Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Urban death project takes "earth to earth" literally

I was headed for Toronto recently when I drove past the cemetery and crematorium at Flesherton. I noticed, surprisingly, that there were several plain vans lined up at the entrance. I know there is construction going on there, but I could also conclude that because of the demand for cremation, the lineup was evidence that further cremation facilities may be needed in Grey Bruce.

I apologize if what I am about to write may be upsetting to readers. In fact, I would suggest that if discussion of the process of what happens to a human body after death is disturbing to you, that you move on to the next page in the newspaper.

The reason I want to raise this matter is that I recently heard about an interesting option being proposed for the treatment of human bodies after death.

The option is called human composting.

While the concept is still in the experimental stage, and with no human subjects yet tested, the concept is intended for urban areas where land is scarce and perhaps better utilised for other purposes than the burial of human remains.

The project, called the Urban Death Project, is the vision of an American architect, Katrina Spade.

She proposes that we erect a special building with a three-story core, within which bodies and high-carbon materials are placed. Unembalmed bodies are delivered to the building within a few hour of death. Loved ones then carry the remains to the top of the core, where the body is then laid to rest in high carbon materials.

According to the project’s web page, over the span of a few months, with the help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, the bodies decompose fully, leaving a rich compost.

The compost would be collected and then used to grow trees, flowers, and memorial gardens. It would not be used on food crops.

The foundational problem the Urban Death Projects is hoping to address is the huge amount of resources used in traditional burial and the relative scarcity of land in urban areas.

The project says that in the United States alone, 30 million board-feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel are used in coffins, 17,000 tons of steel and copper are used in vaults, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete are used to make vaults, and more than 750,000 gallons of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid are used in the embalming process annually. Canada would probably use a proportional amount. Cremation, it says, is a less wasteful option, but it still emits 540 lbs of carbon dioxide per body into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.

There is no legal requirement in Canada for a body to be embalmed, unless it is transported over a provincial border or international boundary. Embalming is, as one funeral director told me, “basically a public health process, where there may be extended time between death and funeral ritual.”

Does composting make a difference?

According to the Urban Death Project, “Compost  - organic matter that has been decomposed and recycled as a fertilizer - supports and improves the soil, as well as reducing the need for the petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and additives that can do more harm than good. Composting is a way to take dead organic materials and give them new life.”

As interesting as this idea is, I remain doubtful.

I asked a couple of wise, long-retired farmers if they ever saw any evidence of increased growth on the ground where they had buried livestock who had died and could not be hauled away.

They said they saw no change in the land.

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is the traditional way we say farewell to our deceased loved ones. I am not sure composting them adds much to those words or comforts our grief.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Chickens in the city? How about in church?

I see that the City of Owen Sound is considering allowing the raising of chickens within city limits.

I know of a couple of people who will be right on this, who are probably planning their chicken coops right now.

For our rural neighbours, this will, of course, be nothing new. Chickens and livestock have always been part of the rural fabric. But in the city? Not so much.

Livestock were banned from urban areas for good reason. They produce a lot of excrement. And somebody has to remove it, or it becomes offensive and a health hazard.

Think dog poop is a problem? Annoyed that people don’t pick up after their own animals? Now think chickens. And having been in a chicken barn when it is being cleaned out with a loader, the smell is, shall we say, overpowering.

Although I would not want to have chickens myself, I have lived in Toronto where my neighbours had pigeons. Nice birds, but a bit noisy and, yes, a bit smelly.

My one experience with chickens in church came several years ago on Easter Sunday

My colleague brought a chicken to church that day for the Children’s Time. She had picked up on the story of Peter denying Jesus, but wanted to emphasise new life which chickens also represent.

It was a real chicken. But what she forgot to ask was if it was a laying hen.

The Children’s Time went well. The kids were appropriately curious about the chicken, most not ever having see a live one.

At the end of Children’s Times, after the young people went off to Sunday School, the chicken in its cage was covered up and we proceeded with the service.

During the sermon I could hear rustling in the chicken cage. Something was going on.

At the end of the sermon, one of our members went up to the cage, lifted the cover and started to laugh. I looked down and saw her mouth to me with a great big smile, “It laid an egg!”.

I have to confess that was the first time any sermon I ever preached caused an egg to be laid. I have had people pass out, a dog turn off the PA system and church musicians accidentally hit an organ key in the middle of preaching, but never has anyone laid an egg. Until then.

Nothing is without risk in this world; raising chickens in the city included. I suppose that if Owen Sound were to allow the raising of chickens in the city there would have to be limits on the number and housing involved. I don’t think that having chickens advertised as “Free range - 2nd Ave East” or “Raised by the harbour” would be a selling point, but who knows?

I also trust they will be laying hens only. A rooster joining me for coffee at 5:00 AM is a bit much.

Nothing is ever as perfect nor as bucolic as we would like; chickens in the city included. What the city decides to do will be an interesting process to watch.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Supreme Court ruling on prayer a correct one

City Council in Owen Sound will no longer open with a faith blessing or moment of silence and I, for one, am pleased to see that.

I am well aware that statement will place me on the opposite side of the table from my colleagues, and many readers will disagree with me, but I am prepared to sit in that place.

If there is a foundational principle which is reinforced in the decision it is that the state has a duty to be religiously neutral. It cannot, in any aspect of its service to citizens, show any preference or bias towards one religious group over another.

Prayer to a Christian God and simply the act of prayer does that.

There is no argument to be made either, that religious prayer is reflective of the history and tradition of the community or society. By using a specific faith prayer, in this case of the Supreme Court’s decision the Christian Lord’s Prayer, the municipal council of Saguenay, Quebec showed undue preference to Christians over all others. And in doing so, they violated the principle of religious neutrality the Charter requires the state to uphold.

Nor can anyone make the argument that the preamble of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows Christian prayer. As Mr. Justice Gascon said in the decision, “The reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith.”

In other words, state neutrality means exactly that.

It does not mean that the state is atheistic, on one hand, or adverse to theism on the other. It means the state must intentionally and fully be, neutral. Again, as Mr. Justice Gascon says, “True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another. No such inference can be drawn from the state’s silence.”

So what does that look like?

It means that municipal councils will no longer have, in the case of Owen Sound, a faith blessing or moment of reflection at the beginning.

It means that at all levels of government, except the provincial legislature and House of Commons, which are not governed by this decision, business will be business. The meeting will be called to order by the presiding officer and the business on the agenda will proceed.

I have served on many boards and committees of secular organizations over the years. I have also been a part of many church courts, as we call them in the United Church, committees and meetings.

The secular organizations never began their meetings with prayer.  It would not even be considered appropriate to do so.

On the other hand, the Christian church, which seeks guidance from God through the Holy Spirit, always opens a meeting with prayer.

While it may be easy to get upset with the Supreme Court for overturning our comfortable religious apple cart, there is a far more serious and much more difficult task at hand.

Being neutral takes a lot of work. It means rethinking the way we do things, not as to exclude, but to do what we do with true purpose and clarity.

Nobody “won” or “lost” in this decision. We have been challenged to think more clearly and fairly in our approach to government.

What was, no longer is. What will be, we do not know. But at the very least working towards an even handed neutrality for all citizens, no matter what their beliefs, should be our common goal.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.