Are you ready for the joint-shaped shroud?

MountainParkThe New Yorker has published another lengthy feature story — this time about an entrepreneurial “cemeterian” in California named Tyler Cassity — that’s available only in print (the Aug. 29 issue). Tad Friend, author of the 12-page article, discusses it in this online Q&A.

Cassity is a champion of green burials, which favor shrouds or boxes over airtight coffins, and natural decay over embalming. Death and mourning customs raise universal questions, and this article touches on an amazing number of them.

First come some of the more colorful alternatives to traditional funerals:

It appears that his deeper project, his emerging life’s work, is to codify a new religion of departure — one that encompasses the struggle between the wish to become a meadow and the belief that nothing, not even a meadow, matters to the dead. Cassity has approved Wiccan and Goth funerals and a pre-need request for a monument in the shape of a giant prehistoric rat, and he acceded to the wishes of a man who asked, when his time came, to be rolled up in a shroud as if he were a joint.

Then comes a brief discussion between Cassity and Richard Jongordon, another pioneer of alternative burial, which mentions the religious precedent for green burials:

The cost of the average American funeral and burial can exceed ten thousand dollars, but Jongordon said that he planned to charge only about fifteen hundred dollars for a “simple burial and wooden box.”

“Or a shroud? The way the Jews do it?” Cassity suggested.

“No shroud; a box,” Jongordon said. “It’s an emotional factor. The box looks better going in.”

Cassity’s radical improvements at a cemetery he renamed Hollywood Forever led him to another Hollywood connection — namely influence on the cable series Six Feet Under:

Occasionally, the funerals at Hollywood Forever are studio productions, staged for the HBO funeral-home drama, “Six Feet Under.” Cassity is a consultant for the show, and has provided it with story lines from his own experience, from Buddhist funerals to blood spewing from the embalming-room drains. When Cassity told the show’s writers about his new cemetery in Marin, they decided that when the main character, Nate, died, at the end of this, the final season, he would receive a green burial. “Tyler has affected the tone of the show, more than anything else,” Alan Ball, the creator of “Six Feet Under,” said. “There’s this amalgamation of sadness and loss and regret, the hopefulness on top of that, his soulfulness, his soft voice. Everybody in the writers’ room has a huge crush on him: men, women, gay, straight — after he comes in we all go, ‘Mmm!’”

Which opens the theme of how Tyler’s parents, identified as born-again Baptists, changed their worldview when they came to terms with his homosexuality:

In high school, Tyler was an All Division defensive end with no great interest in football or the girls who came with it. At sixteen, tormented by a forbidden crush on his best friend, he tried to kill himself by swallowing all sixty pills in the family medicine cabinet. When he was a freshman at Columbia University, he came out. His mother was devastated; his father was bewildered. “I’m a farm boy from southwest Missouri, and I had looked at gayness as a choice, because that was what my religion said,” Doug Cassity told me. He immersed himself in medical and psychological studies, “and it became obvious that it wasn’t a religious or moral issue.”

“It had a big effect on my family,” Tyler said quietly. “My parents changed from being Baptist to being spiritual.”

To make this story the perfect storm of culture clashes, consumer-level anti-evolution views pop up at a funeral. Friend describes being invited to the service by Billy Campbell, a physician who has pioneered green burials at Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina:

One Sunday in April, Campbell invited me to visit: “We’ve got a couple people who are hot right now” — close to death — “so you might get to see a burial.” The following afternoon, there was a service at Ramsey Creek for Anna Palmer, a seventy-eight-year-old former nurse. Palmer, who was dressed in a white sun hat and white gloves and tucked up with a patchwork quilt, lay in a cardboard box beside her freshly dug grave at the edge of a clearing.

A Baptist minister, David Blizzard, addressed the three dozen mourners. He looked around uncertainly, clasping a small Bible, and widened his stance. “This is kind of a unique funeral,” he began, “the first one I’ve had this way, out here in beautiful creation. It reminds us that where there is a creation, there is a creator. Thank God I didn’t descend from no monkey.” There were murmurs of “Amen,” and Campbell’s expression became studiously neutral.

