better biodegradables – questioning the superiority of solid wood

Thanks for the updated website. It’s great! I have a different opinion about something you’ve written as a group, and I’d welcome others to set me straight. If that’s not possible, then perhaps I’ll have added something useful to those members trying to do it a little bit “greener” who actually find themselves attracted to a woven fiber coffin but are being “guilted” out of it because it’s not quite good enough… Specifically, I’d like to take a bit of issue with the place in this article where you say the best coffin that consumes the least amount of resources is the plain wooden box. That’s true if the person grew the timber on their own property or nearby (it’s a 30+year land management project at minimum, here), air-dried it (didn’t kiln dry it, – and air-drying is a multi-stage, multi year process, BTW), milled it themselves (or locally) and did not use metals to hold it together (do you have any idea what sort of a high-tech system it takes to make screws these days? — OK, I’m getting a little precious, but you get my drift). After the “externalized costs” of the wood processing are taken into account, however, the formula shifts a bit. (…This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, tailored to fit this space. Please excuse its length and I hope it is helpful to the discussion at large…) THE IMPACT GRADIENT In my research I’ve found the vessels with the least environmental impact are, in my current “impact” order: 1) none – buck naked or in your own natural clothing or sheets 2) shrouded in a natural fiber from renewable materials 3) vessel of recycled materials, handmade – paper mache or pounded wool 4) vessel of renewable, sustainably produced soft-agriculture (short-term growing cycle) materials, handmade – woven willow, bamboo, seagrass, etc. I want to emphasize “handwoven” at this point because there are machines that can weave natural fibers. Look for those to eventually step into the marketplace the natural funeral products movement creates and then displace the handweavers (who take years to train properly as apprentices). This could be similar to Britain’s replacing of the guild weavers with the “capitalists'” weaving machines during the Industrial Revolution — that’s why they called it a revolution, and the machines won. It doesn’t have to come to that if we remember to support handmade, and we might take pains not to let it. Handmaking woven fiber coffins is an appropriate use of human hands AND funds, a trade worthy of respect and requiring a useful skill that must be passed from craftsman to apprentice, and I’d like to see the handmade funerary vessel become a norm, and not a rarity. Once you traverse beyond the handmade wicker range, however, you’re into a whole new arena of options made more complex by their methods of production, because it’s easier to knot or tie thin things together than it is to make strong planks or platforms of things: 5) vessel of solid wood products: a) locally and sustainably sourced and produced wood or box, hand timbered, air-dried, made with hand tools like saws, chisels, knives, adzes, and axes, OR — depending upon the circumstances — 5) vessel of recycled fibers from a production plant – cardboard, agfiber boards, plywood, secondary fiber boards, etc. – all highly biodegradable and made of waste materials b) some variation on the theme above with lessening degrees of ‘localness’, because I really don’t want to nit-pick — it can get to be a situational toss-up, however, between these various number 5’s. For example, our cardboard coffins are assembled by blind folks in a self-empowerment program in the remote mountain west, and the cardboard they use is manufactured by a mill two blocks from their plant. Our coffin kits are made with the same sorts of attention to behind-the-scenes accountability-detail, including one European supplier who works hard to serve the natural coffin and burial needs of people dying in Africa of AIDS, so there are social justice and transport trajectory considerations, too, whenever we choose a product to represent… But now, retuning to our impact continuum, we slide down the slippery slope as more questions raise their heads… c) … who grew the wood, cut the wood, dried the wood, milled the wood, planed the wood, sold the wood, made the coffin, etc…. and we’ve not even gone into the finishes yet – the lacquers and enamels, the veneers, the glues, the handles, the corners, the interiors, the … 6) After this come the chipboard coffins with their chemical components and their carpet-coverings – your choice of indoor-outdoor in gray or green, or just outdoor, of course. 7) And finally, the expensive thoroughbreds of the modern coffin world: the “solid wood” coffins that are ply, chip or scrub wood covered by exotic veneers, with polyfoam interior couches and phenolic resins to die for…or they’re simply solid exotics, magnificent pieces of factory-made and industrially-managed furniture that are gorgeous but… The range of so-called biodegradables ends here, and the conventionals – the steel and plastic, comprising over 80% of the coffins sold in the US today – complete the gradient on a much more permanent note. WOOD VS WILLOW AGRICULTURE With respect to the particulars of working in wood, I’ve both made and sold wood items before, and to suggest that wooden coffins are more environmentally friendly than woven fibers or paper mache is, I believe, incorrect. In my 30+ years of personal working-for-money history, I’ve also participated in agriculture, both plant and tree, in more than a few capacities. A tree – or rather, what they call “merchantable timber” — takes many years to produce. A coffin with 6-inch planks requires a tree much larger than that in diameter. 