Some of us want a stylish sendoff to the afterlife. Let's take Anna Nicole Smith, for example: She was laid to rest in a made-to-order pink couture gown inside a mahogany casket draped with a pink-sequined cover adorned with feathers and—you guessed it—pink ribbon. But we're willing to bet those sequins will still be there in 2056. Beautiful (if that's what you call it)? Yes. Sustainable? Not so much.
In England, there's a movement toward going green when going six feet under (the country boasts more than 250 "natural burial grounds" already). Eco-funeral ideas include 86'ing the formaldehyde and embalming fluid when a body is prepared for the big hereafter and investing in a biodegradable casket or shroud. Non-intrusive grave markings signal each final resting spot—along with a tree, shrub or natural wildflower fed by the deceased's various innards, including spleen, liver and brain. If that last part makes you shudder, well, get over it. It's a natural process. Nate Fisher (of HBO's Six Feet Under) would be proud.
It also proves to be a particularly interesting business niche, one that Oregonians quite curiously haven't researched yet—until now. Cynthia Beal, a former natural-foods grocer from Eugene, recently started the Natural Burial Company (naturalburialcompany.com) here in Portland. Its mission is to promote the production of environmentally sound funeral "goods," and the company will start importing biodegradable caskets this summer. There's the "eco-pod," a casket made out of recycled paper (just think of it! Buried in recycled Willamette Weeks!), which ranges from $75 to $2,700. There's also fair-trade bamboo coffins, handwoven seagrass and willow caskets, and, of course, the plain pine box. (The average price of a conventional casket is $3,100, according to the Funeral Directors Association of America.) Yeah, but what about cremation? Get this: Crematoriums are responsible for something like 9 percent of mercury emissions due to the incineration of dental work and embalming fluid (we knew dentistry was evil). Plus, as Beal, who is also the author of Be a Tree: A Manual on Turning Yourself into a Forest?, puts it, "Would you rather be ash or a tree?"
Since England's doing it, it's a fair bet that America will jump on the green-funeral bandwagon too, and Beal wants to make sure Oregon is at the forefront. She is hoping to open a facility in Portland in 2008 where locals can make their own eco-pods. And Valley Memorial Park in Hillsboro has set aside a large number of acres that will eventually be a Natural Burial site (although they still do conventional digs, too, which cost about the same). "A little over 10,000 of us could go per year in Portland," says Beal. "That could be nice parkland. You know, multi-use with no ATVs." Sounds like a sweet going-away present.