Eric Rooney and I talk about what it might mean to have a “greener” mindset about death, and how “natural burial” is not new at all, in the Big Scheme of human existence. We talk about 5 ways we can care for bodies in Colorado: burial (buried traditionally in a casket, embalmed or not); flame cremation (the body is burned at high temperature, returning “ashes” to the family); water cremation (dissolving in alkaline hydrolysis, returning fluid to the earth in chosen locations); Natural Organic Reduction/Composting (the body decomposes in a specially designed vessel, ending up as nutrient dense soil); and natural burial (shroud or biodegradable casket, buried without embalming or cement encasement of the casket). What’s your plan for after death care?
More about Eric and Regeneration Earth here – https://www.regenerationearth.org/
Hi, I am Diane Hullet, and you’re listening to the Best Life Best Death podcast. Today I am here with a fellow Coloradan Eric Rooney. Hi Eric.
Eric Rooney: Hey, thanks for having me,
Diane Hullet: Eric’ s got a really incredible work that he does with regeneration earth and he and I kind of, we re met at a conference last week in Denver called collaboration and aging and we were then kind of brainstorming like what would be interesting to talk about on the podcast.
And what we came up with was body disposition in Colorado. Currently, these days, because what I think is interesting is I think there are these new things out there and not that many people know about them.
Eric Rooney: You know, it’s something I think about quite often, and it’s because we keep the dying or the dead away from us in cultures.
And so when we hear these different practices around the world, we’re kind of shocked because in America we’ve been trained to think about only really two ways, and that’s casket burial and flame cremation. So I’m thankful that I get to share this [00:01:00] educational space around what other options are available and what people have been doing across the world for thousands and thousands of years.
Diane Hullet: Yeah. Oh, I love that. I love that you kind of go back into the history of it because one of the things that really piqued my interest in this, you know, kind of path as an end of life educator and doula was Caitlin Doty’s classic book called from here to eternity. And that book really in it she basically it’s almost like a travel log of death right she travels to these other countries and cultures, and then talks about what they do with their dead.
And. And some of it is historical and some of it is current and I honestly just this is so like almost embarrassing to admit but like I just didn’t realize there were so many different ways of handling the dead all over the world and have been obviously for centuries so that book is a really fun resource but what yeah Eric kind of go into human history like what do we do when someone dies?
Eric Rooney: Yeah, and I think [00:02:00] we get so confused especially when we talk about greener burial options because these burial options that have been around for thousands of years were always green. They’ve only ever been green. And specifically Tibetan Buddhism. They let the vultures eat their dead as a symbolism of going back to the heavens.
And for me, when I learned about that, I was like, wow. But when I started to think about it a little bit more, I think it’s so beautiful. I met a young woman in the community a few weeks back, and she’s actually going to Nepal. And hopefully we’ll be able to witness through the community and offering like that.
And so I think when we talk about some of these newer options it’s just getting back to what we’ve always done. It’s just getting back to the root. Of how we are a part of the earth ashes to ashes, dust to dust from the earth. We too shall return. And to me, it’s a fascinating thing just to be able to witness a lot of the pioneers in this space talking about N.
O. R. or human composting. Well, humans have [00:03:00] only ever been really composted in return to the earth and same as natural burial as well. People are like, I’ve never knew that was an option. And at first, there’s a little bit of heartbreak. And then I get excited as an opportunity for education in that space to be able to say, Hey, this is actually the only things we’ve ever done.
And then money kind of crept in. And we saw how many opportunities there were to monetize the space. And so when we talk about some of these new greener, and I usually put quotations around that because it’s just fascinating to see it’s nothing new. It’s only what we’ve ever what only what we’ve ever done.
Diane Hullet: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. Like it’s quotations around new and it’s quotations around greener in some ways, because like both of those are just. Concepts, right? As you said. So, so in Colorado right now, you can be buried in a traditional way in a casket, embalmed or not embalmed, I think, and you can also be cremated flame cremation as we talk about, [00:04:00] but there’s other options and let’s kind of well, you know, why don’t you tell us what they are and then we’ll go into details about each one.
