Professor's parting wish — a funeral kind to the Earth

DURHAM, N.C. — Soon after Dr. Clark Wang found out he might be dying, he decided to give the Earth a parting gift: a casket made of untreated wood salvaged from an old chicken coop.

A former psychiatrist at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, Wang was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2003. At first, his prognosis was hopeful, but after treatment and a year's remission, his cancer returned in a far more virulent and incurable form, and his thoughts turned to his own mortality. He didn't want his remains to contribute to the Earth's blight.

For nearly two years, Wang has been an advocate for green burials, a growing alternative to common American burial practices with their hermetically sealed metal caskets, concrete vaults and bodies pumped with embalming fluids. At his urging, the Durham area's first green burial ground has been established - at Wake Forest's Pine Forest Memorial Gardens. There, bodies are buried in biodegradable containers beneath the trees.

Pine Forest is one of 24 cemeteries nationwide - including ones in Asheville and Wilmington - certified by the Green Burial Council for their ecological practices. Increasingly, funeral directors are coming around; 400 providers are certified by the council. With baby boomers entering their retirement years, the popularity of green burials could soon take off.

In the time he has left, Wang, 48, wants to spread the word that people can use their deaths to leave Earth a better place.

"I wanted to use my death as an example to others that we can get back to the reality human beings have practiced for a million years," he said, "natural burial."

Wang's mother died when he was 2. She was buried in a conventional cemetery in Ann Arbor, Mich., and he always imagined that he would eventually lie next to her.

He arrived in Durham as a Duke University freshman in 1980 and never left. He held three jobs as a Duke-trained psychiatrist.

Then he was diagnosed with cancer.

His dawning environmental awareness began with a search for wholesome nutrition for his weakened body. He learned that the products he and his wife Jane Ezzard bought at the grocery store were highly processed and full of chemicals. The meat they ate was stuffed with antibiotics; the animals were fed byproducts from other animals.

Then Ezzard brought home a documentary that explored the intersection of coal burning and global warming. The couple became committed environmentalists, looking to lessen their footprint on the planet and help heal Earth from the ravages of over-industrialization.

Wang began to question his long-held plan to be buried near his mother. He worried about fertilizers and other chemicals used to keep cemeteries lush leaching into the ground. Then he worried about the expense of shipping his body back to Michigan.

"It made no sense to indulge that desire when I had a powerful opportunity to do something better," he said.

Until the Civil War, all Americans were buried using green practices. When a loved one died, typically, the women would wash and dress the body and lay it out in the parlor. Meanwhile, the men built the coffin and dug the grave. Burial often took place in the backyard or church cemetery within a day or two of the death.

The thousands of bodies that piled up during the Civil War made that impossible. Soldiers' bodies sent home by rail often arrived in an advanced state of decomposition. Battlefield surgeons then hit on embalming - draining the blood and replacing it with formaldehyde - as a way of preserving the bodies until they could be buried. By war's end, the practice had become commonplace, and the modern funeral industry was born.

Wang wants to see a return to a simpler past.

Health officials say embalming is not needed. Jewish law forbids it. Many European countries have banned it.

As a doctor, Wang knew formaldehyde can cause cancer, and he didn't want it leaching from his grave into the ground and eventually the water supply. But even without embalming, the more he learned about conventional cemeteries, the less he wanted to be buried there.

All of Raleigh's cemeteries require caskets to be encased in a burial container, often called a vault.

Although not required by city ordinance, vaults prevent the ground from caving in, making it easier to maintain level, manicured lawns, said Joe Smolenski III of the Renaissance Funeral Home in Raleigh.

Smolenski's funeral home is eager to join the green burial movement, following a growing group of providers led by Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina, which started the nation's first green cemetery in 1998.

"It's natural," Smolenski said. "It's what we used to do. It's renewing."

For Wang, cremation also was not an alternative. Besides the air pollution caused by high-temperature furnaces, cremation also spews dust residue containing mercury and other metals found in tooth fillings and implanted surgical devices.

What Wang wanted was a home funeral with burial in a biodegradable coffin. So he got some friends to build him a coffin from salvaged wood. When it was done, he climbed inside to see how it fit.

"It's a little tight around the shoulders," he quipped.

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