Beth’s Final Gift to the Earth, and to Me

By Bryan L.

When my parents died, seven months apart, they were fortunate to be at home and I was lucky to be with them at the time of their passing. Unfortunately, while their burial at Arlington National Cemetery is considered a great honor, everything at Arlington was designed to separate the living from the dead and regulate the experience to a point where meaningful closure was difficult, if not impossible. I was very disappointed that we were not even permitted to stay and watch the grave being closed. My sister Beth’s recent green burial presented a profound contrast.

Beth was an environmental activist her entire life. She cared deeply about the planet and made a real effort to minimize her environmental footprint. In the end she wanted her remains to be a gift that nurtured the earth and not a toxic mess so typical of modern funeral practices. I am both proud and pleased that we, and especially her husband, Peter, were able to make her final wish a reality.

Beth had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, and at that time had a lumpectomy and radiation which resulted in full remission. In May of 2019 she went to her doctor with unexplained shortness of breath. A chest x-ray and PET scan showed that her cancer had returned and metastasized to both lungs. The oncologist gave her six months with treatment and hospitalization. She declined both, not wanting to spend precious time trapped in the medical system, hospitalized and miserable. Instead, she traveled with her husband, Peter, visited with friends and family, gardened, and took long walks with her dog, Maya. She spent her time as she wished, on her own terms. Not only did she strive to enjoy her limited time, she also prepared herself for death both emotionally and physically. She found a burial plot in a “green” cemetery on Whidbey Island, purchased her own funeral shroud, read books and poetry on death and dying, and listened to comforting music of a similar theme.

When Beth died on Friday, May 15, 2020 around 5:00 pm (Pacific Time), Peter and Beth’s daughter, Jora, were by her side. She was 64 years old. Jora and her daughter Georgia had arrived earlier that afternoon and were able to spend time with her saying goodbye as Beth had been awake and able to speak with both of them.

Minutes before her passing, Jora called me in Amherst to report that Beth was in a state of transition while deep in morphine. Science teaches us that hearing is the last sense to go—I asked Jora to place the phone next to Beth’s ear. I told her how much I loved her and that I was coming as quickly as possible. I also told her not to wait, echoing what Peter and Jora had already said. “Please don’t wait. It’s ok to go. I want you to be at peace and free from pain.” I am confident that Beth clearly heard my final words. Jora got back on and said that while I was talking her eyes were fluttering. Just then Jora said, “I have to go! I think she’s gone!” My wife Leslie was sitting next to me as the call ended and gave me a hug. At that moment a thunderstorm went over the house with a flash of lightning, an explosion of thunder, and a straight line wind that badly damaged three large pines along our southeast property line. We had been expecting that storm front all day, but the timing was noteworthy. The law of conservation of energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed—only converted from one form of energy to another. Could this have been Beth’s final statement?

When I arrived in Port Townsend, WA on Saturday afternoon, Peter, Jora, and four of Beth’s close friends had washed her body, anointed her with scented oils, wrapped her in the shroud she had chosen months before, and laid her in repose on a handmade cedar bier in their large, airy, and sunny garage. She was surrounded with cedar boughs and flowers.

From Saturday until Tuesday there was a steady stream of friends coming by to pay their respects leaving flowers, heart stones, and other small mementos. There were photographs, candles and incense. The flowers were spectacular, each one brought from someone’s garden. To the best of my knowledge, not one was from a florist.

Since Beth died late on Friday and the Health Department was closed, Peter was unable to get the necessary paperwork for transporting her body just yet. In addition, a physician’s signature was required on the death certificate. As it turned out, Beth’s GP came by on Sunday evening and finished the paperwork so Peter could be at the Health Department first thing Monday morning. The process there was quick and easy. “A slam dunk!” Peter said.

Over the weekend we periodically refreshed dry ice packs in spaces on the bier. At night we covered her with a canvas tarp to hold in the cold. We had no issues.

On Tuesday we transported Beth to Whidbey Island on the Port Townsend-Coupeville Ferry in the back of a friend’s pick-up truck. Once there, it was a short drive to the Langley Woodman cemetery, a lovely community burial ground filled with flowering shrubs and surrounded by enormous Douglas firs. We carried Beth on the bier and laid her by the open grave. Eight-year-old Opal, Beth’s step-granddaughter, and Georgia, Beth’s granddaughter, stood over the grave dropping red rose petals into the neatly cut hole while we took turns sharing our recollections. We sang Beth’s favorite song, “Morning Has Broken,” and covered the earth below with flowers and cedar boughs. We then unrolled the straps attached to the shroud and gently lowered her down to her final resting place.

When the grave digger returned with his backhoe and a dump truck filled with soil, I began to worry. Everything had been so peaceful up until now. But I had no need to worry. He didn’t just drop the dirt in. With great skill he feathered the joysticks and the rich, black topsoil, so appreciated by gardeners, fell in like gently sifted snow. Once finished, we thanked him for his care and compassion. It was clear that he took great pride in his work. Later the site will be marked by a stone that Peter is carving.

This was the most beautiful funeral I have ever experienced and it gave me great comfort. From the moment Beth died until the moment she was placed in the earth, not one stranger touched her. Every person involved in Beth’s postmortem care was someone who knew her and loved her. This is so rare in Western society and much of the so-called developed world. It is my hope that others can experience this kind of closure. For me it was an extraordinary experience and I am hoping for the same when my time comes.

Beth’s final gift to the Earth, and to me
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