Eric Rooney: I’d love to. My my lucky number is five. And so for folks that are looking to remember the ways, it’s just one hand, calf get burial, flame cremation, water cremation, N. O. R. and human composting are the same thing. N. O. R. And then the last would be a natural burial. And so some of these greener ways they do have they do require some type of a chemical.
So water cremation generally uses potassium hydroxide. Bodies are reduced down to a liquid and able to be returned to the earth in a greener way. That’s water cremation. Some people refer to it as the last treatment, if you will. And because of money, there are manufacturers making these machines.
Most of these machines were used on farms in traditional spaces to be able to take care of the death of farm animals in a quicker way. And so that, you know, I know of some crematories it takes five hours, and I know of other crematories it takes [00:05:00] between 18 and 20 hours for one decedent or one body.
And there’s a different amount of liquid according to the machine as well. I’ve tested the liquids from a few different crematories. I know exactly what’s in it. It’s what’s in commercially produced fertilizers. Imagine that. If you are what you eat, we are just nature. Spiritually talking, our spirit’s something a little bit different, but when we’re talking about our physical makeup we are of the earth.
And so people are like, well, how does it work in the gardens? And I’m like, it’s beautiful. It’s what life needs. Human composting is very similar to what you would do in your kitchen. You know, you’re taking out your banana peels, your eggshells you’re mixing them with different brown dried pieces, green pieces in your, in your, in your garden or your outside environment.
You’re tending to it every so often. And you get this nutrient dense soil. It’s the same thing with a human body. Bodies that are embalmed cannot be composted. That’s counterintuitive here. Because what the goal is, is to be able to [00:06:00] return that soil to the earth to rehabilitate lands that maybe don’t have that nutritious soil because we’re pulling anything natural away from those spaces, including human beings.
NOR which I’m going to call it from here, but that’s human composting, natural organic reduction, but NOR takes about three months three to four months. The bodies are put into a vessel and they’re lightly turned and over the course of three months, they’re reduced down to a skeleton and a beautiful nutrient dense soil.
The skeleton is removed. It’s pulverized and returned back into the soil for another month. And these can be used on anything that’s non edible and the reason why I say non edible is because of dis ease. There’s still a potential to pass off some disease in the soil, such as mad cow disease. And it’s important that those things are only used on blooms.
I show everybody that comes to the farm, Half Moon Farm, exactly what that soil looks like. And they’re just so surprised that [00:07:00] it doesn’t smell gross or weird or any of those weird Hollywood ideas we have around Death and Dying. They’re like, wow, this is beautiful. And it even smells rich. You can see hair in it.
You can see bone fragments. And to me, it’s very beautiful. And it’s about a truckload of a typical truck bed full. A standard family truck, not those big semis, but… A standard family truck, but full of the soil. And I apply it at ground level. Sometimes I’ll do a light till and then the last one, which is my personal choice is a natural burial.
When I die, I will not be embalmed. I will be nude, wrapped in a shroud, placed into a hole and covered with dirt. And all of that organic ness. We’ll just become part of the earth again. And I think about it, and when I first heard of it, I was like, wow, this is so, this is so bizarre. But as I continued to work in my garden, I came to this realization that all the dirt that I’m working in, all of the food that our, our, our food comes from, these [00:08:00] beautiful trees, are our ancestor.
They’re everything that came before us. All of the organisms that came before us make up this beautiful soil. And only till the last few hundred years did we really start. Embalming bodies and putting them into the ground or putting them in concrete vaults. And so that’s natural burial. We’ve got casket burial, flame cremation, water cremation, human composting, and natural burial.
And people say, well, how do I even know if that’s a possibility for me? And I always tell them, call your local cemetery. My parents have burial plots in Ohio. And I’m gonna call them this week and I’m gonna say, Hey, do you guys allow natural burial? They’re first going to say what? And then I will educate them on that.
And then there’s an opportunity. I think there people aren’t asking about it. Similar going to their doctors or primary care physician asking about medical aid and dying or voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. People don’t ask. And therefore, there’s that lack of awareness. And so I’m [00:09:00] finding that some people are calling their cemeteries and yeah.
Whereas previously they didn’t even know about it. Now they’re offering that as an, as an option, whereas they’re skipping water cremation and human composting. And so they allow flame cremation casket burial or natural burial. But I’m like, heck, yeah, how cool is that? How cool that somebody’s choice can be honored and I’ve changed, you know, I first thought it was going to be casket, then it was definitely set on water cremation.
