Jay Castaño knows exactly what his funeral will be like.
A few days after he dies, friends and family will gather in Southeast Washington, say a few kind words and put his unembalmed body straight into the Earth.
“I want to be wrapped in a shroud like a little burrito,” says Castaño, a credentialing officer at a D.C. public charter school. “They can call it a Chipotle funeral. They can wrap me up and throw me there and cover me up with some grass and soil.” He doesn’t even have a particular preference for the shroud. “It could be a bedsheet,” he says, “as long as it’s clean and nice.”
For the record, Castaño has no plans to die anytime soon. But the 65-year-old has written in his last will and testament that whenever he does pass, he intends to become part of the “green burial” movement — a push to strip away the trappings of the modern funeral industry and get back to basics. Dust to dust and all that jazz.
“I want to be part of a tree, be part of a flower — go back to being part of the Earth,” he says. Also: “I am a tightwad.” Those fancy caskets don’t come cheap.
As baby boomers head toward retirement and the great hereafter, they’re thinking more about what will become of their remains. And what they’re thinking is what they’ve thought during every phase of life: Status quo? Buck that.
For some, that means planning elaborate send-off parties and purchasing tricked-out mausoleums. But for an increasing number, it entails a return to simplicity, a desire that has given rise to the green burial movement and, naturally, a burgeoning industry to support it.
“They want to do something different — something that not many other people are doing,” says Ryan Helfenbein, funeral director at Bestgate Memorial Park in Annapolis, Md., which turned a wooded corner of its cemetery into a green burial ground eight years ago. There, graves are dug by hand to reduce the carbon footprint, and plots are marked by engraved river rocks rather than traditional headstones.
At Washington’s Congressional Cemetery, where Castaño bought a plot two years ago, most of the 20 to 30 burials carried out each year are green or “natural burials,” according to Margaret Puglisi, the cemetery’s vice president. It’s the only cemetery in Washington that allows the practice. Bodies are not embalmed, there are no cement grave liners and the caskets — if they’re used — are made of biodegradable materials such as pine and wicker.
“It has a lot to do with giving back to the Earth — the circle of life,” Puglisi says.
There are no firm statistics on how many natural burials have taken place — after all, digging a hole for Grandma in the back yard would count as “green” — but a 2008 survey by funeral industry researchers Kates-Boylston Publications found that 43 percent of respondents would consider having an eco-friendly burial.
Fiona Weeks had never heard of the practice when her mother, legendary Washington gossip columnist Diana McLellan, told her that she wanted one. McLellan had melanoma and informed Weeks of her wishes several months before her death in June. “She was not necessarily an environmentalist, but she felt that she should be part of the Earth again,” Weeks recalls of her mother, who worked for a time at The Washington Post and was 76 when she died. “It’s so simple. And it doesn’t seem as invasive as having someone fill your body with chemicals.”
McLellan had joked with her daughter that she wanted to be wrapped in a luxurious Scalamandre silk before being placed in the ground. That seemed like a tall order, but when the time came, Weeks did order a saffron-colored silk shroud from Kinkaraco, a California company that sells green burial products made from natural fabrics.
Weeks bought a wicker casket that she thinks would have appealed to her English-born mother and had it lined with a mattress pad filled with lavender. “The only thing about a green funeral is that you have to bury the person pretty quickly because they start to smell,” Weeks says. “So the bed of lavender was great. I hate to think of what it would’ve smelled like if we hadn’t had that.” (There always were some unintended consequences of going au naturel.)
The 130 people who attended McLellan’s funeral at Congressional Cemetery were greeted with champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries. Instead of a traditional ceremony, there was a series of toasts, and then McLellan was laid to rest. Weeks got a few complaints from folks who couldn’t make the funeral on such short notice — McLellan died on a Wednesday night and was buried on Saturday — but, she says, many more people “came up to me after and said, ‘That’s exactly how I want my funeral to be.’ ”
And however they want it to be, the ever-expanding funeral industry will be happy to oblige. Beyond green burials, recent years have seen a wave of entrepreneurs offering creative options for those who choose cremation: a biodegradable urn that contains a seed so that a tree will grow from the ashes; a Chicago company that turns human ashes into diamonds (five color choices available); a British firm for music lovers called And Vinyly that presses ashes into vinyl records; and a field of crafty Etsy vendors who will turn your loved ones into glass art or canvas paintings.
When Castaño, who is divorced, told his family about his burial wishes, they weren’t surprised. He was born in Cuba, where the burial process is much less elaborate than it is in the United States. He’d read in the cemetery’s monthly newsletter that Congressional was offering green burials, and he didn’t like the idea of being “filled with chemicals and then locked up two or three times — first in the coffin, then a cement box, then covered with dirt.” And he didn’t like the idea of leaving his living relatives to pick up a big tab.
“I believe in simple things,” Castaño says. “I wanted something very private, very quiet, unpretentious. People will have a chance to be with my dead body for a while and then go out and have a good meal.” The point, he says, is this: “People have a choice not only in matters of life, but also in matters of death.”