Body of Wonder Podcast

Episode #46 Exploring Green Burials with Seth Viddal

Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Victoria Maizes are joined by Seth Viddal, entrepreneur and leading voice in the word of green burials, as we explore conscious alternatives to common day burial practices.

Viddal, who leads a green burial funeral home, sheds light on the growing popularity of green burials, the ecological benefits, and the cultural shift towards embracing this practice. He describes how "reverent body care" and a mindful approach to the end of life can contribute to a gentle passing and meaningful final resting place.

Viddal guides listeners through the considerations and decision-making process when choosing green burials for oneself or a loved one, emphasizing the significance of this choice.
 

Please note, the show will not advise, diagnose, or treat medical conditions. Always seek the advice of your physician or healthcare provider for questions regarding your health.

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Dr. Victoria Maizes
Hi Andy.

Dr. Andrew Weil
Hi Victoria.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Today we are going to speak with someone whose beard is longer than yours.

I just want to encourage listeners who might want a peek at the video. Seth Viddal, He is an innovator actually, in the funeral space.

Dr. Andrew Weil
I think many people don't realize that there are options for how bodies are disposed of, some that are much more ecological and natural than conventional ones, and I'm looking forward to learning more about that.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
And in integrative medicine, we're always focused on the most natural and least invasive. And so I think this is a topic that deserves to be spoken about on an Integrative Medicine podcast.

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Dr. Victoria Maizes
Seth Viddal is an entrepreneur, environmentalist and an industry disruptor whose passion for holistic funeral practices has reshaped how we approach end of life care. He is the CEO of the Natural Funeral and the developer of Reverent Body Care, a death care process that engages families. He recently launched the inaugural Body Composting Conference in March of 2023. Welcome, Seth.

Seth Viddal
Thank you, Victoria. It's great to be here.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Well, we're delighted to have you. We're going to be speaking about maybe a less familiar topic, which is green burial. So can you explain to our listeners what green burials are and also how you became interested?

Seth Viddal
Sure. A green burial is the most simple way to return our bodies to the cycle of life from which we all arose. It is a burial that generally takes place in a grave that's more shallow than a conventional six foot depth so that the plants and grasses in our topsoil can actually reach the nutrients that are in our bodies underground.

It generally takes place in less merchandise, meaning maybe not a casket, maybe a simple shroud. And in all cases, the body is embalmed. So it's not chemically preserved, meaning that it can decompose at nature's time frame. And I became involved after being a kind of funeral consumer and really not finding what was a meaningful experience at the unexpected deaths of my mother and father and younger brother. I wanted to find a way to connect back with nature.

Dr. Andrew Weil
I think most people have no idea of how the conventional funeral industry has controlled burial practices. Do you want to comment on that?

Seth Viddal
I'd love to. About the time of the Civil War, when young soldiers were dying, maybe several days horseback ride from their hometown the practice of embalming began, and it was originally cabinet makers turned casket makers who would go out onto a battlefield and use chemical preservatives, generally formaldehyde-based preservatives in order that the bodies would survive a several day horseback ride back to the town so that families could even see their young people again and then bury them.

And as happens in this country, when we find something that we can commodify and that we can productize, we don't let go of that very rapidly. And an entire industry was born. Abraham Lincoln was embalmed and taken around the country so that people could see him and experience him. And that became a customary practice that that really replaced a tradition that we've known about for tens of thousands of years, which is when a member of our family or clan or tribe dies, we grieve, we return their body to the cycle of life and we understand our connection with nature.

Dr. Andrew Weil
Is it true that the funeral industry has successfully lobbied to make unconventional burial practices illegal?

Seth Viddal
Somewhat so. There are generally ways that folks can have some style of green burial. We call it shades of green. Some some rules are law based. Some rules are local regulations. But most rules have to do with the cemeteries themselves who have put in place a rule that says, for example, a vault must be used around the casket.

