Pushing Up Daisies and Oak Trees and Big Blue Stem

640px-a_gaenseblume4So maybe you’re not quite ready to be honored, yourself, this Dia de Muertos, All Soul’s Day, or Samhain. But there will come a day for each of us when we cross that boundary from this world to the next. And when we do, what will happen to our mortal remains?

Leave it to humans to take a natural process like dying and turn it into an abnormal event that must be denied.  And then make that be the cultural norm and charge lots of money for it.

The average, “traditional” funeral (a rather recent tradition) today costs more than $8,000. Embalming (in which the deceased’s blood is replaced with preservatives like formaldehyde, a toxic and potentially carcinogenic chemical) and facial cosmetics are employed to get the corpse ready for its “close-up” in the $3,000 decorative casket for viewing at the funeral home.

In the meantime, the cemetery will have sent out someone with a backhoe to “open” the grave and get it ready for the burial. Then the cortege from the undertaker’s to the cemetery, where, after a short graveside service, the casket will be lowered on a specially-designed, well, casket lowering device. But it will not be sullied by being lowered into the earth itself. It will go into a concrete burial vault; world-class powerlifters couldn’t push daisies up through that.

Ostensibly all of this should preserve the body for a while. But not so. The embalming only lasts for perhaps a week, just long enough for the ‘viewing’. Unless, of course, you are an Egyptian pharoah–your ancestors were deadly serious about embalming and mummifying. Or unless you’re Lenin.

What about the casket seal and a concrete burial vault—made of 5,000 psi concrete and lined with a metal such as bronze or stainless steel, or plastic? Probably won’t keep moisture, bacteria, and earth-borne micro-organisms out for very long. The vault’s real purpose is to keep the ground from sinking as the casket deteriorates. And all this begs the question: why would you want to preserve a dead body, anyway?

There are other choices. Maybe, like the cemetery administrators in our last blog post, you find cremation to be a more palatable solution. It’s got issues, too.  A retort requires a fossil fuel source and puts an unreasonably large amount of carbon into the atmosphere. If you’re a trendy sort, you might instead choose the new ‘biocremation’ technique that uses water and potassium hydroxide—and was approved by the American Chemical Society in 2010—to reduce the body to bones, or “B2B”, as they seem to say in the industry, leaving a very small carbon footprint.

Bicycle hearse, Sunset Hills Cemetery, Eugene, OR

Bicycle hearse, Sunset Hills Cemetery, Eugene, OR

Or, instead, come full circle and return to what most people have done throughout history—simply be placed in the earth and naturally decompose at their own pace, letting their remains go back where they came from, the old “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” sentiment. “A dead body plays host to a whole ecosystem of insects that help to decompose the body and return it to nature.”  So you won’t be malingering.

Green or natural burials are also much less expensive than a “traditional” burial, costing $3,500 at Natural Path Sanctuary, for example.

Pathway to Peace at Natural Path Sanctuary

Pathway to Peace at Natural Path Sanctuary

With this minimal-impact approach to burial, a body is either wrapped in a natural fiber shroud or placed in a biodegradable coffin—woven willow, cardboard, simple wood. And then buried 4 feet down, not 6 feet under. That’s too deep and creates anaerobic conditions; not 2 feet because that’s just too close to the surface. In a Goldilocks sort of way, 3 to 4 feet is just right.

While many urban cemeteries now set aside an area for natural burials, the true green cemeteries, like Natural Path Sanctuary at the Farley Center in Verona, WI, go farther. They embrace the “be a tree” philosophy of allowing your remains to nourish and sustain the earth. An Aldo Leopold quote on the website says it all: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The management here maintains the cemetery in a semi-wild state, so you can literally be pushing up native plants and trees. Makes you wonder how we ever got so far away from such a simple concept.

But we can’t wrap this up without a quick look at the two latest possibilities: the mushroom suit and body composting. Composting is still in the experimental stage, but looks hopeful—after all, it’s become a fairly common procedure on dairy farms with dead animals larger than an average human.

