Imagining the “Solar Cemetery” – A Talk With Mortician Caitlin Doughty

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Thu, July 9th, 2020

"This is one of the more relevant questions to be discussing right now, especially if we want to continue with cemeteries in the United States," says Caitlin Doughty, regarding the issue of using cemeteries to generate renewable energy. (Photo by Justin Nobel)

The year 2020 has been a year of great change. As we re-imagine many aspects of our society and how best to live on planet earth, one space that deserves a greater conversation is the cemetery.

Digital Dying has written about natural burial cemeteries, hurricanes and cemeteries, the destruction of Native American cemeteries, the looming death of the small-town American cemetery, and a project to save the threatened Blues cemeteries of Mississippi. Now we take these important conversations even further. As the people of earth consume more and more space and resources, and the numbers of the dead inevitably grows, cemeteries are faced with a major crunch, and yet there are also new opportunities waiting at the gates of the cemetery. In terms of land use, and body use, and energy use. To discuss these issues, we connected with one of Digital Dying’s earliest interview subjects, the best-selling author and rebel mortician, Caitlin Doughty. These days, amidst much else important work, Caitlin has a new funeral home she is co-running, called Clarity Funerals & Cremation.

Here is the opening question we laid out to Caitlin:

In our reporting for Digital Dying, we have noticed that with costs of land rising around the nation, and fewer people being buried (vs cremated) it has become increasingly difficult for many cemeteries across the US, especially smaller cemeteries, to remain profitable and orderly. Cemeteries happen to have a lot of sunny open space, and are often placed on open hilly areas where the wind can be relatively strong—Do you believe that setting up either small-scale wind turbines or solar panels or other forms of renewable energy at cemeteries might be a worthwhile idea to consider?

Caitlin Doughty book signing

Caitlin Doughty visits with Rick Paskin, Managing Director of Funeralwise, at a book signing in 2017.

What followed was a free-flowing conversation that has been arranged into a series of other questions and answers for easier reading.

Can you lay out for us some of the latest thinking on cemeteries in the US?

The current rap on cemeteries is how wasteful they are. Those talking points about cemeteries have been around for centuries but really picked up steam in the 1960s with the cremationists, Jessica Mitford and the Bay Area Funeral Society. They were saying things like, “we are spending too much money, everything is wasteful except cremations, burials use so much material.” A lot of what we continue to say about cemeteries comes from that era, and we just kind of accept these talking points as true.

Okay, so we already have a “battle” waging in cemeteries where traditional burial has been pitted against cremation?

If you do a sample size of ten people and ask them about burial versus cremation, the majority will say, “don’t waste that land, don’t waste that money, just cremate me.” They believe those things absolutely, and they are also talking points that have been culturally agreed upon. But they need to be reexamined. Is cremation more environmentally friendly than traditional burial? Yes. A cremation uses the natural gas needed to complete a 500-mile car trip and traditional burials use hardwood for caskets and thousands of gallons of water for lawn maintenance and toxic embalming fluid. Is it better to choose cremation in that head to head competition? I would still say, yes. But how many new ideas are there for cemeteries that could be better than cremation?

Let’s follow that thought, what could be a better way than traditional burial or cremation?

Something like a natural burial is better not only by the numbers, but also in helping our conception of death and how we as humans see ourselves in the environment. It is not like we start putting bodies straight into the earth and carbon emissions drop and we solve climate change. But I think the shift to seeing your dead body as useful is very profound, and it is a fundamental shift in how we see ourselves as citizens of the earth.

For example, my desire for my dead body, and who knows if I will get this, is to be eaten by animals. I want to be tossed out and eaten by animals because I am an animal. I don’t go for the Judeo-Christian idea that I am master of the animals and master of the earth. I don’t think I am master of anything. I think I am an organic creature on earth just like the animals, and I don’t want to seal my body underground in a fortress. I want to be useful. And I think talking about green energy at cemeteries is the same thing as saying, I want to be eaten by animals.

It seems as if you are talking about the body as an object to be given back to nature and the environment?
I am taking from the environment wildly in my life. When I drive in cars, fly in planes. Why when I die do I just continue to take rapaciously, gobbling up our resources and hurting the earth? In fact, I want my death to be a statement about how I do not want to continue hurting the earth. What I am looking for is an opportunity to be helpful or beneficial in my death. I think this has really been the main conversation in death for the last five years—What does it mean for your body to be useful? That is why you see such an interest in human composting. That is why you see such an interest in green burial. That is why you even see such an interest in donating your body to science. It all goes back to this idea of how can we see the corpse as useful, which is a sort of radical idea. It doesn’t feel radical to me because I am so steeped in it, but when people encounter this for the first time they are really amazed.