And that vault is generally for the purpose of not allowing the ground to cave or settle as the body and casket naturally decomposes. It allows that nice flat surface for a lawn that is watered and manicured and mowed to to mean its pristine surface. But it doesn't really serve a practical purpose, and it certainly obstructs our contact with the ground and voids.

Dr. Andrew Weil
vaults and caskets are quite expensive.

Seth Viddal
Well, of course they are. And they they can range from a few thousand dollars up into the tens of thousands of dollars, Andy.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
One of the reason I know that vaults are used, for example, in California is because earthquakes have sometimes disrupted cemeteries. And if people are attached to a burial site, you may not actually know where your loved one was buried anymore as the ground shifts and people's remains move around. Sometimes I think my understanding with green burial, there may not actually be a a site marker or it may really be a return to nature where an acknowledgment that, you know, maybe this general vicinity, but not a very specific piece of let's use the the words I've heard used real estate.

Seth Viddal
That's right. A headstone is a traditional way that we've come to mark our gravesites in this country and in many countries. Yesterday, I had the privilege of serving a family at a beautiful Aspen Grove, which is on their private property. And we dug a grave there and the matriarch of the family was returned to the earth, naturally.

And the way that we mark that is that the local sheriff came out and he marked with his phone the GPS coordinates. And so the marker in perpetuity is not something that is physical, but it's an information piece which will be recorded on the property deed that says that this GPS coordinates this person was buried on this day.

Dr. Andrew Weil
Can you tell us about the different types of natural funerals?

Seth Viddal
Yeah,  I'm lucky to be with a group called the Natural Funeral that tries to afford families the option to return their body to the earth in the way that they choose, not the way that we choose, and that that means there's a pretty broad menu of options that we offer to families.

Those are, of course, green burial, and we provide conventional flame cremation. It's the most affordable, rapid, safe and effective form of disposition that the majority of people in the country now turn to. About 60% of American consumers choose to be cremated. But on the rising trend are some ecological options. One of them is called alkaline hydrolysis or water cremation.

And that's where a body is placed in a tub with a small amount of water and alkaline compounds. And over about 3 to 4 hours, the soft tissue and the organs of the body are converted into a liquid form. And that liquid form is something that we neutralize. And of course, it's a sterile liquid. At the conclusion of the process, we neutralize it and then it's a nutrient dense liquid that can be offered back to the earth.

Another new and emerging technology is called terramation or body composting, and that is a 2 to 4 month process where the body is surrounded by woodchips, straw, and alfalfa and the natural process of composting or decomposition occurs and the body is returned to the family in the form of a living soil. You match that with private land burials, even open pyre, cremations that we offer on private land. And there really is quite a lot for a consumer to choose from.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
I first heard about human composting, I don't know, maybe five or six years ago. And I told my children when I die, I want composting. Andy, have you thought about how you would like to have your remains taken care of?

Dr. Andrew Weil
Yeah, I had sort of reflexively put down cremation, but the more I thought about it. Body composting appeals to me much more. And I'd like to hear what Seth has to say about the ecological consequence of cremation.

Seth Viddal
Yeah, that's. It's an amazing reason that people are shifting their perspectives. So a flame cremation consumes quite a bit of natural gas in the 90 to 120 minute process to flames operate at about 800 degrees Fahrenheit, which consumes about the amount of natural gas that it would take to power a vehicle on a 5 to 600 mile trip. And in addition to that, the body, which contains some spectacular nutrients, is simply consumed and converted to a gas sent out of smokestack.

And and as you can imagine, that creates pollution by comparison, the process of termination uses very little energy, and it's in a closed system that produces no emissions or pollution. And when we combine the body with woodchips, straw and alfalfa and we create the soil out of the body, then what we're doing is we're sequestering carbon and we're creating something that is is actually a net benefit to the earth.

Dr. Andrew Weil
So if I opt for terramation and I die in Arizona, can I do that here?

