As far back as I can remember, I heard stories about my grandmother’s stepdad, “Daddy Mac” McFerron. He rode a mule, drank whiskey, and played the fiddle. He was a good and faithful husband to my great-grandmother, Anna Barbara Lori. They owned and worked a big farm in Oldham County.

I have a picture of Daddy Mac and Grandma Lori. Dressed in bib overalls, with a straw hat and a corncob pipe, Daddy Mac is tall and lanky. He towers above his short and heavyset wife. His arm is wrapped protectively around her. They both look happy and proud.

My mom always told me that back in those days (the early 20th century), country fellers favored heavyset (fat) women over skinny ones. If a woman was fat, it indicated that she was a good cook, and she was healthy — no tuberculosis, no major infestation of parasitic worms.

Perhaps it was that same sort of earthy practicality that prompted one of Daddy Mac’s more quotable quotes that I learned from my mother: “When I die, I don’t want to be buried. Just throw me in a ditch and let the buzzards eat me.”

My mother was modern, educated, urban/suburban, and a devout Christian. No doubt, that sort of funereal arrangement clashed sharply with her modern sensibilities.

But Buddhists in Tibet have been feeding their dead to the buzzards for centuries. According to “Sky burial [or celestial funeral] is simply the disposal of a corpse to be devoured by vultures. It is the most widespread way for commoners to deal with the dead in Tibet.”

The process is highly ritualized, with Buddhist monks chanting sutras (scriptures) while a professional celestial burial master deals with the body. Special body carriers, also known as rogyapas or body breakers, transport the corpse to the mountaintop and dissect it with a blade. After the flesh is devoured by vultures, the body breaker will smash the bones into pieces and mix the crushed bone with tsampa (a staple food for Tibetans, made of barley flour) to feed the vultures.

Perhaps Daddy Mac was a Buddhist in a previous incarnation — and maybe I was, too. I would be glad for my lifeless body to be consumed by buzzards, or fish, or worms. I’m horrified at the thought of being filled with embalming fluid and buried in a metal casket. A type of mummification, it’s intended to preserve the body more or less intact for the afterlife. So believed the ancient Egyptians, as well as many modern Christians who have some vague notion that Christ’s “Second Coming” will bring some sort of resurrection: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 [KJV] “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:

“Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Christians have been traditionally opposed to cremation because it implies a disbelief in the resurrection of the body. For most of its history, the Catholic Church banned cremation, deeming it a sacrilegious act. In 1963, Pope John XXIII lifted the ban on cremation.

Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, the traditional burial process is harmful to the environment. In Business Insider (11/4/2015), “Burying dead bodies takes a surprising toll on the environment,” Julia Calderone reported: “The ritual of burying a dead body is so deeply ingrained in religious and cultural history that few of us take a moment to question it. But when you dig into the statistics, the process of preserving and sealing corpses into caskets and then plunging them into the ground is extremely environmentally unfriendly.”

Calderone cites five good reasons why modern burial practices are bad for the environment: One, the embalming process is toxic. Formaldehyde is a potential human carcinogen and potentially lethal. More than 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are put into the ground along with dead bodies every year in the US.

Two, conventional burials in the US every year use 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete. The amount of casket wood alone is equivalent to about 4 million acres of forest and could build about 4.5 million homes.

Three, cemeteries generally have sprawling, pristine lawns that require a ton of water, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. The entire square footage of all the cemeteries in the US would measure 1 million acres of land.

Four, the cost of an average funeral runs around $10,000. With nearly 2 million people buried every year, the funeral industry as a whole rakes in about $15 billion a year.

Five, cremation is less harsh on the environment than traditional burial, but the process is still noxious. It releases nasty chemicals into the atmosphere, including carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulfur dioxide, heavy metals, and mercury emissions from dental fillings.

A green (or natural) burial is much more environmentally friendly. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance: “The body is neither cremated nor prepared with chemicals such as embalming fluids. It is simply placed in a biodegradable coffin or shroud and interred without a concrete burial vault. The grave site is allowed to return to nature. The goal is complete decomposition of the body and its natural return to the soil.

“You can save considerable money by providing your own casket...The funeral director is required by law to accept any appropriate container you provide, without charging additional fees. Homemade or store-bought caskets of plain wood, cardboard or wicker would be acceptable at most green cemeteries. Instead of using a casket, you could wrap your loved one in a favorite blanket or quilt, especially one made of natural materials like cotton or wool...

“Choosing a green burial gives you the freedom to decline unnecessary services and merchandise. And this type of burial will be environmentally friendly and easier on your budget, whether it’s touted as ‘green’ or not. Don’t forget, our very recent ancestors called these practices simply ‘burial.’ ”

(NOTE: Some cemeteries require internment inside a sealed vault. Be sure to inquire about their requirements and restrictions when buying a cemetery plot.)

Finally, there is human composting. In Smithsonian Magazine (9/21/2022), “California Has Legalized Human Composting,” Sarah Kuta reports: “California has joined a growing number of states that allow residents to compost their bodies after death...

“Human composting typically involves putting a body into a steel vessel, then covering it with organic materials like straw, wood chips and alfalfa. Microbes break down the corpse and the plant matter, transforming the various components into nutrient-rich soil in roughly 30 days. Staffers at special human composting funeral homes then remove the compost from the vessel and allow it to cure for two to six weeks. Family members can then use the human compost like any other type of compost, such as by mixing it into a flower bed, or they can donate it to be spread in conservation areas.”

Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at

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