Baby boomers and (some) traditions for ‘green’ funerals

The other day I wrote a post noting that, in addition to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the so-called “Woodstock Generation” also had a taste for spiritual adventure that has helped shape American life and culture ever since. Basically, without the Age of Aquarius, you don’t end up with a parade of scholars and gurus teaching Oprah how to raise her hands up to the heavens while praying to the Universe, with a big “U.”

Some GetReligion readers were a bit miffed that I seemed to think that all Baby Boomers (me too, I guess) could fit under the same Woodstock banner.

That wasn’t my point, of course. I was simply saying that the alternative approaches to life explored in the late 1960s and early ’70s have had a major impact on shaping how all Americans think and live. Part of that cultural wave was captured in the sexual revolution, part was popular culture that soaked into the soul and part was an openness to alternative forms of spirituality (some of it serious, some of it fleeting), often from the Far East.

Truth be told, some Baby Boomers have also turned into strong believers in traditional forms of faith. Ask any megachurch pastor about that. There are also Baby Boomers who have switched brands and churches, looking for alternatives to the faiths in which they were raised. Some of them (ask your local Orthodox rabbi) ended up digging back into ancient forms of faith. Some have explored traditional forms of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc.

Once people start searching their paths can go all over the place.

This leads me to that New York Times feature that traced some of these trends right to the final acts of seekers’ lives. The headline was:

The Rise of Back-to-the-Basics Funerals

Baby Boomers Are Drawn to Green and Eco-Friendly Funerals

The New York City opening — in trendy Park Slope, of course — sets the tone. Spot all the key elements, one at a time:

First there was Slow Food. Now come slow funerals. On a recent frigid Sunday at the Park Slope Food Coop, Amy Cunningham was giving a PowerPoint talk on green funerals to a graying crowd of about two dozen, many of them note-takers. “I think when the baby boom is of age and we’re actively leaving this world, the environmentally friendly approach will be business as usual,” she said. “It will not be the odd thing.”

As New York City’s boomers shift from wooden toys to wooden boxes, Ms. Cunningham is hoping to ease their transition. A former writer for women’s magazines who now works for Greenwood Heights Funeral & Cremation Services, in Brooklyn, she pointed to a chart projected behind her showing that almost 50 percent more Americans would die in 2050 than in 2020. “I remember my parents saying, ‘Oh, God, it’s awful when your friends begin to die,’ ” said Ms. Cunningham, who is 58. “But we’re going to be seeing that and then more so because of the sheer demographics. I have to keep up with my yoga, because I hope to be able to help people through this period.”

She has a blog, of course. The name, of course, is “The Inspired Funeral” and she works, of course, with the Green Burial Council.

The story is packed with all kinds of details, from pine coffins that can (before they are needed for their primary purpose) be used as bookshelves, to biodegradable urns, to burial shrouds to the firm that will turn your beloved’s remains into a “reef ball” that will help coral reefs grow.

Eventually, religion does show up:

Many of Greenwood’s clients are Catholic, but they are increasingly from diverse religions and backgrounds. Once, Ms. Cunningham helped arrange a Hindu service that involved figs, rice and ghee. As New York is a place with many transplants who have drifted from their native customs, she sometimes reintroduces them to their pasts and other times helps them invent new, personal rites, often involving music and the participation of children.

Part of an interfaith marriage (to Steven Waldman, another journalist), Ms. Cunningham has planned the bar mitzvahs of their two sons, now 17 and 19. “I identify myself,” she said, “as a Kundalini-yoga-practicing Buddhist Presbyterian on the board of Brooklyn Heights Synagogue.”

Now that’s exactly what you were expecting in this kind of story, right? That’s the whole Woodstock fusion thing.

But there is the problem: Is this simple funeral trend found only in alternative forms of faith and non-faith? The story makes this trend sound like a march away from traditional forms of religious faith, as opposed to a rejection of American business as usual. That simply isn’t the case.

I’m Eastern Orthodox and the simple funeral is becoming the norm, among many in my church. Then there are the various orders of Catholic monks who are making simple, beautiful, natural and very traditional caskets.

Business is, well, booming as you know what generation moves into its final decades. In other words, where is the rest of the story? Or, in the context of New York City, are simple funerals not as hip as green funerals? Maybe it was time to dig a bit deeper.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    TMatt wrote: “Some GetReligion 6 Comments that I seemed to think that all Baby Boomers (me too, I guess) could fit under the same Woodstock banner.”

    OK I’m one of those commenters. My point was NOT that all Baby Boomers fit under the Woodstock banner. My point was that Baby Boomers took over what the War Babies started and it keeps happening over & over because of “the demographics”. I was at the Summer of Love with 3 other War Babies and all the acts were made up of War Babies and so were the people at the various venues. The Baby Boomers were still in High School. Other than HS kids who lived nearby, Baby Boomers were not there unless they had run away from home.

    This is kind of like Francis getting credit for what Benedict started. It drives me crazy. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Elvis, the Mamas & the Papas, the Jefferson Airplane were all War Babies. The audiences for them in SF were 95% War Babies.

    And now the Baby Boomers are going to get the press for “green” funerals. Duh! It’s the War Babies that are now dying off. They are the ones who are buying the pine caskets. I will soon be 70 and I’m losing my friends just like my parents told me would happen. Look at the obituary pages – it’s almost all War Babies dying off.

    The Baby Boomers keep sucking the air out of the room. I NEVER read anything about the War Babies who start these movements and are ignored until the Baby Boomers decide they think things are trendy. YIKES.

    • tmatt

      The 6 comments thing was a computer code error. That is now fixed.


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