She’s had little personal experience with death—ironic, perhaps, since her mission is to make death more personal.
When Theresa Purcell was in elementary school, her grandmother died—but she didn’t find out about it until after the funeral. She thinks her parents thought it best not to interrupt school and her routine. “I would disagree with that [approach] now,” Purcell said.
As she grew older, Purcell gradually realized that the American way of death-the idea that it shouldn’t disrupt our routines, that it isn’t part of our day-to-day lives-wasn’t for her. Now, as Minnesota president of Madison (Wis.)-based Trust for Natural Legacies (TNL), the 25-year-old is a leader in a growing community of those who feel likewise.
Green cemeteries are a focal program area of TNL. Green burial, or natural burial, avoids non-biodegradable materials like metal caskets and concrete, and toxic embalming substances. This allows for natural decomposition, which respects the ecological cycles of life and death. Cemetery nature preserves (or conservation cemeteries) can also protect thousands of acres of important natural areas.
Green or “natural” burial seems to fit neatly within the overall green movement-green homes, green jobs, green cosmetics-but to Purcell, it’s deeper than that. It’s about a culture that, at some point, began outsourcing death, an event that used to be handled within the family.
“In my grandparents’ day, the family dressed [the deceased person], and transported them,” Purcell said. “People today are forgetting how to grieve in a healthy way because they’re so far removed from death and dying.”
Thinking about her own mother’s death in the future, Purcell said, “I cannot fathom the idea of handing her over to a stranger. The next time I see her she’s in a casket, all made up-and then, suddenly, she’s in the ground. It doesn’t feel right to me.”
Although Purcell thinks that people should have the option of dialing the phone and letting others take over, she feels strongly that those who wish to wash and dress their loved one, “and dig the grave with their own shovel,” should be able to do so.
Along with her grandmother’s death, the Jack Kevorkian controversy deeply affected the young Purcell. She was in middle school when he made news for helping terminally ill patients die.
“I could not understand why he was in so much trouble,” Purcell recalled, “when he was doing good things for people.” Trying to understand, she sought out and watched a documentary Kevorkian made, and “felt nothing but compassion” for his work with suffering people.
This stance did not necessarily endear her to everyone in her small hometown of Caledonia, Minn., Purcell added.
‘Fascinated with people’
Driven by that same compassion, Purcell volunteered as a crisis counselor and planned to major in psychology at the University of Minnesota. “I’m fascinated with people and why they do what they do,” she said.
She realized, though, that her fascination operated more on a macro than micro level. “I was really interested in different cultures,” Purcell said, “not just in listening to people from my own culture talking about their [personal] issues.”
That led to anthropology, and a senior thesis titled “Green Burial and Western Attitudes towards Death: The Quest for Immortality.”
“It’s an epic title-I can’t say it without using this dramatic voice,” Purcell said, laughing. Purcell asked herself what she was passionate about, and the answer came: exploring how western culture views death and dying, and particularly, when and why we moved away from natural burial.
Go green, save green
Besides environmental impact concerns, natural burial can provide economic savings. “I think it’s a huge selling point,” said Purcell. The average funeral in the United States costs $6,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Concrete vaults, embalming fluid, traditional markers and nondegradable caskets are expensive. The sum can easily top $10,000 once a burial plot, flowers and other costs are included.
“A green burial can cost under $2,000. About the only thing that costs the same is the plot,” Purcell said. “Perpetual care costs in a conservation cemetery are much less because they are focused on maintaining trails and fighting invasive plant species instead of lawn mowing, for example.” This year, TNL hopes to find a site for Minnesota’s first conservation cemetery, ideally 20 to 100 acres within 45 minutes of metro areas (e.g., Twin Cities, St. Cloud, Duluth).
While TNL hasn’t focused on repealing the Minnesota law that requires formaldehyde embalming for public viewing of a deceased person, Purcell has made it a personal focus. She’s actively working to find a receptive ear at the state Legislature. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, Minnesota is the only state to require embalming for public viewings. Embalming may pose health risks to mortuary workers: Formaldehyde is a recognized carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization. And some of the estimated 827,000 gallons of embalming fluid buried annually nationwide seeps into groundwater, potentially entering local water supplies.
Many choose cremation for its simplicity and for environmental concerns. Minnesota’s cremation rate in 2000 was 30 percent (slightly above the national average), according to Cremation Association of North America. But a growing body of research suggests cremation poses its own environmental risks. “It’s not an awful option, compared to wasteful modern burial methods,” Purcell said, “but it lets a lot of harmful chemicals, like mercury, into the air-and ashes don’t decompose.”
Purcell emphasizes she’s not casting funeral directors as “the bad guy.” “It’s a business, and if people ask for [green burial], they’ll offer it,” she said. Thus, TNL’s-and Purcell’s-chief goal is letting people know about the natural burial option.
Beer and bad movies
Natural burial isn’t the only thing Purcell is passionate about.
“I love cheesy movies,” she said.
Six years ago as a U of M student, she launched a film group devoted to schlocky horror films and “bad B movies.” The free flicks now screen monthly at St. Paul’s Turf Club.
“To be with a bunch of people, drink beer and watch a terrible movie for free-people love it,” Purcell said, laughing. In March, “Spider Baby” was shown, which Purcell said features “lots of rock and roll, attractive women, and a main character who thinks she’s a spider and traps men in her web.”
Insects apparently loom large in Purcell’s life. Among her other interests: bees.
“You can have bees in St. Paul, but not Minneapolis,” she said. She rents a St. Paul apartment, but hopes someday to have a house with a yard where she can have bees. After speaking with the Women’s Press, Purcell was heading off on a “field trip” to visit a beekeeping operation in southeastern Minnesota.
When she’s not watching cheesy movies or hanging out with bees, Purcell can be found hiking, camping, reading, going out with her boyfriend, or working at her paying job-at the University of Minnesota Medical Center’s Cardiac Cath Lab. Her duties mainly involve scheduling; previously, she worked the front desk in the waiting room. She’s worked there several years, but doesn’t see it as her long-term career.
“I still want to go into museum studies,” Purcell said. “I had an internship at the Children’s Museum and really loved it.” She’s been looking into jobs, especially those dealing with natural history, but for now, she’s staying put.
The woman factor
Purcell doesn’t plan on going into mortuary studies, but many women are. For the first time, she noted, half of U.S. mortuary science students are women. “That’s huge,” she said.
Will it mean changes in burial practices? Purcell pauses before answering.
“I definitely hope so. I don’t want to get into stereotypes of females as nurturers-but it’s going to be an important shift, though I’m not sure what it will mean.”
In the meantime, she’s buoyed by the receptiveness of both women and men with whom she’s spoken recently about natural burial practices, including her own mother, who had a bout with cancer a few years ago.
“My mom gave me a copy of her official directives a couple weeks ago-she wants a green burial,” Purcell said.
“She’s very supportive and doesn’t think I’m creepy or weird at all,” she added, with a decidedly non-creepy laugh.
Trust for Natural Legacies (TNL) works to establish cemetery nature preserves throughout the Midwest. The Minnesota chapter (formed in September 2008) has about 30 members so far, according to its president, Theresa Purcell. Burial vaults and embalming are not used in “conservation'” or “green” cemeteries. Coffins are simply built from locally harvested lumber; or, people can be interred in a shroud, quilt or cardboard container. Markers can be fieldstones or trees. Tech-savvy families can skip markers entirely and use GPS coordinates. Green cemeteries allow for multiple uses, for example, hiking.
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