Death, art and politics: Pagan funerals and eco-friendly burials

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Last month, The Times reported renewed challenges for Pagans having funerals in the United Kingdom. They noted that crematoria, in particular, were not prepared for Pagan funerals and appeared likely to confuse such a funeral with Satanic practice.

In a report titled “Crematoria Provision and Facilities,” dated the 8th of April, 2019, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the UK government’s department that oversees local community activities. The report was commissioned in July 2015 by the then-chancellor’s announcement to review the size and provision of crematorium facilities. This included their sensitivity to cultural differences, specifically their ability to address the needs of the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain communities.

To gather data for the report, the researchers from the Ministry sought input from community members who have used cremation services. Surprisingly, the second largest group of respondents were self-identified Pagans. (“Respondents” in the report refers to organizations, faith group, and community partners such as the “Police Pagan Association,” although these groups provided commentary by individuals.)

Pagan respondents noted several serious concerns, including “issues with the layout of the chapel or service hall, in particular fixed seating which prevented people sitting in a circle, and the lack of ability to conduct the service outside.” They also “reported a lack of understanding of their beliefs and terminology.” One individual noted that “[there is] no awareness of Paganism. Requests [are made] for the name of the ‘priest’ (many pagans are non-hierarchical and most often groups are female led) conducting the service. [There is an] incorrect association with Satanism.”

The report noted that the use of interchangeable imagery and flexible spaces would make the crematoria more accessible for multiple faiths. The report also noted that local governments could use public resources to equip crematoria with needed prayer books, music, or even iconography. It notes that “there are no restrictions on local government revenue spending which would prevent public funding being used for such items. Therefore, funding of iconography or materials in a public building should not be affected.”

The report highlights the challenge in understanding the diversity of Pagan funerary practices. Covenant of the Goddess, for example, underscores the diversity of Pagan practice when planning and executing a funeral. Many of these practices are echoed by a multitude of other sites offering recommendations for Pagan funerals, often using the term “Pagan” as a broad umbrella for a variety of traditions including Heathenry and Norse faiths.

From these varied sources, a particular theme emerges: the involvement of natural processes to return the physical remains of the traveler to nature. Most commonly, this is through cremation. But there are other means to dispose of physical remains that intersect with a Pagan understanding of the natural cycle of death and the responsibility of environmental awareness.

In March 2019, the actor and voice artist Luke Perry passed away at the age of 52 from a stroke. He became famous for his role in the 1990s television series Beverly Hills 90210, as well as subsequent roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, and the film The Fifth Element (1997).

Perry was not Pagan to our knowledge; his faith is either noted as “unlisted” or “Other.” But he was an environmental advocate as well as an advocate of pre-need planning after a cancer scare. He told Eco News Network in 2013 that, “As a citizen of the Earth, I’m just scared. We’ve got to get the environmental stuff under control.”  He noted the importance of being eco-friendly in small but meaningful ways. He added, “I don’t take too many extreme steps, but I try to take all the small ones that all of us can do everyday to make the difference.”

Yesterday, Perry’s daughter Sophie Perry, commented on Instagram that her father took one of those steps after death, a step that was eco-friendly and, in many ways, distinctly and powerfully Pagan. She confirmed that her father was laid to rest in an “infinity burial suit,” affirming one of his final wishes.

Sophie Perry on her father’s burial [Source: Instagram]

The burial suit was designed by artist and TED fellow Jae Rhim Lee, who explores the intersections of culture and science to promote a societal “acceptance of and a personal engagement with death and decomposition.”

Lee described the suit in 2011 TED Talk. She noted three things that were important in understanding pollutants and how they make their way into our bodies. “First, don’t become a cannibal. Second, we are both responsible for and the victims of our own pollution. And third, our bodies are filters and storehouses for environmental toxins.”

She stated her concern that burial and cremation can cause these pollutants to persist in the environment.  But, in her research, she found that certain organisms like mushrooms could do the work of decontamination. She fed her own hair, nails, and skin to mushrooms and came up with a mix to do exactly that: “decompose [bodies], clean toxins and deliver nutrients to plant roots, leaving clean compost. “

Jae Rhim Lee at TED Talk [Source: Coeio]

The infinity burial suit is the result of that artistic and scientific endeavor. She founded and leads the company that now produces the suit, Coeio. Lee noted that “cultivating the Infinity Mushroom is more than just scientific experimentation or gardening or raising a pet, it’s a step towards accepting the fact that someday I will die and decay. It’s also a step towards taking responsibility for my own burden on the planet.”

The suit sells for $1,500 (USD) and is part of a natural burial. It can be used with an organic casket. Versions suited to pets are also available. The hand-crafted garments are worn by the deceased. They are composed of native mushrooms and micro-organisms that break down and facilitate the transfer of nutrients in the remains to plant life while neutralizing toxins and pollutants.

Lee’s short story behind her product resonates as very Pagan: a means to accept one’s own death and avoid further polluting the earth after death.