we found ourselves talking about what she wanted her burial to be like. I started out trying to talk about what the memorial should be like but she gave her I-love-you-but-go-fuck-yourself wave of the hand.

It was probably only a few days before her passing that I had enough information from her to start researching where she could be laid to rest. Talking to her was the first time I really got how cremation is offensive to some of us. It was partly that she didn’t want her body to be burned up, and partly that she wanted to give back to the Earth what she had been given. Terry was the kind of person who would have enjoyed watching the worms and bugs have their way with her body. She loved the way the Earth renewed itself.

“OK so, no cremation, no embalming and as little casket as possible. What would you like the viewing to be like.”
“I want it to be here in our home.”
“Maybe in one of the cob houses? You built them and they would be cool at this time of year.”
“No, here in the house, in our room.”

That was one of the moments when it really hit me. She would be laying where we had slept together for so many nights. She would be where our children had slept between us, with that rocking chair that Dad gave us when we got our first baby. The one I sat in all night, holding Tadg against my bare chest, wrapped in a blanket when he had that really bad cough. Where I watched her breathe while she slept, when she first got sick, wondering what it would be like if she died.

“OK, in our room. Do you want the kids see you there?”
“Yes, but I want to be covered with this blanket. And I’ll be wearing my Gaia dress, the one from our 3 year Shamanism program.”
“Yes. How many days until they come to take you to the cemetery?”
“I don’t want them to take me there, I want you to.”

Are there things about your partner that you love but that also drive you completely crazy? This is one of those things. Terry knew I would do this for her if she asked it. She knew I would see it as a privilege, as a chance to be with her, alone, one last time. She also knew how hard it would be.

“I don’t know if they’ll let me do that, but I’ll try.”
“Thank you.”
Its strange that I felt most loved by her then, deeply loved for the first time in a while. She trusted me with her.

At that point talking was difficult for Terry. She had only one functioning lung and had refused oxygen. “It smells so awful!” A tumor had blocked her lymphatic drainage and her chest and head were hugely swollen. She was silent most of the time.

After a few hours of research it was clear we had a drive ahead of us. There was a local cemetery that would maybe kinda try and make a natural burial work, but they still wanted to put in a grave liner. The closest cemetery was in Mill Valley, Fernwood. The next closest was near Joshua Tree, about four hours away. I thought she might choose that one because it is so epic for so many of us who love the outdoors.

“No, Mill Valley is fine, its close to your Mom for visits.”

Eamonn was very helpful when I called. He understood that we were days away from needing a plot. How many of us plan our burials at 56? He outlined the details about their burial process. A wood casket was possible, but no headstone. She could be swaddled in cloth, they had organic bamboo fiber (Terry would love that.) They even had a gorgeous wicker container. No, she’d just want to plant flowers in that one. Her sisters Mary and Patti were there to help me make decisions (aka not totally screw things up because I was completely exhausted and overwrought.)

Only part of Fernwood is dedicated to natural burial. They are on some very steep slopes, no paths. Spaces are measured by inches and marked by natural rock headstones and a GPS tag buried in the ground. When you buy a plot you’re actually becoming a property owner in a tiny piece of California real estate. Last I checked property in Marin was not cheap.

“Prices start at about 6k, higher up on the slope is 9k.”

Of course Terry would want the plot with the really good view. Her sisters confirmed this when birds (Terry was a huge birder) circled and landed near the spot we settled on. Wind from the Pacific rushed up the hill most days, the hills of Marin stretched out green below. Her plot was surrounded by many other graves, each decorated with its own unique stone and populated with villages of religious statues, wilted flowers (no plastic) and mementos from a life that was shared and loved by others.

“Headstones must be natural and fit within a maximum size. There is an engraver in South SF we work with.” Time to visit our local quarry.

In preparation I called our Hospice support team to ask about transporting a body. Though I had learned about alternative care for the deceased when I studied the Hospice movement in college, I didn’t know the specific laws governing this area. Turns out not a lot of people ask about that. After a little digging the Hospice social worker called me back.

“It takes about 3 days to process the paperwork after she’s been officially pronounced dead. So that makes things a little tight for you.” Keeping a body in the home longer than three days was difficult without refrigeration. That would be cutting things close.

Dying on Sunday would be better than dying on Friday.

Isn’t it just shitty that we have to think about things like what day of the week is best to die on? If you die on Friday the people you need to talk to about getting a permit to transport a body across a couple counties just will not be available until Monday. Maybe in some really big cities government agencies like that operate 24/7, but not here. Terry passed on Saturday at 4am.