And so today in the past few months, how I show up, it’s a natural burial for me.
Diane Hullet: That’s such a great layout of those five arenas, and I do think it’s interesting what you’re saying is that not only are consumers, people, lay people, all of us becoming more aware of the options, but the industry itself, cremations, places, funeral homes, are becoming more aware of the options as well, and I think that the savvy ones are beginning to offer these alternatives, and yeah.
You know, I in reading some of the history of all this, I thought it was interesting that I guess a big [00:10:00] definitive book or something came out about cremation in the 60s, but it took a long time for that to become the norm because it was the people who were in their sort of 30s and 40s and 50s reading about it, who decided, Oh, that’s more what I want.
So then wave ahead. And now that those people are elderly and And dying. I mean, I’m hugely simplifying it, but there there is a bigger wave of cremation because of something that came out in the 60s. So I wonder if we’ll see that with this as well that right now, green burial is kind of our natural burial is a little bit less common.
But more people who are younger are interested in it, and therefore there may be this kind of wave of, you know, it’ll come more in the future. And I know there’s at least one cemetery in Denver that has a green burial section. I need to find out the name of that cemetery. And then, of course, there’s the Colorado Natural Burial Preserve, which is an entire several acres.
40, [00:11:00] 80, I don’t know, a bunch of acres devoted to both green burial and a place to put cremated or aquamated remains. So I think, yeah, it depends a little bit where you live and what is legal in your state, but I love your kind of call to action, like, like call and ask, find out more, get this.
Eric Rooney: And it’s so, it’s so fascinating to me because.
There’s a lot of talk about how we are destroying the earth. There’s a lot of talk about how we can reduce, reuse, and recycle. I found my, I found a childhood photo of me it was in, I think it was 91 or 92. And I’m wearing a shirt that says, save the planet. These conversations we’ve been having for decades now.
But what we forget in Western culture is the conversation regarding death and how wasteful that is. And so. My hopes are that this talk around waste are comprehensive, they’re whole, they include birth and death it’s a full [00:12:00] entire cycle and so I’m not surprised that we don’t talk about that, that that is a conversation that’s forgotten about when we’re talking about creating a better Earth for our future because we are death and void in in, in, in this space that we live in, but at the end of the day, it’s It only makes sense to me to fill bodies with toxins and put them into the ground seems very counterintuitive to what we’re trying to do here.
But it takes education. I didn’t know about this six years ago. I didn’t know about this five years ago. And so that’s where I’m like, ah. Pat on the back here at Rooney because I’m just here just to tell people choices, options. I know I love buffets. I know when I go to a party, I like to see different types of foods.
And I think people want that too. They don’t want to be able to, you know, have to do this or have to do that. It’s like, let’s look at all this and I support choice. I support educated choice. And so if we can all understand like, hey, here’s in Colorado or hey, make this phone call and ask them, you may be teaching them something new and you never know what [00:13:00] that trajectory is.
Maybe they’re going to change the way that they and the options that they offer to the community for a better earth. I think so. And I hope so.
Diane Hullet: Right. There’s, there’s a, there’s a place for advocacy, right? If you’re in a state that doesn’t allow some of these options we’re talking about, there’s a place for advocacy starting with calling funeral homes and seeing what they offer and working up to legislation that allows these things.
The you know, tell us about your farm because I think your farm is a really personal way that you’ve embraced this beyond just sort of theoretically thinking these are good ideas.
Eric Rooney: I agree. Thank you. And I think that’s aided me in understanding the importance of these conversations. And that’s tough for a lot of people who may be are growing in pots on their porch rather than having a one acre preserve and memorial garden.
Three years ago. My partner and I were looking for a space where we could grow and [00:14:00] simultaneously I was helping as an advisor in a crematory space and in a water crematory space and figuring out how are we going to get this liquid back to the earth in a way that’s ethical in a way that we can really offer a beautiful space for people.
We bought the farm and, I We have the opportunity and still have the opportunity to work with different crematories and returning that liquid and returning N. O. R., the soil from human composting back to the earth. And I’ve returned everyone myself. It’s been a little over 200 people. And to witness the grief and to be able to stand in the garden and hold space for a family who lost a baby or lost a young child there’s an unspoken understanding that life is fragile.