Both the print story and the online Q&A mention Cassity’s breathtaking plans for his own final resting place. Here’s how Friend describes it in the Q&A:

He would like to be memorialized at Hollywood Forever with a circular monument of Carrara marble set in the ornamental lake, atop which will be a statue of a naked Narcissus on all fours, gazing at his reflection. Which is weird, because that was also my plan.

Friend offers an engaging portrait of a young man who could transform the funeral business, especially as more Baby Boomers face their mortality.

About the art: Town cemetery, Mountain Park, Canada, by Johnnie Bachusky.

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  • Andy Crouch

    You could call this portrait “engaging,” but I call it seriously, deeply, utterly CREEPY.

  • Stephen A.

    Some observations:

    One – As a practical matter, I’m certain that laws governing the disposal of a corpse in California (and wherever else he does these burials) forbids cardboard boxes and shrounds as coffins. So maybe he’s just having fun with us.

    Two – I didn’t realize one couldn’t be Baptist AND Spiritual, though I’ll have to rely on my Baptist friends to clarify that point. Though I’m guessing that it wasn’t their lack of spirituality that caused him to flee the Baptists.

    Three – After this article, I’m now leaning towards being rolled up like a joint and having a huge rat as a burial stone. (Note to my will’s executors: I’m joking.)

  • Beth

    Giant rats and joints aside, do these “alternative” funerals have to be so alternative? What about traditional Christianity cannot be reconciled with a simpler, less expensive, more “ecological” burial? Did Christ command us to embalm bodies and make sure their hair is just right? Does Tradition demand that we purchase “vaults” which are sold to grieving families who can’t face the thought that their loved ones’ bodies will decay, even if they believe something better is happening to their souls?
    Smirk all you want about the hippies, but I really hope that the “mainstream” funeral industry learns something from this trend, not just for “spiritual” people, but for Christians as well.

  • dw

    My father-in-law died a few weeks ago. The funeral arrangements cost nearly $10,000; the coffin alone cost $6000.

    I’m all for cheaper, easier burial. I’ve already asked for just a simple box of cheap local wood, and I’m strongly considering cremation.

    As a practical matter, I’m certain that laws governing the disposal of a corpse in California (and wherever else he does these burials) forbids cardboard boxes and shrounds as coffins. So maybe he’s just having fun with us.

    I’ve never heard that to be true. Here’s the California Cemetary and Funeral Board’s FAQ; no mention of a coffin requirement for burial.

    In Washington state, though, a coffin is required — for cremation, not for burial.

  • Stephen A.

    Thanks for this link, dw. Sorry for your loss.

    It would appear from this information that if the deceased is prepared “at home” a casket must be provided. It also implies caskets must be used in other parts of the list, but also lists (appropriately, for our conversation “alternative” containers in other places.

    Cemeteries may require caskets and vaults, to prevent the ground from sinking, and I bet most do.

    Very interesting.

    I remember reading many years ago about the Zoroastrian custom, still practiced, of leaving the dead out in the desert in “towers of the dead.” When I started reading this GR posting, I thought that’s where it was going!

  • Molly

    Well, at least those folks have the luxury of caskets or shrouds or what have you. Tell this to the families of the corpses being stacked on the docks in New Orleans.

  • Stephen A.

    Not that we want to go off-topic on this, but I detect a bit of anger in your words, Molly, and I, too, was and remain angry. There was no excuse for this to have happened.

    But that anger should directed at the right place, and not where some people’s poltical biases are sending it these days.

    For example, it’s too bad the city utterly failed in its duties to evacuate the poor and those without transportation BEFORE the storm.

  • molly

    Your words reveal your own political bias, Stephen. Have you been paying attention to the reports of WHO those people were that did not get out and WHY? Try a news source other than the ones that allow you to perpetuate your own stereotypes about race and class.

    My previous response was more bitter and cynical. Now I feel angry.

  • Stephen A.