Seth Viddal
Not yet. In Arizona, there are seven states where termination is currently legal, but it's only practiced in two. There are three operators in Washington state and then the natural funeral. We operate here in Colorado. But we hope that that's going to grow. And in fact, we want to be a part of the change that begins to to make this more accessible to people and in greater locations.

Dr. Andrew Weil
Well, in other locations, can you ship the body to a place where that can be done?

Seth Viddal
You can And are arguably that negates some of the good from your environmental intentions when you put the body on a plane. But if you consider that that plane was probably already going to make that journey, and I can share with you, we do this as a matter of routine, about 15 to 20% of our clients come to us from other states because they long for a way to be returned to the Earth in a meaningful way. And this just resonates with them in a way that their options in their local communities don't yet.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
So I understand that terramation is not broadly available, but what about the green burial? One of my friends just had the loss of her husband in New York and they did a green burial and they found a place that was alongside a park. And one of the things she spoke to was the pacing, the slower pacing, the kind of gentle nature of the whole experience. And I just have a little bit of a visceral reaction of cremation being a kind of violent process, whereas I react very differently to the idea of a green burial.

Seth Viddal
Yeah. Let me describe a little bit of this scenario that I was telling you about. I participated in the green burial yesterday, and in that process, I got to be with five of the other family members who helped me to carry a woven seagrass casket that they had decorated and that they put mementos inside of the casket. And together, the six of us very slowly marched after we synchronized our breath to the side of the grave.

And then we used a natural rope to slide the casket over some natural boards that covered the grave. And then we synchronized our breath again. And on each inhale, we steadied ourselves and paused. And then on each exhale, we lowered in unison, one hand. Then we inhaled again, steadied our selves, and then on an exhale, lowered one hand length

And that tactile that participatory action is solo, meaningful to families. And I can watch it on their expressions as we're lowering their loved one's body. And I can even feel it. Victoria through the rope how meaningful. It is when we're connected in that way.

Dr. Andrew Weil
Yeah. Victoria What is your visceral reaction to alkaline hydrolysis?

Dr. Victoria Maizes
It also sounds a bit violent, I have to say. I like the wood trip and alfalfa and I, I mean, I know that this is all emotional reactivity and some of it comes from having read a book many years ago called Stiff by Mary Roach and in Stiff Mary Roach describes the decomposition of the body in various circumstances.

And I have images in my brain I'd rather not have. So I yeah, I think that, again, the woodchip and alfalfa, I also have had the experience of having that kind of experience alive because in California there are places you can go and it's a form of sauna where you go and you're buried in woodchips up to your neck and you know, you stay for an hour or two. And so it feels almost somewhat familiar.

Seth Viddal
How wonderful, what, what a great experience. I haven't ever had an experience where I've been personally buried, but I have been able to put my hands into the fresh soil, which is nearing the conclusion of the process, and you feel the warmth of the biological activity that's occurring in the process of decomposition, and you get the dirt under your fingernails and you really genuinely feel your connection with all living things.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Now people get anxious about certain things. I would love to hear your response, But, you know, one of the things people get anxious about is if you're burying someone in a shallow grave, could someone be unburied? You know, like I live in Arizona, we have coyotes and bobcat, you know, they perhaps could catch my scent, you know, and unburied me. This idea of an animal walking around, you know, with a with a body part. How do you address these kinds of concerns?

Seth Viddal
Sure. Well, for one thing, we just follow proper techniques which suggest that we would want to bury a body at at least three feet deep. And it's for that exact reason, Victoria. It's not something that we would discuss a lot with the family as I describing the green burial. But for, for good reason. We bury the body at three feet deep and then oftentimes, if there is suspected that there would be animal activity, we might cover the grave with rocks, even if that's just temporarily while the initial decomposition occurs.