Thank you. And that this is a part of our human experience together is grief and death. And birth and death are the same. There’s just this very [00:15:00] thin, thin sliver of life in between and being able to be at this farm, have my hands in the soil and to see, and to witness in the spring, the seeds are coming up all summer long families come and gather.
They can gather seeds, they can gather bouquets, there’s this beauty in their eyes when they’re able to see this flower blooming, and then it wilts in their vase, and then they compost it, I hope, or toss it out. There’s this unspoken understanding, like, I get it, I get it, and I think it challenges us to live with more love and presence, that nothing really else matters, because just like that flower too, it went from a seed, our parents watered us, or our guardians watered us, There is parts of our life where we bloomed and these big, beautiful flower.
We wilted back sometimes, sometimes our tips were brown or yellow, and then winter came, and we died, and that freeze [00:16:00] killed off everything of the annual. It’s, it makes sense. So being able to be a steward of this memorial garden happening farm has helped me in understanding this preciousness of life and also.
And I’ve had an opportunity to give that space to other people in a way that’s different than our traditional cemeteries, where they’re cold, headstones, these are marbled, sandstone, all different types of rock, rock is hard, and it’s cold. And it’s different. I have lots of families in cemeteries, and I do know my grief is different there than it is in mine.
And even with stories of tragedy, it’s just different. Because a garden in nature feels free, the birds can fly, the butterflies can go this way, the, the, the pollinators get to choose that choice, they get to choose what flower they’re going to, [00:17:00] and we’ve always been taught that we have this hierarchical structure, that humans are just better than, we’re smarter, more intelligent, and that’s a fascinating thought for me, but in the garden, being able to witness this commonplace of birth and death, It just makes sense.
And we have thousands and thousands of species of different plants, and I couldn’t imagine anything else than a memorial space being something that represents us two, and that’s a beginning and an end. Some of these flowers. It’s just within a year, but perennials are very similar. You know, some of these peonies and some of these roses, they get tired after 75 years or 80 years or a hundred years, similar to human beings.
We get tired. That’s why we make seeds. It’s time to regenerate. And we’ll continue on. And it’s a cycle. We are not separate from this cycle here on earth, our water cycle the cycles of a caterpillar us to have cycles. And I [00:18:00] think when we can embrace that, we have a, a, a stronger understanding of why we’re here.
And that’s togetherness and it’s to love.
Diane Hullet: Hmm. So, so back up just slightly when you and your partner bought the farm, which, you know, we have to kind of chuckle at that phrase, of course, when you bought the farm, did you know it was going to be a memorial garden? Or did that come down the road? And how, like, how extensively do you put out this is a memorial garden where these alternative body disposition?
What do you say? The body disposition methods can be homed.
Eric Rooney: Yeah. So I was raised in a in a religious background. And so when I bought the farm it, it, I wasn’t envisioning returning N. O. R. or liquid to the farm. It was a beautiful opportunity, I think, from the heaven’s source God. They’re all the same.
So [00:19:00] it was. It was just perfect timing. We bought it in September of 2020 and the crematory I was working with opened in the very early year of 2021. It just lined up. It was perfect. And I’d like to say that I’m a recovering control freak, but I found some type of honor and privilege to know that I was in control of where this was going.
I didn’t have to go visit, get in my car and to go visit and to check on the things. If I wanted to put out compost or effluent, the liquid, we call it effluent, in the middle of the night, I could. If I wanted to wait to welcome the family and the friends of the loved ones, I could, it wasn’t in this other space where it was during work hours.
I had to do this and I had to do that. So we had no idea that that was going to happen. And [00:20:00] now The first thing I do is make sure everybody knows that this, these are sacred ground. I don’t even tell them the name of one flower before they know the sacredness of the space. And I would say 98 percent of the people, I don’t collect any data, 98 percent of the people would say, I feel something really special here.
I feel this is a different place. And they want to stay and I’m like, this is my backyard. You gotta go. But at the end of the day, the people get it. It’s an unspoken feeling in this space. And so we are very clear that these are memorial gardens far more clear that they that they have an option of even clipping a bouquet.