6-inch planks need a lot of glue and doweling handwork to assemble. Big planks take years and years to produce. Ask any timber farmer. In contrast, the proper species of willow can be grown on compromised agricultural soils and tolerates damp roots for up to 6 months out of the year. At year 3 it can be continuously harvested once a year, clear-cut down to the crown, for 50 years. That’s 46 more harvests than timber from the same amount of land. Willow helps stabilize soil, uptakes excess nitrogen from intensive livestock activity, is useful for bio-rehabilitation, and is an ideal crop to plant for farmers who have land in a flood plain that suffers from erosion. In forty years one can grow the fibers to weave thousands of willow coffins from the same physical area that might produce only hundreds of wooden ones in a single tree-growing cycle — i.e., 200 TPA (trees per acre) @ 33 yrs, at an avg. 11 DBF (diameter at breast height), though I have to admit I haven’t yet done the exact math to calculate MBF/acre and compared that yield to willow yet. Musing aloud here: I’ve done timber stand exams before, and a merchantable tree is primarily canopy, with a lot of space between trunks. The trunks, not the branches in the canopy, are used for the coffins. The willow, OTOH, occupies the same sort of canopy space but is down on the ground, rather than up on the trunk. It has nice spires of cane (“pre-milled” by nature and ready-to-use!) densely filling up all the space that, in a treed forest, exists between the tree trunks – and the willow’s cut once a year. Frankly, the carbon-storing potential of the fast-growing agricultural willow or bamboo is extremely high when compared to a timber forest, but the timber industry is a lot like the funeral industry and still has a hard time supporting a solution it hasn’t figured out how to dominate. Additionally, the clear-cutting of an adolescent forest leaves the carbon sequestration function of the former treed-area compromised, and also causes the loss of any forest habitat that’s managed to develop (because of course we’re not cutting old growth, are we? our wood is always from 2nd, 3rd or 4th gen “forests”, right???) – and this habitat loss is a huge uncounted sacrifice still overlooked by conservationists when discarding willow for wood. Willow, OTOH, provides a great place for nesting wild water fowl during breeding season, year after year — the crits have generally left the nest once it’s time to harvest, and there’s good habitat next year to breed in again. Not so with a clear-cut forest – it takes years for good animal living spaces to return. Selective cutting would address this last factor, but the Natural Burial Company has yet to be approached by any US wood-working business making affordable coffins in volume for the masses from selectively cut trees — there are over 2 million of us dying every year in this country alone, however, so we’re waiting… BACK TO SCHOOL – TIME TO LEARN A TRADE AGAIN Some people take issue with the fact that most of our woven coffins are currently imported. They completely miss the fact that they’re imported because we Americans have lost the skill to make our own! We have abandoned the utilitarian fiber arts as a culture, and we no longer have the capacity to make large sturdy woven items efficiently, and in volume, any longer. As with so many things these days, we have to import what we need until we can once again learn to do it ourselves. The Somerset Willow Company has generously offered to license its designs and help my company train weavers and jumpstart the process over here. As the Natural Burial Company, we’ve made a number of inquiries into basketwork communities ready to take this on, but so far there are no takers. I’d hate to think that the FCA’s very public stance on wooden coffins as being superior to wovens is contributing to this failure of the North American basketweavers to respond to the emerging market opportunity for their skills, hence my probably overlong post here as a way to counteract the opinion. FCA is entitled to theirs, of course, but it’s not necessarily fully informed nor correct — we’re in new territory here. There are those that agree with my logic, for I hear from them constantly, and it is to those folks I’m writing to, to encourage them to “voice their choice”, as I’m sure there’s room for more than one opinion on this topic. Bamboo and seagrass have similar stories to willow, BTW. The ones we sell come from small workshops, and we always encourage them to improve their operations’ triple bottom line whenever possible. Their stocks of bamboo and seagrass are increasingly from sustainable production systems – in fact, it’s partly the demand for woven coffins that is helping the Chinese to value their bamboo and underwater seagrass plantations more than they did before. Chinese workers don’t like the effects of smelting steel and molding plastic to make coffin parts any more than we do. They do it, like our citizens (or the Maquiladoristas) because they feel they must for the money the jobs provide. It’s hot tiring work and you can’t do it in your village workshop, or your home and with your children nearby, like many of the weavers who supply our woven coffins do. Those “Chinese coffins” of steel and plastic that mimic the Batesville models and are all the rage with funeral homes and memorial societies these days because of their artificially cheap prices take a huge toll on their societies, too. It’s a wonderful thing that we’ve actually got demand for a product of theirs – the woven coffins – that they can get good money for while giving us a relative bargain in the short-term, and that in turn stimulates them to care more for their own arable land. We all live downstream. There is no “there” — everything, eventually, happens “here.” We live in a circle and will do well to act like it. FINALLY – A WORD ON IMPORTING And, for those concerned about the travel footprint of global importing but who have yet to do the math on ocean container transport (just about the most efficient bulk transport there is, pound or cube for mile, at this time), our current supplier of Fair Trade Certified bamboo coffins calculates that importing one of his coffins from China to the UK uses the fuel equivalent of a 4.63 mile car trip. Even quadrupling that still produces a minimal transportation imprint compared to the rest of the effects, and if a tree is planted over the coffin burial, that tree more than offsets the carbon load of the coffin’s transport in a short period of time. Again, we’re in this for the long haul. We’ve got to start somewhere, and make incremental steps. Small organizations can afford to have narrowly focused views – that makes them effective, although it can lead to polarization and compromise the potential that coalitions can have. Large groups like the FCA should, in this member’s opinion, take a broader position in order to accommodate the many thousands of its members who are, like most everyone else in America, simply wanting something “better.” I’d like to think that better, for at least a little while longer, can be good enough. And we’ve still got a long way to go … So, thanks for providing this forum for commenting, and thank you again for this amazing new website!!! I look forward to talking more about these issues for years and years to come. best, Cynthia Cynthia Beal FCA Member Founder, the Natural Burial Company

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