Jae Rhim Lee in her mushroom burial suit

Jae Rhim Lee in her mushroom burial suit

The mushroom suit, proper name Infinity Burial Suit, hit the news last spring when it was first unveiled and ready to sell. More than just a passive, eco-friendly burial shroud, the suit is sown/sewn with varieties of mushroom spores that can use the decomposing body as their substrate, speeding up the process and sequestering toxins to boot. And you go out in a catsuit, looking chic like Emma Peel. Amazing.

Borrowing the marvelously phrased words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Dennis White, the first person intending to be buried in the suit, writes: “I would request that my body in death be buried not cremated, so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the earth, so that the flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined upon flora and fauna during my lifetime.” What a way to get ready for Dia de Muertos!

NEWS FLASH! I read today’s Guardian just before I posted this, and here’s yet another possibility . . .

Photo credits, in order: Bohringer Friedrich (Wiki Commons); http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/wilderness-resources/blogs/the-bike-hearse-makes-dying-greener; http://www.naturalpathsanctuary.org; coeio.com.

Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.

Death in the Time of Cholera

325px-choleraJust two weeks to go and the World’s Columbian Exposition will close forever—123 years ago, that is. Rough estimates show that about 25 million people came through the gates in the 6 months—just 6 months—the fair was open. They came from everywhere in the world—South Sea islands, Lapland, the Caribbean, as well as Egypt, Japan, Great Britain, and Brazil.

And they came right in the middle of what the World Health Organization calls the fifth cholera pandemic, 1881-1896. The Exposition directors worried about how all these folks might get along with one another, and hired a private police force to maintain the peace. And one of those directors was concerned about the possibility of a cholera outbreak.

Bryan Lathrop was the president of Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery and a director of the Exposition (as was his real estate magnate uncle, and founder of the cemetery, Thomas Barbour Bryan). Lathrop had gone to Europe with the cemetery’s landscape-gardener O.C. Simonds the year before the fair opened. They toured the continent’s great estates, botanical gardens, and parks looking for new ideas for their impeccable, park-like graveyard. But when they sailed back to the US and their ship docked in NY harbor, Lathrop and Simonds were peeved to discover that the boat would be quarantined for 2 weeks. There had been a cholera outbreak in Hamburg, Germany and US officials were taking no chances.

cholera-egypt Imagine being stuck in NY harbor with no cell phone, no internet. What do you do? Well, you think and you worry. (Does the ability to text anytime, anyplace, relieve 21st century people of worrying?) So that’s what Lathrop did. He worried about the possibility of a cholera outbreak at the fair. Not an unlikely concern, by any means. What would they do with the sick and the dead? Although a London physician named John Snow had pretty well figured out cholera’s profile in the 1850s, people still didn’t really know how to manage it. Lathrop was concerned that an epidemic at Chicago’s event-to-end-all-events would lead to disaster. And as a cemetery director, he was naturally concerned with the prospect of cholera being transmissible by corpses (apparently it’s not). Hundreds, thousands of potential corpses. Way too many to bury quickly.

cholera-sickleSo cremation seemed like the solution. But in the 1890s that was a long, slow process, requiring several cords (128 cubic feet per) of wood, taking a couple of days to get up to full heat, and an equal number of days to cool down. Not the quick disposal method Lathrop was seeking. He asked Simonds to look into alternative fuel sources when they finally returned to Chicago—specifically what modern factories were now using for clean, hot, efficient furnaces

Simonds discovered that the new fuel of choice was–-oil! And so Graceland Cemetery installed, in 1892, the world’s first oil-burning crematorium. As it turned out, the exceptional hygiene at the fairgrounds—clean drinking water, plenty of sanitary ‘comfort stations’, and a thorough cleaning of the sidewalks and buildings everyday in the wee small hours—prevented any outbreaks of disease at all. (And the police force at the fair had little to do, as visitors mostly behaved very well.)