I would like them to know first. The beauty of the gardens, and sometimes I forget, I feel like people come to clip flowers because of that, maybe sometimes taboo, oh this is interesting, this has been grown with humans [00:21:00] but what I see is this transformation in these people, this understanding and this witnessing of, oh yeah, at first I thought that was weird, but it’s not, okay, this makes sense, I understand.
And so it’s, it’s, it’s came into this whole thing, which has only been guided by alignment, authenticity, and something bigger than I am because I couldn’t imagine returning this liquid or this soil to other spaces where maybe it wasn’t open to the public, or maybe where this farm didn’t disclose that this was a thing at their farm.
I could never imagine, never imagine letting people know about the sacredness of the faith. And now I have all sorts of, you know, I had a woman last week, she said, do you see ghosts? And I said, well, what’s a ghost? And then she kind of started thinking about it, breaking it down. She said, well, do things happen that are unexplainable?
And I said, yes, yes. Do I have owls and hawks sit in my trees? Yes. And I have [00:22:00] conversations. Owls have been waking me up for the past month at four in the morning, 3. 58. To four o’clock almost every morning, just hooting away and to me, that’s not just happenstance to me. That’s affirmation from the earth that Hey, we’ve got your back.
Some people are like, Oh, you’re crazy. And I’m like, that’s okay. It feels really good to me. And so, yeah, it’s, it, we never had this idea for this farm. I, I I’ve been a gardener and an earth person my whole life, but this feels really good. And I can only imagine that this will be a part of my life.
Four months ago, I found out my great grandfather by blood. Was a cemetery keeper in Ohio, he was a modern day or he was a traditional cemetery keeper. It’s where my parents have their plot. It’s where my grandparents are buried. And I’m like, ah, talk about ancestor work or legacy. I’m like, it’s in my blood to preserve the earth and also the dignity of other people.
It’s very important to me. And clearly it’s in my [00:23:00] blood.
Diane Hullet: Oh, great. That’s a, that’s a great connection. What a fun thing to find out.
Eric Rooney: I have his letter from 1966. The original letter from the cemetery thanking my grandfather for all of the years of his preservation work. And I’m like, this is amazing.
This is gold.
Diane Hullet: That is so gold to find that ancestor piece. What a great, like, we don’t always know what’s in the past and you found this lineage, you know, just to just to throw this out there, of course recompose, which is one of the really big. NOR facilities up in Washington State. They’ve partnered with a forest and the forest takes this same kind of NOR material and it’s regenerating this forest up there.
So I think it’s really beautiful that many families who choose aquamation or NOR, human composting, End up using some of that material themselves, but it is quite a bit of material. So to have a place to add some of that in these other ways, like to [00:24:00] your farm or to this forest up in the Northwest, I think is really lovely.
I got to go back to the human composting because. There was this great moment at the conference last week where Eric was one of the keynote speakers and was talking about some of these things up on stage. And when he said, composting, it’s like what we do in our kitchen. And this woman at the table next to me mutters under her breath, that’s disgusting.
And I, I kind of chuckled because I thought, well, I guess when you make this analogy, like, it’s like what we do with our, you know, eggshells and our zucchini ends. Maybe it does make people a little uncomfortable because they think like, Oh, wait, I’m putting grandma out in my backyard compost bin. So I’m glad you you, you know, emphasize that it is these containers that funeral homes who do this work, choose and create.
And there are a few different kinds, I think the technology is being developed in different ways. So some call them a chrysalis, or some call them a the other terms like
Eric Rooney: a [00:25:00] vessel, I’ve heard vessel but yeah, I like chrysalis. It’s like a butterfly. Yeah.
Diane Hullet: So a chrysalis, a vessel, they create something which is just your person.
It is your person. Plus the natural materials like straw, like alfalfa, like wood chips that help the body break down. So I think that’s an important thing. It is, it is not really the compost pile at your kitchen window that we’re Putting people in it is far more a regulated and be clean, I think is almost what I want to say.