And I would suggest that just looking in on the grave from time to time, periodically, especially in those first few weeks, would allow us to know if there was any sort of animal or people activity that was disruptive. And I'm really glad to report that it's not something I've ever encountered. And in in the several years I've been doing this, having done a few hundred green burials, it's just it's not something that's ever occurred.

Dr. Andrew Weil 
What about cemeteries? You know, they take up a lot of real estate and as more and more people die, what are we going to do? Are you going to run out of space for burials?

Seth Viddal
Well one school of thought is, is that we might in major urban centers. But if you look at the Midwest in some of the less densely populated parts of the country, the odds are really not that we're going to run out of space as much as we just don't feel connected with the way that we used to in a certain geography of, for example, the several generations before me in my family all lived and died in the same hometown.

And I was one of nine children and very few of us stayed in the same hometown. We've become more nomadic, more globally based. And so having an anchor spot that we come back to has really become less significant in understanding our connection with all things I a part of my funeral service was informed by having buried my own parents, and I was adopted when I was ten years old by a mescalero Apache man who became my father and connected me with nature in a really beautiful way.

And in about a three year time span, we buried my father, my younger brother and my mother, and we put them all in the same baby blue casket with the same crepe paper in the same embalming, in the same burial. And they were radically different people, beautifully different people. But we when we went to the funeral home, we were offered a menu and we just picked what was easy. And people are not wanting that choice anymore. They're wanting something that connects with their values.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Andy, I want to ask you whether you think that the growing interest in green burial is consistent with people's growing concern about environmental issues, pollutants, maybe even changing attitudes towards death in our country?

Dr. Andrew Weil
I hope so. I don't know how much is driven by ecological concerns, but I think the   conversation around death and dying are very healthy in our society. You know, we're teaching some of that in our fellowship curriculum and I think that this should be part of it also to make people aware of the options that are out there.

 when I was in medical school, my father's mother died and I remember going to a funeral home and had to look at the selection of caskets. And it was a horrifying experience. I remember this salesman who was like a car salesman, and he showed me a model of a casket that the upper house lid on the inside had a full-size photograph.

And there were choices. This was called the sportsman model. One was a golf fairway, one was a sailboat. And when you closed the lid, a light went on to illuminate the photograph. I mean, that's that's pretty awful.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Wow.

Dr. Andrew Weil
And that was very expensive.

Seth Viddal
I've heard horror stories of people being in those selection showrooms. And of course, you start with the the lower end model, right, where you get to the really ornate model. And the question somewhere along the way is how much did you love your person?

Dr. Andrew Weil
Exactly? You're made to feel bad if you select the cheap model.

Seth Viddal
Right? Right. I, I want to share about something that we're able to connect with families well before we're even having the conversation about how their body is going to be returned to the earth. And it's something that we do called reverent body care. And it is participates worry with families. And as a funeral home operator, if I'm going to separate someone from their hard earned money in service to a death that has occurred, well, I want it to really connect with a value that we're delivering to that family.

And what I've found is that inviting families to participate in the care of their loved ones, meaning actually combing the hair of their mother or washing the feet of their father or spouse provides a service to that family. And it's that tactile, visceral connection that you don't get if you outsource that to someone else. And along the way, when I reflect on what was missing when I buried my parents and younger brother, it's that I wasn't a part of serving them. I wasn't connected with returning their bodies to the earth and inviting families to do that is maybe the single most profound gift that we offer to people.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Yeah, that's a really beautiful, but I think not always easy thing for people to participate in washing the body of the person who has died and participating at that level. I want to go back to the more profane, which is Andy was just describing the salesman tactics of buying a casket. But I think people may want to know, how expensive is it to have this kind of burial and how does it compare to the cost of a more typical burial in a cemetery?

Seth Viddal
Sure, the average cost of a burial in this country is $9,420. And that is exclusive of the plot or the real estate where the body is buried. But that would be for the service generally, for embalming, for a casket and a vault and caskets that are used in conventional burial can range from a couple of thousand up to $50,000 in vaults can range again from a couple of thousand up to about $45,000 in a natural burial.