Columbarium for cremated remains

Columbarium for cremated remains

It took a while for Chicagoans to warm up to the idea of cremation instead of burial, but slowly Graceland’s revolutionary crematorium was used more and more frequently, until it was no longer new and threatening. But technology has changed drastically since 1892, and despite updates to the retort over the years, by 2010 it was no longer feasible to keep it up to city requirements. The historic furnace was taken out of service and removed from its original location under Graceland’s chapel.

Ironically, serial killer Henry Holmes had beat the cemetery to developing an oil-fired retort. He had installed a  glass-bending kiln in the basement of his “murder castle” in Englewood a few years earlier … which he used, not for bending glass, but for incinerating the remains of his human victims, some of whom he met at the World’s Columbian Exposition, just three miles east of his hotel.

Images by author or retrieved from public domain.

Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.






Airbnb, Back in 1853

“The room was fourteen feet square, with battens of split boards tacked on between the broader openings of the logs. Above, it was open to the rafters, and in many places the sky could be seen between the shingles of the roof. A rough board box, three feet square. . . held the store of meal, coffee, sugar, and salt. . . We all sat with hats and overcoats on, and the woman cooked in bonnet and shawl.”

Ybarbo Ranch house, Nacogdoches.

Ybarbo Ranch house, Nacogdoches.

So wrote Frederick Law Olmsted of one stop on his journey southwest in 1853, on horseback from Nacogdoches, Texas to Crockett. He continued:

“A pallet of quilts and blankets was spread for us in the lean-to, just between the two doors. We slept in all our clothes, including overcoats, hats, and boots, and covered entirely with blankets. At seven in the morning, when we threw them off, the mercury in the thermometer in our saddle-bags, which we had used for a pillow, stood at 25º Farenheit.

Frederick Law Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted.

We contrived to make cloaks and hoods from our blankets, and after going through with the fry, coffee and pone again, and paying one dollar each for the entertainment of ourselves and horses, we continued our journey.”

Four years later he and new business partner Calvert Vaux would win the contest to design Central Park in New York City. But for now he was traveling through the deep South and the new state of Texas, reporting back to the New-York Times [as the paper styled itself then] about the every day living conditions in this part of the country.

From Crockett, Olmsted and his two companions continued southwest to Caldwell, Texas, about 45 miles northeast of Austin.

The Excelsior Hotel in Austin, TX, in continuous operation since the 1850s. Poor Olmsted didn't stay anyplace this ritzy.

The Excelsior Hotel in Austin, TX, in continuous operation since the 1850s. Poor Olmsted didn’t stay anyplace this ritzy.

“The “hotel” was an unusually large and fine one; the principal room had glass windows. Several panes of these were, however, broken, and the outside door could not be closed from without; and when closed, was generally pried open with a pocket-knife by those who wished to go out. A great part of the time it was left open. Supper was served in another room, in which there was no fire, and the outside door was left open for the convenience of the servants in passing to and from the kitchen, which, as usual here at large houses, was in a detached building. Supper was, however, eaten with such rapidity that nothing had time to freeze on the table.

We slept in a large upper room, in a company of five, with a broken window at the head of our bed, and another at our side, offering a short cut to the norther [“Chiefly Texas and Oklahoma. A cold gale from the north, formed during the winter by a vigorous outbreak of continental polar air behind a cold front.” Dictionary.com] across our heads.

New Braunfels, 1874.

New Braunfels, 1874.

We were greatly amused to see one of our bed-room companions gravely spit in the candle before jumping into bed, explaining to some one who made a remark, that he always did so, it gave him time to see what he was about before it went out.”

Sometimes, they just camped out, as they did in the Trinity River bottom lands, north of Houston. In order to be safe from their “dirty persecutors, the hogs”, they “pitched their tent within a large hog-yard, putting up the bars to exclude them. The trees within had been sparingly cut, and we easily found tent-poles and fuel at hand.” The plantation they were squatting on had been sold recently, for two dollars an acre.

A Texas-style camp, March 1861, three months before the start of the Civil War.