And there is this beauty to it. Eric and I were both at the conference in Denver last year. That was the inaugural body composting conference and at that conference, they did a beautiful ceremony. I thought they did such an incredible ceremony where at the beginning of the conference, somebody something incredible happened.
pretended to die and they laid them in. They did a laying in ceremony. So we had some actors on stage who were very funny. And then at the end, they did a turning out ceremony and [00:26:00] they shared with us some of these composted remains. And they were, they were just incredible, like rich brown earth. I mean, literally probably several of us went up to the funeral directors at the funeral.
And we were like, is this really like Is this for real? Like you didn’t just buy some potting soil and call it this. And so it was really striking to have that very concrete experience of the beauty of it. Almost like laying someone in a casket, but then their body is undergoing this different experience.
Well, I, I just think it’s really neat that you, you know, that this synchronicity came together where you had this land and then you also had this experience with the water cremation place. And so you knew that there could be a synergy there and you found this way. What are the thing I was going to ask you about?
I know in gosh, was it May or June? There was a huge hail storm and I know your farm sustained damage. How has it recovered from that?
Eric Rooney: It’s done really well. Nature is resilient. We lost a [00:27:00] lot. But at the end of the day, being able to witness how tough nature is, even with, I was like, I’ve been doing this for years.
That’s dead. That’s not. And then a few weeks later, you see how resilient it is. We are the same way. We are the same way. And it’s doing a lot better. And I can only assume that because of all of the eyes on the garden, all of the Collaborations and contributions. That we’ve had a little extra support as well.
Diane Hullet: Beautiful, beautiful. Well, tell us what, how can people find out about you, your farm, all those good things. Give us those websites. Yeah.
Eric Rooney: So I’m working on all those things. I’m a people on earth person. And so regeneration earth. org is the best place to stop. It’s the one stop shop. Where people can understand continuing education and being able to expose themselves to what we hide behind the doors.
And that’s probably why the [00:28:00] individual at the table thought it was disgusting. Five years ago, I would have said the same thing. I would have said, Oh my gosh, that is disgusting. But as I work with it more and see the specialness of our life, my opinions changed, but regenerationearth. org. We also have halfmoonfarm.
co and. All of them are interconnected and intertwined, you know, in this modern era, we have to separate things and for profit for not for profit and these types of things. But I think regeneration earth would be a wonderful place to start. And that is just the mindset. I heard regeneration earth in terms of farming and people talking about soil health, carbon sequestration, all of these types of things.
But in my idea, a regenerative mindset is important to understand what are we leaving as a legacy? What’s going to happen when I die? Because it’s going to challenge you to, to what you’re living now. And so that’s where Regeneration [00:29:00] Earth came from. And I’m also on the Instagram at underscore Eric Rooney underscore and I forget some of the other social media things because that’s just not my forte.
I’m a people person. I love emails, phone calls I love being in person I love being able to make the eye contact, to be able to give the hug, to hold the hands and those are all those types of ways. So any way that anybody think I can contribute to what they’re doing or any ways that somebody thinks they can educate me, I want to learn.
I’m a lifelong learner. I will never talk about myself as an expert. I am just a learner and I’m learning. So I encourage that, that feedback. I encourage that camaraderie that humanness, that connection. And I do have a poem that I would love to leave with when it’s time. And if that’s okay, I’d love to read it now.
This is by Mary Elizabeth Frye. And it’s entitled, Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep. Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. [00:30:00] I am the diamond glimpse on the snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn’s rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush, I am the swift, uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do not stand at my grave and cry. I am not there. I did not fall. Fitting, right?
Diane Hullet: So beautiful. You know when that poem was written? Quite a while ago. Quite a while, yeah. It’s kind of a classic. It’s so beautiful. Well, thank you so much, Eric, for sharing your both your mindset and your wisdom about these practices and then some concrete information for people that I think I hope has piqued a little curiosity in people.
Eric Rooney: I hope so. And thank you for listening. Giving this platform for people in these conversations to happen. This is really beautiful. And [00:31:00] so I thank you for all your work and I’m excited to see how you grow and excited to see how I grow and how we can all share this information together. That’s how we get by as storytelling.
Diane Hullet: Absolutely. Well, clearly I need to come to the farm, so when we’re both, you’re always welcome. Let’s do it. Yeah. Yeah. Sounds good. Well, you can find out more about the work I do at Best Life. Best death.com. Thanks for listening.