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Chicago Matters: Death on the Green Plan

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Nine million of us live in the Chicago area. And one thing’s for sure: we are all going to die. What you may not know is what happens to all those bodies, and the effect they have on the environment. Chicagoland cemeteries take up thousands of acres. Funeral homes use gallons of toxic chemicals a year. And cremation consumes lots of energy and produces emissions. Many Americans today are looking for ways to make their deaths greener. But change is coming slowly. The way we practice death has deep cultural and religious significance. As part of Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, Diane Richard and Todd Melby bring you their documentary, Death’s Footprint.

WILLIAMS: What’s my plan? I’m a traditionalist. I figured to just die, have a casket, and a funeral and be put in the ground.

ambi music: “My Way”

JOHNSON: I want a solid African mahogany casket with bolero red interior.

ALD. O’CONNOR: Well hopefully I’m going to heaven. I hope there is one.
SCLAIR: I already have a spot here at Bohemian National. And I intend to be cremated and my ashes to go in the ground.
JACOBSON: I would like some music. I would like people to talk, speak nicely of me, I hope.
WEIK: O.K. I’ve never heard anybody come up with the idea of composting their body with worms, but I’m like, shoot, I think shoot, it sounds like a great idea.

WEIK: This is my worm bin. It’s a rectangular cube, which I keep my worms in that eat my scrap vegetables. Mmm, look at that. Yum. So this is a mix of scrap paper, food that went bad.

MELBY: That’s Amy Weik. She’s 34 and works at an investment bank downtown.

RICHARD: Amy is a big-time environmentalist. She bikes to work, doesn’t eat meat, recycles…

MELBY: The environment is such a big part of Amy’s life, she’s not only interested in living green. She wants to die green.

WEIK: We’re Americans. We are wasteful and we consume. We think that we are entitled to everything. I’m entitled to using up this massive plot of land for the rest of eternity. That’s ridiculous thinking. You know what I mean?

RICHARD: Her mother, Linda Williams, is like many Americans - much more traditional.

WILLIAMS: I just do things at home with keeping the world green but I didn’t plan on my death being green.

RICHARD: So Linda was surprised by how specific Amy’s plans are.

WEIK: I’ve written a will. I wrote my first will when I was, gosh, like 23.

WILLIAMS: To be honest, I was shocked. I hadn’t even done my own will yet. It sort of got me going. I did write a will, but I included none of the stuff she included.

WEIK: I can read part of it. Zero products or services from funeral homes are to be utilized. There will be no viewings of my dead body, that’s a personal thing. My bodily remains should be processed with the Resomation or Promession process, first choice, or composted with worms, second choice. If all efforts have been exhausted, but these two options are not available, please bury me in a green burial ground, location unimportant.

WILLIAMS: The second was composed with worms? When I read it today, my first reaction was, oh my gosh, she composts with worms in her kitchen. I hope she doesn’t expect me to put her in the box. [laughter] So it was quite a surprise to me. I was trying to envision, how would I even do this? Where would I find somebody who could put her in this process?

WEIK: But no mom, I guess you didn’t read too well because I have links at the third page of where you can learn about Promession on Wikipedia.

WILLIAMS: Well I didn’t, I was sort of hoping I would die before you did.

WEIK: Well, me too.

WILLIAMS: That way you would have to worry about what to do. I wouldn’t be the one in this situation.

MELBY: The quest for greener death practices is not just a trend for the young. The senior group known as A.A.R.P. recently asked Americans over 50 about their death plans. One in five said they’d prefer a death that’s environmentally friendly. Most of those respondents were younger than 64.

RICHARD: Green burial is getting a lot of attention these days. There are books, conferences and lots of websites. They all explore the idea of reducing death’s environmental footprint.

MELBY: Amy is on the cutting edge of the broader movement toward greener death practices. Promession and Resomation are the latest technologies in death. Both involve dissolving the body in chemical baths. And both are rare in the United States.

One place that uses Resomation is the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

ambi: Resomation machine and fan

MELBY: The Resomation machine here looks like a steel cylinder that’s hooked up to a computer and steam pipes. The Mayo Clinic uses the unit to dispose of bodies donated for medical education. The process works by alkaline hydrolysis, which accelerates natural decomposition.

RICHARD: Terry Regnier is Mayo’s director of anatomical services.

REGNIER: Once we place the body into the unit, it rests in a basket, a porous basket that allows fluid to exchange through the cycle. Then we have a recipe for how much chemical and water goes in. Once that goes in, the vessel is heated to about 300 degrees, which creates about 60 pounds of pressure inside the vessel. The cycle lasts probably about an hour.

