Going Green, or: Poetic Justice

by W.D. Ehrhart

W.D. Ehrhart visiting his future home, Steelmantown Cemetery, N.J.

I’ve just purchased a piece of the state of New Jersey. Really. It’s ten feet by ten feet and located in a lovely pine forest. Sooner or later—I’m 73 now, so I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for “later”—it will become my final resting place when I shuffle off this mortal coil and join the Choir Invisible. My wife will eventually be there with me, too, though she’s younger than me and thus has a better shot at “later.” But why South Jersey? I’ve never lived there and have no family connection to the area.

All my life, I’ve been completely disgusted with modern burial practices. My parents have both been dead for over three decades, but I could dig them up this afternoon and they’d look just about as good as they did when we planted them, what with having been embalmed, then stuck in a satin-lined casket, and then placed in a concrete vault. Talk about inefficient use of land.

Indeed, for decades I’ve provided in my will that I be cremated because at least that way I’m not taking up space that might otherwise be put to good use. But it turns out that cremation isn’t great for the environment either because it takes a huge amount of energy to cremate a body, and meanwhile the heat that’s produced doesn’t get used to warm somebody’s house or drive a locomotive or bake a casserole or anything. Talk about inefficient use of energy.

But very recently, I learned about a cemetery in the pine barrens of South Jersey that does “green burials.” I didn’t even think that was legal, but it is. And it turns out that there is a whole nationwide network of green burial cemeteries and funeral homes (https://www.greenburialcouncil.org/). That’s how I’ve wanted my body disposed of all of my life. After all, I’ve been walking around on Planet Earth all these years, sustaining myself by eating the plants and the animals that share this life with me. And what do the plants and the animals get in return?

So as soon as I heard about this cemetery, which has been around since the 17th century by the way, I started digging. Well, not literally, but I started checking around, drove down and looked the place over, and liked what I saw. Now I own a piece of New Jersey.

And I’m working with a funeral director who has done this sort of thing before. So when the time comes, they’ll just wrap me in a shroud, dig a hole, stick me in it, and shovel the dirt back in. Chow down, worms and flowers! Have at me! It’s your turn now.

If I sound a bit flippant, the truth is that I find the thought of natural decomposition very comforting. The way it ought to be. The natural order of things.

This is the stuff of poetry: from the Old English “Soul and Body I” to the medieval “A Disputacioun betwyx Þe Body and Wormes” to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm.”

And there’s another piece to this that I just can’t help enjoying, a delicious irony, a kind of poetic justice that is immensely satisfying. Way back in 1975, when I was living in Philadelphia, I drove over to visit a friend of mine in Maple Shade, New Jersey. And since I was going to visit Kathy, another friend asked me if I would take something over to her and save him a trip.

I had just bought a used MG Midget, but the temporary license had come off in a heavy rainstorm. So this Maple Shade cop and about six of his buddies in three cars cornered me and rousted me out at gunpoint. I don’t think the sheriff and his posse liked long-haired hippie-looking guys in convertibles, but I didn’t dare mouth off to this Wyatt Earp Wannabee because if he strip-searched me, I’d be in a lot of trouble since what I was delivering wasn’t entirely legal.

So I just showed him my sworn affidavit attesting that my car was properly registered and tagged, and otherwise kept my mouth shut. There wasn’t anything he could actually charge me with or run me in for. But Marshall Dillon actually said to me, “Get out of New Jersey. And don’t come back.” I almost choked. I had a really hard time biting my tongue on that one. But I also really didn’t want to end up in prison, so I didn’t say a thing.

But now I find myself, nearly half a century later, about to become a permanent resident of New Jersey, and there’s nothing Sergeant Striker of the Maple Shade Police Department can do about it. So I get to be buried the way I’ve always wanted to be buried, the worms and the flowers get a free lunch, and Deputy Dawg gets to go suck an egg. Sweet.


W. D. Ehrhart is an ex-Marine sergeant who holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of Wales at Swansea, and taught for many years at the Haverford School for Boys.

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