Generally, a very simple casket or no casket at all is used at our funeral home. Our caskets are one price. There are $1,500. They're made about 20 miles from our funeral home, and they're made out of beetle kill pine, which is a standing pinewood in forest, which needs to be harvested to prevent fires from ravaging the forest.

So we there are ways to do this without over commodifying the task at hand. But as you can see, with those prices, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars, things can get very expensive very quickly.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Yeah. And can you also share the cost of a cremation in the United States?

Seth Viddal
Yes. The average cost of a cremation is around $6,000 with a funeral service and a visitation of some sort. And then generally a very simple casket, although sometimes people do spend quite a bit on a casket only to cremate it and while we're here, I'll touch on the cost for alkaline hydrolysis, which is $3900 at our funeral home. Interim auction, which is $7900 at our funeral home.

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Dr. Victoria Maizes
One of the services that I understand that you provide, you call it a death midwife. I'm wondering if that's the same as a death doula or what is the role of the the death midwife.

Seth Viddal
It is the same. A death midwife or a death dollar could be used interchangeably. I hope I'm not stepping on anyone's sensibilities who might define those differently, but their job is really a holistic care of a person on the last leg of their journey. While their soul and spirit is connected to their body and they generally tackle tasks like forgiveness and spiritual reconciliation, often trauma that a person is is dealing with so that they can have what might be considered a good death, having resolved some issues of mind, body and spirit that are not yet harmonized.

A beautiful death midwife will generally look at a whole person and even into the family characteristics and help bridge conversations and and really bring closure and peace to areas that that might be unresolved.

Dr. Andrew Weil
How often do you run into problems of family members disagreeing over the method of disposal of the body?

Seth Viddal
Well, as often as there are families, you know, we we we can run into that. But generally, families are able to work through this. And in every state there is a right to control the disposition which has a hierarchy. And so there actually is a chain of command, if you will, in that decision making process that we can resort to as a matter of last resort.

But ordinarily families are able to find something that that is meaningful, that connects with all the members. And occasionally you're right, we we do need to default to something that one person who's holding out, perhaps a traditionalist, can't quite see to honor even the wishes of the person who has died they might undermine a family plan.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Is there something you'd say, wow, this is the one important thing they did not bring up?

Seth Viddal
Well, I, I simply love talking about reverent body care. And I say that because it's the missing piece in the death care that was available to me when when  I was a consumer and there's something that's really special about inviting a family to come alongside us in a very safe container where experience is not required, where we are anchoring in to our tens of thousands of years of human to human care and in knowing what to do when one of our loved ones has fallen, it's radically different to be offered a comb and a bowl of warm water with some essential oils in the water and invited to comb your loved one's hair.

Than a funeral director asking for a picture of a parent so that they know what side to part their hair on or asking for a picture of a loved one and saying, did your did your dad wear their glasses? Only when they were reading or did they wear them all the time. When you're placing the glasses on your your father's face, there is something that is profoundly available to you and understanding your place in the cycle of life and your connectedness with all living and breathing things that is simply unavailable when you're not offered that opportunity.

Dr. Andrew Weil
How can people find out more about natural funerals and the options that are there?

Seth Viddal
Thank you. Our website, the NaturalFuneral.com is a great resource for that. There are organized options in almost every state which are funeral consumers alliances. And if you're looking to advocate for change or to bring these new technologies to your area, connect with a local Funeral Consumers Alliance. And then lastly, I would say the National Home Funeral Alliance, which advocates for families to participate in the care of their loved ones.

Dr. Victoria Maizes
Well, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and your wisdom about this. I think very important, but maybe not widely discussed topic. So we appreciate your being a guest on Body of Wonder, and we appreciate the work you're doing. Thank you.

Seth Viddal
Thanks, Victoria. Thanks, Andy.