RICHARD: Since 2006, Mayo has used the machine on about 300 human remains.

MELBY: Advocates of Resomation say it offers several environmental advantages. Like cremation, it saves land. Unlike cremation, it doesn’t emit toxins into the air.

RICHARD: The final result is a white powder that looks like bleached flour. It’s supposedly so green, it can be used as garden compost.

MELBY: Regnier used to be a funeral director. He believes people should think about the environmental consequences of their final choices.

REGNIER: When everybody looks at forms of final disposition, whether it’s earth burial or cremation or Resomation, there’s really no pretty way of exiting this world. It’s just a matter of what type of footprint are you gonna leave when you do die.

MELBY: Not everyone who’s interested in leaving a lighter footprint is considering such high-tech methods. Most are simply thinking, where can my ashes be spread? Or where can I go into the ground without too much fuss?

RICHARD: Stephen Christy is a Chicago-based land conservationist. He sits on the board of the Green Burial Council. That’s a nonprofit that’s working with the funeral industry to improve its environmental practices.

MELBY: He advocates going back to a time when caring for the dead was a family matter.

CHRISTY: A century and a half ago. Grandmother was right in our living room here, propped up. We could say hello to her, have a party, we took her out and buried her and filled the hole in.

MELBY: That’s essentially what a green burial is. Today, Stephen is working to start the first green graveyard near Chicago.

CHRISTY: We’re just going to back to traditions that people have used for thousands of years. The whole point of the green burial movement is let’s go back to a simpler time when your death can be honored much more in an environmentally sustainable way and you leave behind a legacy that improves the earth. You’re saving some land.

ambi music: Philip Glass, Etude 1

MELBY: That’s exactly what Paul and Gladys Larson hope to do. They’re both in their nineties.

RICHARD: Paul and Gladys taught English at North Park College. And they hiked and swam through every summer.

GLADYS: Nobody knows the North American continent as well as Paul and I do.

PAUL: Our first canoe trip was kind of pathetic. We were so dumb. It was the last of June. We were city people, just ripe for mosquitoes. Oh, did they chew us up.

RICHARD: Where do you go for nature now?

PAUL: Those days are over. I don’t know.

GLADYS: We’re caught, caught, caught, caught.

RICHARD: Today, Gladys is caught in a wheelchair, caught in her frail body. She’s blind now. But her memories are still vivid.

GLADYS: My feet have memories of walking in the first furrow that was plowed in the glacial soil.

PAUL: I love my darling, I love my darling. I could weep when I think of how I love her.

RICHARD: The couple had a daughter, who died in her twenties. She’s buried in a family graveyard downstate. Paul and Gladys no longer intend to join her there.

Instead, a few years ago, the couple donated money to the Nature Conservancy. Their gift was used to buy about 200 acres of land in central Illinois. That way, it will never be developed. The Nature Conservancy put up a granite marker there to commemorate the couple’s gift.

PAUL: Our remains will be scattered somewhere around that stone they put in there. And I presume in the fullness of time, some of those cinders will grow back as flowers, some of them probably as vines and weeds, weeds. You know, who knows, who knows?

RICHARD: What made you choose cremation?

PAUL: It doesn’t upset the land, and it seems right, it seems right to us. And it has the approval of our padre, our pastor. And that’s it.

RICHARD: Like Paul and Gladys, many people think cremation is the greenest way to go.

MELBY: A recent survey by the Cremation Association of North America found that 46 percent of Americans plan to choose cremation. Of them, 13 percent said they will do so for environmental reasons—to save land.

RICHARD: That wasn’t always the case in Chicago. Cremation was slow to take hold at first for a few reasons.

MELBY: One of them was land. The Midwest has more burial space than either coast. Illinois cremates just one in four of its dead. Ten states, including California, Washington, and Hawaii, have cremation rates above 50 percent.

RICHARD: Another reason was religion. Many faiths viewed cremation as unholy, and some still do.

MELBY: The final barrier to cremation in Chicago, and nationally, was profit. The funeral industry saw cremation as a threat to traditional burial. So they tried to discourage it.

RICHARD: But consumer demand has won out, and today cremation rates are rising.

MELBY: We’re in the front parlor of Sax-Tiedemann Funeral Home and Crematorium. Steve Dawson’s grandfather started the business. Steve runs the place now.

RICHARD: Steve has a thick mustache. He trained in improv at Second City. But instead of show business, he joined the family business.

