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"Green" Burials Offer Unique, Less Costly Goodbyes

Lori Valigra
for National Geographic News
September 9, 2005

A burial in outer space seems a fitting farewell for James Doohan, the actor who played the beloved engineer "Scotty" on Star Trek.

To honor his final wishes, some of Doohan's ashes will be shot into space this fall, along with a CD of tributes from fans and loved ones.

Celebrities aren't the only ones considering alternatives to a conventional funeral. More people in the U.S. are rejecting traditional burials as too costly and ecologically unsound. Instead they are chosing environmentally friendly, and often highly personalized, goodbyes.

"Doohan is part of a generation thinking, What is an appropriate tribute for my life? It's not just the same choices as grandma had," said Charles Chafer, chief executive officer of Space Services Inc., the Texas-based company that will handle the sci-fi legend's burial.

For John Grayson Rogers, an avid fisherman and conservationist, a fitting tribute was a return to his favorite fishing spot, the Chesapeake Bay. His ashes were mixed into a concrete "eternal reef ball" that was placed in the Chesapeake where coral and other sea life thrive.

"Dad wanted us to put his body into a potato sack, tie a cinder block to it, and toss it into the bay," said his daughter, Jennie Rogers Moore of Birdsnest, Virginia. "I suggested the reef ball and he loved that. He could be near the critters and give back to the sea what the sea gave to him."

Don Brawley, founder of Eternal Reefs Inc. in Decatur, Georgia, says that's how many of his clients react. "People say they prefer to be in a reef with all that life and excitement instead of in a field with a lot of dead people."

Going Green

The definition of a green burial varies, but it generally means either cremation or full-body burial with no embalming fluids and a biodegradable wooden box or shroud.

"Green burial isn't about doing extra things," said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance in South Burlington, Vermont. "It's about what not to do." Although there are four green cemeteries in the United States, it is possible to be buried naturally in a contemporary cemetery, he said.

Slocum sees the green movement partly as a backlash against society's wastefulness and ostentatious consumption.

Space Services can fit as many as 150 lipstick-size containers with ashes on its launches. It places the ashes in the extra space on rockets already being used to launch satellites.

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Photo: A reef burial plaque and space burial capsules
Top photo: John Grayson Rogers' widow, Virginia, holds a plaque that was attached to the ''reef ball'' containing his ashes. Bottom photo: Space Services places up to 150 lipstick-sized containers with ashes in a module placed in a space-bound rocket.

Top photograph courtesy Eternal Reefs; bottom photograph courtesy Space Services, Inc.