Wednesday, May 02, 2007

An Artist Dealing with Death

By Debi Smith
For the Ashland Daily Tidings
(Published 5/2/07)

It's fairly certain that it's going to happen to all of us — death. And Marian Spadone — an Ashland artist and owner of A Fine Farewell — is clear that her mission in life is getting us to talk about it, to plan for it better, to reconsider current funeral and burial practices, and to see that by embracing death we can actually excise some of the fear surrounding it — making our eventual transition from life be a much easier, healing, and joyful process to contemplate and do. Talking with Marian, as she enthusiastically explains the alternatives to current practices, makes one almost look forward to the final farewell! In a culture that goes to great lengths trying to distance itself from the one thing that's most certain in life, that's saying a lot.

DT: What inspired your interest in the idea of natural burials?

Marian: I was in England in 2002 and chanced upon a book, "The Natural Death Handbook." What I read resonated so deeply that I began to think about how I could incorporate aspects of what I was learning into my work. Being an artist, and already working with fabric and painting silk, I started designing burial shrouds. My learning about the care of the dead continued, and now, in addition to creating shrouds, my personal mission is to change the way western culture deals with death.

DT: Why do you recommend people reconsider the way our culture deals with death?

Marian: From a purely ecological standpoint, current practices have impacts that need to be considered. Cremation, for example — and I do respect that cremation feels like the right choice for many people — requires a substantial amount of fuel, and raises many air quality concerns. (According to, an estimated 2.5 tons of mercury — just one of the pollutants — was emitted from crematoria nationwide in 2003 — a statistic expected to double over the next two decades as more people, with mercury fillings, choose cremation.) With embalming, something that is not a legal mandate or necessity, bodies are drained of blood and filled with toxic fluids — known carcinogens — gallons of which are then buried in the earth. Then there's the casket itself, often containing non-biodegradable materials, rare hardwoods, plastics, metals, etc.

So you have a body unnecessarily invaded and filled with pollutants, put into a box of questionable materials, and then ... here's the kicker ... put into a concrete or fiberglass burial vault in the ground! What are we trying to preserve? And why? We're certainly not talking good composting here! What I want people to know is that there are much less invasive and toxic alternatives.

From a spiritual standpoint, I think there is a mystery occurring between what we call death and when the body is buried or cremated. Current practices oftentimes invade that space unnecessarily, requiring us to give up our access to the mystery in the process. It's so helpful for families to see and touch, to deeply know that the person is not in there. Being more involved gives us the chance to honor the departing spirit and the vehicle that's housed it, and the opportunity for our own healing and growth.

DT: In your research and observation, in what ways does western culture differ from other cultures around the world in the way death is handled?

Marian: First, we have a hard time talking about it, looking at pictures of it, and admitting that death is a part of the cycle of life that we all participate in. We've made it an enemy — something to try and somehow avoid. But even whilst admitting our fear of it, I've found that we do want to talk about death. We just need permission.

Secondly, we have removed death from the home. Most people die in hospitals or other care facilities. It doesn't occur to us to bring a body home for care and funeral services. Many people don't even know that it's legal in most states for a family to do so. Yet, all over the world, it is done as a matter of course, and was done in this country up until two or three generations ago.

In many non-western cultures, death is much more easily accepted, seen, planned for, engaged with, and even celebrated.

DT: What are some of the alternatives to current practices?

Marion: Natural burials usually involve home care of the body — which can include ritual bathing, dressing, anointing with aromatic oils, etc. Using dry ice, families can choose to keep the body at home for several days. A variety of containers are available for burying the body in; cardboard cremation containers, pine boxes, woven willow, and shrouds are just some examples, and can be purchased or hand made and/or decorated. Families find this to be an especially healing part of the process.

Natural burials are done with biodegradability in mind. Currently in Britain, where traditional cemetery space has become limited and the movement has gained a lot of momentum, land is being set aside as nature preserves and bodies are buried there in natural settings. Instead of a chemically preserved body and highly manufactured container polluting the soil for decades, when left to decompose naturally the body actually feeds the soil and surrounding flora. Here in the US, where the movement is just beginning to grow, work is being done to establish standards for natural burials. Green Burial Parks are opening, focusing on offering alternatives to traditional burials and with an eye toward better land stewardship.

DT: How do you envision people becoming more comfortable and involved with natural burial practices?

Marian: When I started doing this work I invited people to join me in thinking about how we could create something like the Jewish Burial Society for the rest of the non-Jewish community. In that vein, a small group of us formed our own burial society and have been meeting for just over a year, doing lots of emotional work and research together. We're each creating our own "exit plan" and are committed to assisting one another's families at the time of our deaths. We are currently developing a way to share this with the community at large, wanting to act as a resource to local groups and congregations.

DT: Where do you hope to go next with your business, and your desire to make this information more accessible?

Marian: I'd like to assist people in discussing and planning natural burials, and be available as a consultant for home funerals. I would also like to create an entire line of custom designed Alternative Burial Containers and Shrouds and open a small, friendly 'Funeral Shop' for making them accessible to the general public. Can you just imagine someone saying, "I went to Ashland to see the plays, but look what I found while I was there!"

Marian will be giving a Natural Burials talk at the Rogue Valley Metaphysical Library — located at 258 A Street — on Tuesday, May 15, from 7-9pm. For questions, or if you'd like to check out her collection of burial shrouds and wrappings, Marian can be reached at To learn more about Natural Burials, a good place to get started is at


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