MELBY: Steve lives with his wife and two kids above the funeral home.

DAWSON: As you go out here from the back door, our swimming pool and the crematory is right there.

RICHARD: Wow. Not many people have a crematory out their back door.


RICHARD: Cremation is a big part of Steve’s business. Sax-Tiedemann conducts eleven hundred cremations a year compared to just 200 traditional burials.

DAWSON: In my backyard here too, I probably should have pointed out, I’ve got two cherry trees, the vines that are on the fence over there are a northern variety of kiwi fruit, and I’ve got two colonnade apple trees here.

RICHARD: Steve leads us past the swimming pool. We enter what looks like a two-car garage.

DAWSON: This is the crematorium. This is a cremation retort. As you can see it’s a fairly large machine. We have a body that has been dropped off here for cremation. If this is bothering you because I have a body here, I will do what I can to move the body out of the way.

MELBY: No, I’m fine.


DAWSON: We do have covers over everything. That’s part of the protocol. We’ll go back over here and get this started.

MELBY: So you’re typing in the person’s name into the keypad, it looks like.

DAWSON: Umm hmm. Then I’m going to put in the identification number here. Hit done.

ambi: Crematory Retort starts

DAWSON: That starts out blowers, which is a purging blower, to basically clear out anything that might be in the way there. And now we’re starting this out, the inside temperature is at 266 degrees. That’s going to climb up to 1550 degrees. Once we hit that point, that’s when the body will be placed inside the cremation chamber.

DAWSON: This is the machine that is the processing machine. What we do is we go through there and sort through the cremated remains.

TODD: This is actually what happens at the end, obviously.

DAWSON: Right.

MELBY: Steve collects all the prosthetics, those titanium knee and hip joints, in a big can nearby. They get recycled.

RICHARD: As green as that sounds, there are environmental downsides to cremation. Carbon emissions for one. And the energy it takes to heat up the retort.

MELBY: But a hidden concern is mercury. Mercury was once used in dental fillings. If your fillings are silver, you probably have it. During cremation, that toxin vaporizes and goes up into the atmosphere.

RICHARD: Mercury is a neurotoxin. It damages the kidneys and nervous system and can lead to respiratory failure and even death.

MELBY: How much mercury goes into the environment is unclear, because the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t monitor it.

RICHARD: Steve is aware of cremation’s environmental drawbacks. That’s why he’s looking to the future. And to him, it’s in green burial.

MELBY: He recently sought certification from the Green Burial Council and got it. Now Sax-Tiedemann is Chicago’s first green-certified funeral home. There are about 85 others nationwide.

DAWSON: In this area here, we have rental caskets and up on the top, these are e-caskets, Eco-caskets. These are made out of bamboo and these are designed to be biodegradable. These go back naturally into the soil. Each comes with a shroud. It’s a muslin shroud that the body is wrapped in and placed inside.

ambi: Cooler

MELBY: He also has a substitute for embalming.

DAWSON: This is a three-body cooler. Inside a three-body cooler, this is what we use to be able to hold remains without embalming. The temperature in the cooler is kept at roughly 42 degrees. That’s enough to be able to slow down the decomposition process.

MELBY: A chilled body will hold for a day or so. Enough time for friends and family to gather.

RICHARD: Even in his working-class Franklin Park neighborhood, Steve has already conducted three green funerals.

MELBY: That’s despite the fact that few people even know about them. In the A.A.R.P. survey, only one in ten respondents had even heard of green burial.

SEHEE: I don’t think many people really want many aspects of conventional death care. I think they think it’s legally required.

MELBY: That’s Joe Sehee. He’s executive director of the Green Burial Council.

The main goal of the council is to reduce the amount of pollution and energy used in the funeral industry. That’s because Joe says most popular funeral practices are wasteful and possibly even hazardous.

RICHARD: Joe says death doesn’t have to be this way.

SEHEE: Most Americans do not know that you can have a funeral with a viewing without embalming. Most don’t know that you can transport a body across state lines without having to embalm it. Most don’t know that burial vaults can be avoided, for example, or that you can go into the grave with a shroud or nothing at all.

ambi music: Cantor Stephen Stoehr

MELBY: Stephen Stoehr is a cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom. He’s singing a song of mourning in Hebrew. A traditional Jewish funeral dictates a simple wooden box, no embalming and the wearing of a shroud.

RICHARD: Islamic practices are similar. One of the most important aspects of the Muslim faith is a quick burial. As a result, Jews and Muslims practice what many consider to be the greenest death available.

