Maple trees are famous for the gaudy show they put on each fall as their leaves change color. But they put on a spring show, too, as you may have noticed lately. In their anxiety to propagate, maples have evolved a stunningly efficient method of seed distribution. Winged pairs of seeds are released en masse to spin rapidly to the ground like squadrons of tiny helicopters. Even more impressively, the winged packets are designed to land seed-first, thus giving the seeds the best chance of taking root. Stroll through a maple grove this time of year, and you can’t miss the thousands of dried seed cases standing upright in the grass as if there were simply no room for them to lie down.
Perhaps that’s why the image sprang to mind last week when plans were announced for a new Australian cemetery in which corpses will be buried vertically in body bags, rather than horizontally in coffins. One could not help imagining all those bodies standing to attention in the crowded earth like so many maple-seed cases standing shoulder to shoulder in the grass at Shinjuku Gyoen.
Incongruous, you say? Doesn’t one image suggest warmth and life and renewal while the other evokes cold earth, death and decay? Things trying to be born rather than things that have died? Yes, but that’s not the whole story. It disregards the positively sunny attitude taken by the people at Palacom, the company that is planning the new cemetery at Darlington, Victoria, about 200 km southwest of Melbourne. It turns out their whole focus is on life and renewal and moving on. Not for the unfortunate souls who are to be interred on their land, naturally — this is no cryogenics-like exercise in wishful thinking — but for the land itself and, to a certain extent, for the bereaved.
Palacom’s goal apparently was twofold: Find a way to dispose of the dead that would be both cheaper and more environmentally friendly than the usual current methods. As in Japan, cemeteries and crematoriums in Australia are traditionally set aside in perpetuity, thus becoming literal as well as figurative dead zones, and the associated costs have long been spiraling upward.
Palacom’s idea is to bury corpses upright, thereby saving space, and to bury them in biodegradable body bags rather than metal-lined caskets, thereby saving costs and guaranteeing that the space they occupy can eventually be reused. The company proposes to use grazing land for its new cemetery — which has already been approved by the state government — and to permit grazing to resume as soon as the land stabilizes.
Finally, there is an implied aesthetic or philosophical argument, to the effect that a bare-bones funeral is somehow inherently more dignified and admirable than the elaborate affairs to which we have become accustomed. Even the late Pope John Paul II evidently felt the force of this sentiment, asking in his will to be buried “in the bare earth” rather than in a mausoleum. His wish was honored, despite the fact that his funeral last month was one of the most grandiose in living memory.
It will be of interest to Japanese observers that Palacom rules out cremation — which would seem to meet the criterion of simplicity — on cost and environmental grounds. A spokesman summed it all up to the Australian Associated Press last week: If you are lucky enough to be buried in the new cemetery at Darlington, he said, “you are returned to the earth with a minimum of fuss and with no paraphernalia that would affect the environment. You’re not burning 90 kg of gas in a crematorium, and there’s no ongoing maintenance costs.”
In this rather daring scenario, physical death ceases to be a cul-de-sac, set about with concrete and walls, but part of the natural cycle, along with sprouting seeds and falling leaves. To be honest, it’s an attractive idea.
The problem is, the dead won’t care one way or the other. Those who are old or ill enough to be thinking about such things may well not care, either. The people who do care and have the last word anyway are the living, and chances are high that many grieving relatives will want nothing to do with Palacom and its vertical body bags in a sheep pasture. Even if a man quite likes the idea for himself, he is probably not going to think it appropriate for his mother or his wife or, worse yet, his child.
Standing up to the overpriced, land-hogging death industry is as hard as it ever was. People at their most vulnerable are apt to make conservative choices. Yet it’s equally hard not to hope the idea takes root: There are certainly worse prospects than returning to the earth after death as quietly as a maple seed spinning to the ground in spring.
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