She had been emaciated for months before she died, but now she carried a lot of fluid. I was able to move her into our room with the help of a friend and place her on a flat surface I’d prepared with bags of ice beneath it. After crying a goodby to our friend I tried to sleep in our bed next to her body. I had been exhausted for months, that night I was now more exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life. After staring at the back of my eyelids for a while I decided to try to sleep in another room. I pulled back the blanket to see her again. As part of her dying process her body had pulled all of its fluids back into her core. She looked as she had looked in life, with one striking exception.

“Got your nose all bend out of shape?”

Terry loved bad puns. After her body had a chance to settle, her nose had taken a sharp turn to the left. Her joke rang in my head, of course the last laugh would be hers. She would not let me romanticize this moment or take it too seriously. Shaking my head at her hilariously poor taste in humor, I stumbled into the kids room and fell into oblivion for a few hours.

The days that followed included a lot of personal moments, many important visits. It included holding and telling our children (5 and 10 at the time), that Momma’s body was no longer strong enough to hold her spirit, she had died and now her spirit was free. Terry’s sisters and Mother attended to her for the few days we had her here. Friends came, a much loved teacher from school sat with Terry and our daughter. The kids peaked in from time to time. Our youngest brought flowers and whatever plants she could pull from the land to lay with her. I placed the phone at Terry’s head when a dear friend couldn’t come to the viewing wanted speak to her.

And it was summer.

Home Depot carries portable air conditioners that also de-humidify for about $350. We kept the door closed and that thing running throughout the day. After day three fluid started to seep out of her back and the smell became strong. Still her Mom and one of her sisters slept in our room with her. It was clear I had to surrender to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to drive her to the cemetery, the paperwork just couldn’t come through in time.

My brother was there to help me carry her out with the driver when he arrived to transport her up to Marin. Thats when you need a brother most, to carry your wife out of the house to be taken away to be buried. Thats when brothers feel especially good to have. They can hold you up if you start to fall under the weight of this journey of only a hundred feet that feels like a thousand miles. I felt clumsy trying to edge her body around the tight turns in our little hall. My motor skills were trashed by then, sleep was still hard to come by. We slid her into the back of the van, one last kiss through the canvass they had wrapped her in, then it was goodbye until the weekend.

The stone would not be ready in time for the burial. Usually it takes months to have a stone prepared. Since the stone would be a size I could probably lift and natural, I decided to have two made, that way we could have one with us at home and bring it wherever we went if we moved. The two elderly Italian brothers who carved the stones were sweet enough to put her stones at the front of the line. “She was so young, and a mother you say? I’m so sorry.” We would place the stones at a memorial later in the summer. I’ve called them the sister stones. The one at the house lacks a date but is otherwise identical to the one marking her grave.

Close family and friends flew in for her burial. Arriving there I was surprised that there was no heavy equipment on the steep slope, just a group of men who had dug her grave by hand. Several people had arrived before us, spending time at the site. The grave diggers stood very respectfully, with heads bowed besides the pile of dirt they’d made earlier in the day. Terry had been moved from their refrigerated room, wrapped in the simple bamboo cloth we’d bought for her and laid beside the grave. We laid flowers and lavender we’d brought from our land across her while people prayed and spoke.

We spent a fair amount of time there. My little ones were circling the grave, passed from Pappa to Aunt to Uncle to cousin and then back. Tadg hid for a while up the slope, asking to be not too close. The look of scared sad longing on his face will stay with me forever. No tears though – I think it was all too strange for the kids to take in.

There were lots of tears from everyone else.

I brought the wine we drank and drizzled over her before they began to fill her grave. As the dirt began to hit with a thump I imagined her sitting beside the grave, relishing the sound of the Earth taking her back. If she could I knew she would visit here, encouraging life to eat her remains and make more life from her.

I think that became one of the most important parts of the natural burial for me – visiting. I’ve always liked cemeteries, but this place is something different. When I visit Terry there I’m not only reminded of death, but I’m even more reminded of life. I’m filled with the warmth of knowing how happy she would be that we made this beautiful land her resting place. She’s infected me with her love of renewal. I know her body will be broken down, become part of this hillside, part of the glorious chorus of life we’re all so lucky to be a part of.

That feeling is priceless, but it cost about 15k.

The stones added up to about 3k, there was transporting and storing her and of course the purchase of the land. Terry’s idea of a sky burial (left to the elements) probably would have suited her better, but I feel sure I’d wind up in jail and the kids need a Papa who’s not doing time.

The first anniversary of her passing is in a few weeks, maybe thats why I’m ready to write this now. The layers keep dissolving. I know I’m deeper in the grief than I realize, not as far through it as I think. Reliving her burial reminds me of how its such an expression of our relationship, our love, the family and community that were invisibly a part of everything we did together for over 15 years. Its one of those things you do together that reveals who you really are. We were always people who would take the road less traveled, even when it was hard, and find all the beauty that was to be had there.

Truth be told, she was always the one who led us there. Now its my turn.

Much love to you and yours during this time of great change.