MELBY: But those two religions account for only a fraction of Chicago’s faithful. For a lot of people, embalming is an essential part of a funeral.

ambi music: theme from “Six Feet Under”

JOHNSON: By the time the deceased has reached the funeral home, I’ve already got my instruments out. All my accessories, chemicals, my shaving cream, razor, eye caps, trocar buttons. Everything’s laid out. I’ve got my machine positioned. I’m waiting to see what actually the deceased looks like so I know what kind of embalming solution I’m going to use.

I’m Melissa Johnson Williams and we are in Forest Park, Illinois, and I’m just gonna give you a little bit of background about me by showing you through my house and kind of showing some photographs and giving you a little bit of background about how I grew up.

JOHNSON: This actually is a picture of me. I spent, from the time I was like 6 years old, maybe even before then, I spent a lot of time in the prep room with my dad. It was just… I don’t know. It was always fascinating.

MELBY: And you look very, very happy.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I am! I was, I’ve always been happy in the prep room, I love the prep room.

MELBY: For Melissa, the HBO show “Six Feet Under” isn’t just entertainment. It’s her life. Both of Melissa’s parents were prominent Chicago embalmers. They worked from home just like the characters in the show.

RICHARD: The only clue to her profession is a tattoo on her left shoulder of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. It looks like a human figure. Except it has the head of a jackal.

MELBY: Embalming is today’s version of mummification. There’s no data on how many Americans get embalmed. But it’s quite common at open-casket funerals.

RICHARD: Embalming is a physical and chemical procedure that??s used to preserve the body. The use of formaldehyde delays the body’s decomposition. But according to the World Health Organization, formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

MELBY: That doesn’t worry Melissa.

JOHNSON: If I did not believe that this was, one, safe for me personally to do, I would not be doing it. I’m 50-some years old. I’ve been in the preparation room since I was five before we had all these, you know, OSHA requirements and all of that, and embalmed during my pregnancy. My daughter you know is fine. There is no issue with that.

MELBY: Melissa says legal limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration protect workers like her from excessive exposure. But that hasn’t always been the case.

RICHARD: The first embalming preservative in the United States was arsenic. That poison can still be found in the soil around some Civil War graveyards.

MELBY: During that war, soldiers from both sides died on enemy territory. And their families wanted the bodies brought back home for burial. Before embalming, this was a messy process.

RICHARD: Melissa says that practice really took hold after the assassination of President Lincoln.

JOHNSON: It’s about 20-some days between the time that Lincoln was shot and he makes the journey back to Chicago for a big funeral and then downstate to Springfield, Illinois.

RICHARD: And President Lincoln, was he in pretty good condition? JOHNSON: Oh yeah, they said that he was, because they viewed him here in Chicago. Remember, his casket’s open, and that’s 20, almost 20 days after he was embalmed back in Washington. Because 20 days without embalming... There is no way.

RICHARD: Melissa thinks many Chicagoans still value her profession. And she’s willing to use greener alternatives, like dry ice, at her client’s request and if conditions are right.

MELBY: But she does believe embalming provides comfort to those grieving.

JOHNSON: I think for me that’s the one way that I know whether I make a difference in a family’s life or not. And I’ve gotten letters from families that I never even had any contact with because they wanted to say thank you, that what I did made it possible for them to see their loved one.

ambi: Cicadas

RICHARD: Charlene and Margaret Villarreal are sitting on the ground next to a gravesite at Queen of Heaven Cemetery. The grave they’re sitting near is their mother’s.

CHARLENE: I’m 45 years old and nothing has brought me to the cemetery. Nothing, until she passed away.

RICHARD: That’s Charlene. She says her mother’s funeral was a big affair.

CHARLENE: She probably will kick me when she sees me next time. She told my older sister that she wanted a closed casket. And when I asked my older sister why, she said, mostly it was to protect me. Because I’ve always had a problem viewing people in a casket. So when I walked into the funeral home that day and I saw her laying there, I said, well, mom, you look beautiful. And if the reason you want to keep your casket closed is because of me, don’t worry. I’m fine. We need to let everybody else get closure. So I’m going to leave your casket open.

RICHARD: On this day they’ve come to honor their mother’s birthday. RICHARD: How long have you and your sister been planning this day?

MARGARET: We actually didn’t discuss it. I knew she was going to come out here at some point today and I knew I was going to. So we just ran into one another.

CHARLENE: And I planned it since the day she died. I knew I would be here.

