Burying Your Dead Without Religion

These kinds of rituals also change the roles people play in the performance of death. In her fieldwork on death tattoos in Hawaii, Cann found that "tattoo artists had this kind of shamanistic role—they really care about the feeling and the significance of what this will mean for someone years down the road." They're the rabbis and priests of the body-art world: The tattoo recipient shares his or her story, and the artist offers a ritual in return, making the experience of loss more tangible and contained.

Wilde has also seen some families getting more involved with, well, dead bodies, including dressing and caring for the deceased. "That’s just a healthier approach toward death than the traditional: everything being done by the funeral director," he said. "Death and dying has become professionalized—that’s the main reason we don’t have a healthy relationship with death."

“There’s this movement to reinsert the body, whether through cremains or tattoos, or setting up your grandma at the table as part of the funeral," said Cann. "There seems to be this grassroots movement to bring the actual dead body, the corpse, into the mourning ritual.”

"Dying has become professionalized. That’s the main reason we don’t have a healthy relationship with death."

Just as people seem to be paying more attention to dead bodies, they're also paying more attention to the physical world those bodies are buried in. For his part, Wilde is interested in arranging more "green" funerals, which he sees as symbols of an orientation toward this world, rather than the next.

"Certainly with evangelical Christians, they believe that there’s a life that exists after this one—there’s a whole other world that we’re preparing for," he said. "There’s a strong tie within evangelicalism between the embalming and the immortality projects we pursue."

But "when you take that idea away, it kind of inspires us to something that’s more sustainable: Even in death, we want to respect the world we live in.”

A green cemetery might use caskets made out of biodegradable materials, like pine or wicker, and have few headstones. They often don't have vaults, which are typically concrete, steel, or plastic enclosures for caskets, either above or below ground. The vault "has a psychological value: It keeps all the elements out,” Wilde said, but it's not very sustainable to "bury ourselves in a couple hundred pounds of steel."

Similarly, "embalming fluid is not the worst chemical to put in the ground, but it’s not the best either," Wilde said. "Most states require a body to be embalmed if the viewing is 24 hours after death. But there are ways to get around that, one being dry ice, which arrests decomposition and keeps things from getting yucky.”

The irony of "green cemeteries" is that the ideas actually aren't new—and they're not that secular, either. In the Jewish tradition, for example, bodies have to be buried in biodegradable materials so that can people can return from "dust to dust," in keeping with teachings in the Book of Genesis. Embalming is also prohibited. Burials happen quickly after the death, and until then, families are supposed to watch over the body.

"It’s not that we’re reinventing the wheel—we’re rediscovering tradition and the meaning of those traditions," Wilde said. "There’s a lot of spirituality involved."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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