A Texas-style camp, March 1861, three months before the start of the Civil War.

And so it went. Feeding themselves and their horses wasn’t any easier or pleasanter than their lodgings. But, of course, there weren’t any alternatives, and if you wanted to travel, this is how it was done.

Somehow in the midst of all this Olmsted managed to take detailed notes and get his dispatches back to the Times. The Yankee readership was fascinated by Olmsted’s narrative. Later, he collected all of these essays and published them as The Cotton Kingdom, in 1861. Olmsted’s articles  provide a truly remarkable first-person sociological study of the South before the Civil War. And we can only imagine what Olmsted would have written about thesse less-than-4-star lodgings if only he’d had access to the internet and a blog!

Public domain images from Library of Congress.

Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.

Women, Preservation, & Landscapes

We’re just on the verge of electing the first female president of the United States. And about time. But women have been working in public service endeavors without waiting for anyone’s approval for a long, long time.

Lucretia Mott, one of the motive forces behind the Seneca Falls convention.

Lucretia Mott, one of the motive forces behind the Seneca Falls convention.

For example, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. The meeting was convened by Quaker women and other progressive New Englanders. Frederick Douglass, one of the notable male and black speakers, encouraged the attendees who shied away from pushing for women’s voting rights to instead make that a central tenet. The conference was a turning point in history, opening the way, eventually, for the abolition of slavery and for women’s suffrage.

Then a few years later, in 1853, a woman from a very different background formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. A southern “spinster” named Ann Pamela Cunningham was appalled that George Washington’s beloved home was in decrepit condition and believed that the country owed its father better treatment. So she formed the Association, and within five years, had managed to privately raise $200,000 (approximately $6,250,000 in today’s money) to purchase the house and 200 acres of the estate.

Mount Vernon in 1859.

Mount Vernon in 1859.

The Association was the first concerted, formal preservation organization in the U.S. Its original mandate included the preservation of the gardens and farms equally with that of the house and contents. So historic American preservation was born to include the landscape.

The same year that Mt. Vernon’s situation came to awareness, Frances (Wood) Shimer and Cindarella Gregory came from Ballston Spa, NY to northwestern Illinois to run Mount Carroll Seminary, the very first school in the area. They were quite successful, and despite ups and downs throughout its history, Shimer College, as it became known in 1950, is still in business today—now on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, and soon to move to North Central College in Naperville.

Frances Wood Shimer and Cindarella Gregory in 1869.

Frances Wood Shimer and Cindarella Gregory in 1869.

The school left its Mount Carroll campus to move to Waukegan in 1978 (after being there for 125 years!) because its enrollment had shrunk so much that to stay in business, it needed to downsize its facilities. Citizens of tiny Mount Carroll (pop. 1,717 in 2010) were concerned about the impact this would have on the town and banded together to raise the necessary funds to purchase the campus (shades of Mt. Vernon). By 1980 they figured out a unique and valuable reuse for the property—a specialized historic preservation and conservation college.

The Restoration College Association became the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies several years later, and just this summer, changed its name to the International Preservation Studies Center, reflecting the healthy growth and expansion over the past decades.

campbellSo in the spirit of the ladies of the Mount Vernon Association who recognized right out of the gate that a historic site meant buildings AND landscape, I’m excited to offer the very first landscape preservation course at the IPSC/Campbell Center this fall—a three-day intensive introduction to garden and landscape restoration. We’ll discover that historic landscapes are key components in the character of a place and containers of its history, just as significant as structures but more of a moving target. Course description and registration information can be found here.

Public domain images from Library of Congress and International Preservation Studies Center.

Copyright Barbara Geiger. All rights reserved.

Intoxication at $1 a Stem

Polianthes tuberosa by Pierre-Joseph Redoute, 1806

Polianthes tuberosa by Pierre-Joseph Redoute, 1806

There are some people in this world who do not like chocolate, and there are some people who do not care for the scent of the tuberose. They would not be me.