MARGARET: Oh get a grip, if she were here, she’d…Char.

CHARLENE: Sorry, ma. It’s about as hard as it was on Mother’s Day. I’m O.K. That’s how long it’s been in the works.

ambi music: Philip Glass Étude 5

MELBY: Like the Villarreals, four out of ten people here are Catholic. So Catholicism has a big impact on local death practices.

RICHARD: The Catholic Church prefers full-body burial in consecrated ground. That’s because Catholics believe in the resurrection of the dead. The church has only allowed cremation since the mid-Sixties.

MELBY: That doesn’t mean Chicago’s Catholic cemeteries are immune to progress.

COMPUTERIZED GRAVE LOCATOR: Spell out the last name of the deceased that you are trying to locate using the touch-screen keyboard, and then press search.

SZABELSKI: So I’ve just keyed in my family name and I’m pushing search. Florence Szabelski is my mother so I’m asking it to show that record to me.

MELBY: That’s Roman Szabelski. He’s executive director of Catholic cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

RICHARD: Roman started mowing grass at the cemeteries in 1979. Today, he presides over 2.2 million dead at 43 cemeteries around Chicago. He has a good sense of what his customers want.

SZABELSKI: We come from a very conservative tradition where people want their 3 by 8, their grave, to look like their backyard, which is perfectly manicured.

MELBY: Providing that much space won’t be a problem anytime soon. Roman says the archdiocese has stockpiled enough land not just for the next couple decades, but for the next one to two hundred years.

SZABELSKI: We’re sitting in Queen of Heaven Cemetery right now, which is roughly about a 300-acre site. About 100 of those acres are leased to the golf course next door. As we need the property, the golf course will go from 18 to 9 to zero and a driving range and that property will be used.

MELBY: Roman doesn’t expect to dig into that golf course for another 25 years.

RICHARD: Yet Roman is considering carving out a green burial section in one of the cemeteries here.

MELBY: Still it won’t be easy to do in this sea of manicured lawns. Green burial advocates prefer a natural landscape of wild grass and trees. Their preference is to keep the plots free of any monuments or markers.

SZABELSKI: So we’re trying to figure out how do you incorporate a green burial cemetery section into a traditionally kept cemetery.

ambi: outdoor machinery sounds

MELBY: Roman says it’s mostly a maintenance issue. The graveyards use heavy machines to cut the grass and dig graves. That wouldn’t work in green burial sections. There’d be no concrete vault to keep the plot from caving in. And so far there’s not much demand.

ambi: inside car driving

RICHARD: As Roman drives us around Queen of Heaven, he points out visitors near a gravesite. A man uses a hose to sprinkle the grass. A woman weeds nearby.

SZABELSKI: That family is turning over their care of their loved one to us forever. Sometimes the family is not totally ready to let go of that care, so they come back and they want to make sure that they’re caring for it. This is where mom is now, so they want to make sure the grass, the headstone, the flowers are all kind of perfect. So they’ll come out, they’ll cut the grass, they’ll fertilize and they’ll water it just so they’re saying in their minds they’re still taking care of mom.

ambi music: “Amazing Grace” performed by Paul Palmer on bagpipes

MELBY: In Chicago traditions fall hard, and none more so than those around death.

RICHARD: Like, why are bagpipes so common at funerals, even for people who aren’t Irish or Scotts?

MELBY: It’s because tradition is a comfort, a balm. And tradition is especially useful when it comes to topics we’d sooner avoid -- like death.

RICHARD: So any change toward greener death practices won’t happen until people sit down and start talking.

MELBY: Like the conversation we began with, between Amy Weik and her mom Linda Williams.

WILLIAMS: Being an older person and a traditionalist, I like cemeteries. I think they’re beautiful and peaceful.

WEIK: I do agree. We’ve talked. I think cemeteries are r eally nice and peaceful too. But at some point, we’re just going to run out of land.

WILLIAMS: We seem to be in different places on this.

WEIK: Right and I think my generation, we’re impacted by the world around us and the choices that we have to make. So why not do something positive about it with our final choice?

WILLIAMS: As I said, I’m a traditionalist. I figured to just die, have a casket, and a funeral and be put in the ground.

MELBY: Do you want to be embalmed?

WILLIAMS: Well, I did. It seemed like the norm, the acceptable thing to do. But I listen to my daughter and I’m like, well, maybe I need to change my way of thinking.

ambi music: “My Way”

PAUL LARSON: I’m just, I’m glad the day is coming I won’t have to lie in that casket right there. Amen. [laughter]

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