Does energy use or renewable energy come up at all in the conversations you have been having about burial practices and the state of cemeteries, and do you think installing renewable energy like wind or solar in cemeteries could actually work?

This is one of the more relevant questions to be discussing right now, especially if we want to continue with cemeteries in the United States. I find it hard to believe that if solar panels or wind turbines were integrated in a non-obtrusive way, that most people who chose conservation burial would not be accepting of the idea. We already talk about energy capture from cremation, for example, crematories that provide heat to local swimming pools. Combine that with the bigger conversation we see happening about rewilding of the land, and how can we introduce indigenous plants to the land. I don’t work with renewable energy myself, but I am interested in knowing how far someone who works in that field could push this idea. What sort of renewable energy systems could you set up at a cemetery? That is the question. I would like to see a team of people with a background in this go to town on the topic, just go down the primrose path as far as it can take them.

That’s a good idea, and I plan to reach out to someone who can do just that, but can we walk down it ourselves just a bit?

I think perhaps solar may have a greater chance of succeeding just because it is less intrusive. I love the idea of having little solar gazebos. I am also invested in returning cemeteries to social spaces as they used to be in nineteenth-century in America. For example, prior to Central Park you had cemeteries. They were the green space in cities. So in returning to that, Do you have big pavilions where you can have workshops and meditations and more of a community sense? Does that big community space have big solar panels? Can you get little rocks with solar? Cemetery design is not my area, but just allowing people to think about this is important. That is what has been so fun to watch with people like Katrina Spade, and her ideas on recomposition. She really let her mind take her there, and she just kept going with it—and now it has been legalized in some states.

I think this conversation is especially vital for New England, where there is a cemetery about every five feet. With cemeteries from the 1700s and 1800s, a lot of the coffins are definitely gone. It is sacred but empty land, so why aren’t we using those cemeteries for new green burials? If you don’t use whole big caskets, why couldn’t you do simple green burials for your community in those cemeteries? These are conversations that should be happening. And the rise of green burial does not mean you can’t get a conventional burial. The funeral industrial complex is so strong, no one is taking away this ability. It is just saying, Hey, there is a large and frankly growing group of us who are interested in these other opportunities for our dead bodies.

But it is also important to keep in mind the overarching issue, which is that America is pretty much the only country in the world that believes we get a grave forever.

Interesting, So the desire for an eternal cemetery plot is a distinctly American notion?

In every other country, you have to move the bones out or get someone else on top of you. The amount of hubris to say, I get this land forever and I won’t allow any other use, no solar panels, no community use as a park, nothing. I mean, how curmudgeon do you have to be to say that. It is American individualism and exceptionalism wrapped up into one. It’s like saying, I am this individual corpse which is very important and I am better than the other corpses and better than the animals and better than the land and so I need to wrap my body up here and have it protected forever. And I don’t like it. I am not hellbent on stopping it, but I am hellbent on making it so the people who don’t feel that way have opportunities to die in other ways that are more meaningful for them, which may be an aggressive counteracting to that.

Do you think there is the possibility in the US for some of these more ingrained practices to change on a more massive scale?

I think the conservation cemetery is pretty much in the bounds of all major religions. For Christians, the idea of dust to dust and simplicity in death has always had its pull, and it depends on the culture and the time period as to whether clergy and leaders of church advocate toward very simple burials or very big burials. It is a moving target. If your Christianity is a Christ of dust to dust and being connected to the earth, there is no issue at all. But also, if you are an atheist or part of the growing number of vaguely spiritual people this might have a lot of meaning for you because you are saying, maybe I do not have to believe there is an afterlife but maybe my corpse has an afterlife in nurturing the earth and nurturing plants and the nurturing the ground.

Let’s bring it back to solar panels and wind turbines and renewable energy, give us an endnote here Caitlin!?

I think the coronavirus is teaching us that we have to adapt to new ways of grieving. At the same time, people are seeking a return to nature and a fight against climate change.  We want our deaths to reflect that, and it is our own small activism to have our deaths reflect that. For me, the anonymizing of my dead body and going back into the earth and potentially using my grave for someone else five years down the line, as they do in all other countries around the world, and having the land around me being protected and engaged by the community and helpful in ways such as generating energy is exactly what I want. So why should that not be available to us?

If it is your dream to be buried in a simple shroud directly into a hole on land that you know cannot be developed now because your body is buried there and they are reintroducing native plants and there are solar panels—why can that not be possible? It is so completely self-sufficient, it is fantastic.