This is the time of the summer season when the flower growers from St. Anne and Momence bring their tuberose harvest to Chicago farmers’ markets and sell these heavenly flowers for $1 a stem. (How do tuber and bulb flower farmers make any money—it’s one stem to a bulb.) Tuberoses are lovely in the daytime, but as the sun starts to set—POW!—the fragrance suddenly releases and you understand at once the legends about romance and flowers.

Polianthes tuberosa is a night-blooming flower, which is amazing enough while the flowers are still attached to the plant. But how do these gorgeous cut “pearl tuberose” blossoms in a vase on my table know when the light is fading and it’s show time? And then as the sun rises, time to close up shop again?

 tuberosaTuberosa is native to Central America, as is cacao. Europeans must have been bowled over by the fabulous produce they discovered there. Somebody took tubers shipboard back to Spain and Languedoc within 20 years of Columbus’s last voyage. The plant was quickly exported to Persia, where those rose lovers would have been enchanted, and to India.

For today’s perfume market the chief source of “usual tuberose” is Morocco. Its oil is a favorite ingredient, but in its pure form is overpowering. It takes a master nose to concoct a perfume in which this isn’t dominant, but still speaks strongly enough to be intoxicating.

In the Bey's Garden by John Frederick Lewis, 1865

In the Bey’s Garden by John Frederick Lewis, 1865

In a delightful interview with perfumer Pierre Bénard, perfume writer (tough job, but someone’s got to do it?) Sergey Borisov covers the flower’s history, legends, and even includes a compound for making your own scent. Alas, the ingredient list is more reminiscent of “better living through chemistry” than a stroll through the lilies  In the Bey’s Garden. The real blossoms are the best bet by far, and they don’t have too many weeks left this season .




Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved

Images retrieved from public domain at Wikimedia Commons.


Shiver Me Timbers!

750px-Flag_of_Edward_England.svgAhoy, there, matey! Tired of coming up with all the wrong numbers on your lottery tickets? Discouraged trying to make enough to pay the bills by working a job? Why not try doing what the post-Puritan Yankees did–dig for pirate gold (or Spanish silver or native loot)!

Somehow, just as the American Revolution was wrapping up, the notion that there was treasure buried in their rocky fields caught on with these stern and upright folks. Maybe Captain Kidd, who had stashed a little booty on Long Island, had come inland to hide chests of gold. Unearthing something like that would be so much more exciting and rewarding than just hoeing your potatoes.

However it might have gotten there, farmers in Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire wanted to find the booty. But without treasure maps, you know, “X marks the spot”, where do you start looking?

Pyle_pirates_burying2These credulous souls believed that the landscape’s secrets could be brought to light by self-proclaimed psychics through occult rituals and special divining tools. By consulting their “seer stones” they could divine–for a fee–where and how to unearth the treasures for those who wanted to actually go out and dig.

Now, when you dug was critically important. Summertime was best, according to Joseph Smith, Sr. of Palmyra, NY, because “the heat of the sun caused the chests of money to rise near the top of the ground,” while digging in the middle of the night was generally recommended as the most successful time.

Smith’s son, Joseph Jr., became an in-demand seer in the Palmyra area in the early 1820s. The first seer stone he found wasn’t quite the right one, but it was good enough to help him find his own ordained stone. Like other clairvoyants, he put it inside a hat, put his face up against the brim, and looked into the stone in the dark until it showed him….where….the….treasure…was. X marked the spot!

the hill cumorah by cca christensenSmith Jr. also relied on dreams—usually in sets of three. During one of these dream triads the angel Moroni showed him where to look in the woods outside of Palmyra; that is how Smith claimed to have found his “Golden Bible”, the golden plates that he later translated as the “Book of Mormon.” He was led to these treasures and allowed to access them because, Smith maintained, unlike other seekers, he put the valuables back in the ground, not removing them for his own personal gain.

Another problem often encountered was that as a digging party was just about to lay its hands on one of these hidden chests, the chest moved. It sank deeper into the earth or it moved laterally at great speed. This was attributed to the diggers making noise, which awakened a guardian spirit who then leapt into action to save the treasure.