    I think you need to watch those reports again, and try a news network and sources that aren’t engaged in race baiting for political gain.

    By the way, I saw quite a few white families on TV yesterday STILL stranded. This was not racial by any means. It was, however, economic. The government’s job was to get the poor out of the city. They failed at all levels.

    What’s sad is once the truth is out, and the lies are disproven, the hysteria will still be believed as urban legend, like the CIA creating AIDS and inventing crack. And this stuff will get spread from the pulpit, which makes it a real crime the Left is perpetrating.

  • Molly

    “I think you need to watch those reports again, and try a news network and sources that aren’t engaged in race baiting for political gain.”

    And those might be…? I find it difficult to believe that you can find sources that are free of political opportunism, left, right, middle.

    How much money do you suppose those white families have? How much money do you suppose those black families have? How much do you think race plays into the equation of how many whites vs. blacks were left in New Orleans?

    Which lies? You mean like this one?
    Please be specific.

    Since when has it been a crime to preach against injustice? If we were to remove all references to injustice from our churches’s tradions and our Scripture, we would have very little left.

    I am heartened to see that you admit that all levels of government have failed, but I am amazed that in order to keep yourself pure from the thought that the people to the left of you have a valid viewpoint, you will twist yourself into a pretzel to deflect contamination. Go back and re-read the reports with an open mind, not one already pre-disposed toward your own biases.

    Terry, you might want to keep on top of this story; the ghosts are huge.

  • tmatt

    In the wake of the LA riots, an African-American preacher put it best — there is enough sin here to cover us all.

    The FEMA response has been a disaster.

    The evacuation plans were a disaster.

    Now, what was the source of the delayed reaction on sending in the National Guard?

    What was the source of the CITY and STATE failure to plan for the evacuation of the poor and the elderly? Where were the buses for that purpose? Who chose to leave them in the parking lots?

    And what lessons will we — Democrats and Republicans — learn from the failures before and after the storm.

  • Stephen A.

    The rabid Left are somehow ignoring the “sins” of local government (wonder why? Hmmm.) and are using this as yet another chance to go after Bush in the most viscious of ways.

    Lies? Some of the whopping lies I’ve heard are:
    - Bush hates blacks (self-evidently a slur)
    - Bush was “too slow” (he declared an emergency before the storm hit)
    - Bush didn’t send in the army soon enough (under our U.S. Constitution, he can’t without the governor’s permission, which was delayed until days after the event)
    - Bush/FEMA was too slow to get to the Superdome (This is true, but the mayor knew in advance they’d take days to get there, and announced it on local TV, with Blanco standing next to him.)
    - Bush took money from the levy repair system and sent it to Iraq (The liberal NY Times editorialised against spending more money for levies this April. And this neglect spans several administrations, and includes a corrupt, politicized local levy board system)

    Jesse Jackson was on the scene – not to help, so much as prey on black fantasies that all white people hate them and are out to “kill” them.

    All this language is reprehensible, and the Left needs to drop this lunatic fringe language or it’s going to end up causing bloodshed from confused people who believe this garbage without questioning it.

    GHOSTS in the story? What about why, in a city that has been solid Democrat/liberal for decades, are Bush and the conservatives being blamed for ANYTHING?

    The Left’s twisted views on race in America is the ghost that haunts this story, and if we can get beyond the pathetic political “gotcha” game the Left is playing, we can address the real needs of the poor, which obviously people of Faith should be addressing, and the people of New Orleans deserve to have answered.

  • Stephen A.

    Yes, Terry, all levels of government failed here. Everyone is upset about it, and we all need to address it together.

    That’s going to be hard to do with political games being played, though. If one side is slated to “lose” that side will not readily admit shortcomings and move forward.

    Maybe we need a “truth and reconcilliation” style commission for these things, rather than one side of the political spectrum calling for “hearings” that will just be vindictive.

    The good news here is that churches and religious people all over the nation are responding with warmth and comfort. People who lost churches are there for each other and not obsessing about the lost structures.

    It’s really touching to see.