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Fall 'DeathFest' Invites Visitors To Write Obits, Build Pine Box, Pick Natural Burial

DeathFest and Vickie Kelley

Vickie Kelley spends a lot of time in cemeteries. She’s founder and president of the Natural State Burial Association, which espouses sustainable burial practices in Arkansas.

“Our message is you can take a body and conduct a woodland burial or create a conservation cemetery which leaves no mark, no trace,” Kelley says.  “You decompose, you become earth, and the burial site doesn’t look like a cemetery. It looks like wilderness preservation.”

According to the Green Burial Council,slightly more than 100 Green Cemeteries operate across the United States, in neighboring states such as Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas, but so far none in Arkansas. And Kelley aims to change that.

“A Green burial involves no embalming,” she says, “a biodegradable casket, basket or cardboard box, or even a simple shroud wrapped around the body, before being placed in the Earth.”

Certain conventional cemeteries will accommodate a green burial, but the practice is surprisingly rare, she said.

The Natural State Burial Association is hosting its first Death Fest: A Celebration. The free festival, scheduled to run Oct. 27 to Nov. 1 at various venues in Fayetteville, will feature live music and performances, food, workshops and speakers on subjects including natural burial, home funerals, creative obituary writing, and expressing end of life wishes. The event is a showcase of alternatives to the modern mortuary industry.

Conventional funeral home directors record necessary legal paperwork and help publish obituaries; stage wakes, funerals, and cemetery burials, or arrange cremation.

“Traditional funerals can cost on average $10,000,” Kelley says. “We are not told that embalming is optional, used to preserve the body for viewing. If buried within 24 hours, the body doesn’t require embalming.”

Neither are expensive caskets required.

Kelley says no state or county laws prohibit green burial. She’s invited the Washington County Coroner to Death Fest to take questions regarding legal funeral and burial practices.   

Most families will pay for their loved ones to be embalmed and sealed in ornate metal caskets, then placed in concrete vaults, Kelley says. “That creates an anaerobic environment in which the body putrifies, or melts into a sludge, which is know in the industry as ‘coffin liquor.’”

Too much ground, she says, is being sequestered for monumental human burial. And cremation is not a “green” alternative. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the rate of cremation in the U.S. now exceeds burial. “But cremation requires an enormous amount of energy, taking all of my body’s nutrients which the Earth could use, and turns them into air pollution.”

Emissions from crematories, which are regulated by state agencies, may include mercury, and other toxic waste.      

On the Natural State Burial Association website Kelley encourages visitors to consider recycling the human body instead. In green burial, corpses are eventually rendered into compost — earth.

“When we go on a hiking trail, or walk in the woods and find a piece of wilderness, what on Earth makes us think that we are not walking on the bones of others?” she says. “Our society demands a sense of permanence and documentation and carved marble headstones.”

Natural burial does offer markers, but discreet ones. Unmarked conservation cemetery wilderness grave sites are easily located via GPS coordinates.

“I consider burial to be Earth’s final embrace,” she says.

For centuries, American children have sung an old nursery rhyme about just such an embrace.

The worms crawl, the worms crawl out.

The ones that go in are lean and thin.
The ones that come out are fat and stout.
Your eyes fall in and your teeth fall out.
Your brains come tumbling down your snout.
They eat your eyes and they eat your nose.
They eat the jelly between your toes.
Be merry, my friends, be merry.

And DeathFestplans to be very merry. A festive gala will open with the reading of a proclamation by Fayetteville Mayor Lionel Jordan.           

The nonprofit Natural Burial Association board of directors will hold its annual membership meeting, during the festival. Currently the group is seeking a dedicated conservation burial ground for public use.

Credit Jacqueline Froelich/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA
Benton County civil engineer Cindy Jones will be at DeathFest demonstrating coffin-bookshelves, the first place you set new books and the last place you set your ol' self.

“Green” coffin builder Cindy Jones will be on hand. The Benton County civil engineer will teach a course on building a coffin.  

“I will have plans available so a person can see how easy it is to build your own coffin,” she says.

Finished coffins don’t require a lot of woodworking experience. They can be varnished or decorated with personal iconography. Your biodegradable coffin can serve as a temporary coffee table, a storage chest, or stood on end as a bookcase. A Cindy Jones’ hand-crafted white pine coffin will be raffled off to the highest bidder at this year’s Death Fest.

Walter Schmidt, a retired lawyer, and Natural State board member, will provide entertainment during the event, based on an album he’s produced in support of the Natural State Burial Association, It’s Natural: Livin’ and Dyin’. And Schmidt is also hosting a workshop on creative obituary writing.

“Your obituary can be a very limited fill-in-the-blank sort of thing,” he says, “or it can be much more expansive with prompts that encourage loved ones to remember key points in your life.”

In the end, Death Fest will illuminate participants’ deepest fears, says workshop presenter, Reverend Jan Huneycutt Lightner. She’s a death and dying expert and ordained interfaith minister who’s attended to more than 30 deaths.

Credit Jacqueline Froelich/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA
The Rev. Jan Huneycutt Lightner is an ordained interfaith minister and a death and dying expert.

“Everybody will have a physical, emotional and spiritual event as they are dying,” she says. “Through our entire life we are dying while we are living.  But then we walk across this imaginary line and we are living while we are dying.”

If we don’t express our preferences, the unknown, unexamined, and unspoken could create deep consternation for us and those around us at our death.

“By being courageous enough to ponder each aspect before actively dying, we can find profound meaning as well as our individual preferences.” 

Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative journalist and has been a news producer for KUAF National Public Radio since 1998. She covers politics, the environment, energy, business, education, history, race and culture. Her radio segments have been nationally syndicated. She is also a station-based national correspondent for NPR in Washington DC., and recipient of eight national and state broadcast awards.
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