John_Quidor_-_The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane_-_Google_Art_ProjectSometimes crews would be frightened out of their minds by what they all thought was a monster or a ghost with evil intentions, and they’d run shrieking down the hill. Digging all night can make you see things. Or just being a nervous wreck like Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s classic 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. And mysteriously the loot would have vanished when someone got up enough courage to go back and check.

But Smith seems to have gone out by himself, quietly, conveniently. Shortly after finding and replacing his golden treasure, he founded a new religion, attracted a sizeable following, and headed west in 1831.

And right about then the craze for treasure hunting subsided. It was no more lucrative than buying a lottery ticket, just a lot more work. Yet hard-headed, business-shrewd Yankees continued to believe in buried gold, guardian spirits, seer stones, and divination. These were, after all, Irving’s readers and the forebears of H.P. Lovecraft. Pirate booty fits right in. Shiver me timbers, indeed.

Images retrieved from public domain.

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.

Downton Redux

638px-Highclere_CastleDownton Abbey ended just in the nick of time. Not just because the story line had gone missing, but because it was 1925 and the Earl of Grantham was still alive. Parliament passed the Law of Property Act that year and that changed things.

When we first met the Crawley family way back when, it was April 1912. The Titanic had sunk in the north Atlantic, and everyone at Downton was in a tizzy. It turned out that James and Patrick—the heirs to the Downton estate, to the title of Earl of Grantham, and to the family fortune—were on the ship and had gone down with it.

It wasn’t that the Crawleys were so devoted to them (even though daughter Mary was sort of engaged to Patrick, her distant cousin). It was that the Downton estate was entailed, and if there were no more males in the direct line of descent of the original earl, the title could go extinct and the property perhaps revert to the Crown. Blimey, the whole thing could be lost!

What a great plot driver, the entail (think Jane Austen). An entail was an encumbrance on the property deed, defined as “an estate of inheritance in real property that cannot be sold, devised by will, or otherwise alienated by the owner.” Robert Crawley, the reigning Earl of Grantham, owned the property and was responsible for it—and yet he didn’t own it in the sense of being able to sell it, sell parts of it, or leave it in his will. It was all out of Robert’s hands. In the ancient primogeniture tradition, the property would go to the eldest surviving son. Period. End of discussion.

But of course Robert and Cora had no sons, just three daughters. Hence, Robert’s cousin James had been the next in line, and after him, his son Patrick. What now since they both went down with the ship? Family and servants alike at Downton Abbey realized their future was at stake and out of their hands.

Luckily, the family lawyers found Matthew, a distant male relation the Crawleys had never even heard of before but who turned out to be the next successor. After several episodes of ups and downs and other romantic entanglements, Mary and Matthew married. But then, oh no, the Crawley fortune was wiped out when the Canadian railroad in which all their money was invested went bankrupt.

Robert seemed to have no choice—he would have to sell the beloved ancestral family estate! But wait! It’s entailed….”cannot sell, devise by will, or otherwise….” So just how was Robert going to manage that?

We’ll ever know because, luckily, another just in the nick-of-time occurred. Matthew’s dead first fiancé’s father died, leaving his whole fortune to Matthew, who, of course, used it to save Downton. And in gratitude Robert put his name on the title as co-owner. But wait! The estate is entailed, you can’t just put someone’s name on the title.

Well, on it goes. Apparently the writers realized they had backed themselves into a corner with the entail, with no way out. So they just sort of dropped it, as if it had never been. But the next lucky stroke would have come with the Law of Property Act of 1925….

Where does it all go, and how did it get there? Join me at the Harold Washington Library on Saturday, August 6, 2016, at 2 pm for my 125th presentation of “Downton Abbey: Centuries in the Making,” and we’ll get this all sorted out. Maybe.

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: By JB + UK_Planet – originally posted to Flickr as Highclere Castle 1, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4337882