Sarah Wambold: My name is Sarah Wambold. I am a funeral director in Texas and I work in the green burial space.
Tamara Santibañez: Can you define what the “green burial space” is?
S: That would be anything that has to do with green or natural burials. Putting a body into the earth without any sort of chemical or structural interference like a casket or a vault. I also advocate for home burials and a kind of DIY culture around burying and ritualizing our dead. Burying out of your house, transporting bodies to burial spaces, and creating green burial spaces where that opportunity is available.
T: Is that something that anyone has the power to do for themselves or a family member if they wanted? How easy would it be for me to bury a loved one’s remains in my backyard?
S: Burying in a backyard is not possible everywhere in the United States unless your backyard is in a state like Texas and is at least 5 miles outside of the city limits, and is your own property. So in that respect it's not as easy as the conventional funeral service that we have today, which is really simple for people to just call up a funeral home and take the body and have them deal with it. I do believe the process and the work that goes into doing a funeral by yourself or with your family instead of going to a funeral home is the most rewarding experience. It's not necessarily easy, it takes more planning, but it’s definitely the most rewarding.
T: So you have to be a legal land owner to do a home burial?
S: Home burial is not synonymous with a green burial. A home funeral is where you just have the body laid out at the house or wherever that's not necessarily a funeral home, and never taking the body to a funeral home. A green burial is where there's been no intervention and a lot of funeral homes can facilitate that part of it. Those conversations are just pretty difficult to have.
T: Why is that? You mentioned that funeral homes are financially invested in having people work with them in a certain way.
S: They are financially invested for sure- also uneducated. You're not going to find a lot of funeral homes that understand that legally it's okay for families to take the body from the funeral home themselves. I know a lot of anecdotes and situations where people have experienced calling funeral homes saying that they want no embalming and they want to transport the body themselves, and the funeral home saying no, that's illegal- that’s not true. In all states embalming is not required, but very few states require funeral homes to transport the body. Funeral homes are just uneducated and it's not really in their best interest to be educated, because then they can say “It's our company policy if you use our funeral home, that you be embalmed. If you want to have a viewing- we transfer the body through us.”
T: From what you told me earlier there's essentially a lot of factors wrapped up in funeral directors having the power to dictate how you do things. There’s no such thing as public funerals, government owned or subsidized funeral services- it's all privately owned and corporatized and also that the embalming rule is something they enforce for…what reasons?
S: When I was in funeral service school, we were told in our embalming classes it was for three things: restoration, preservation and sanitation. All three of those are more or less crap. Sanitation is the one they will push the most because they want everyone to believe that untreated bodies are manifesting disease all over the place-which is not true. Preservation and restoration are more aesthetic - if they show bodies that don't look good, they're not going to get people to come back and feel comfortable because we are very conditioned to be afraid of death and are very conditioned to seeing a perfect image of death. That's not always how it looks. Not every embalmer is good. They will couch it in this phrasing of “A better last image” or “We want to make sure the person looks their best so that you feel comfortable having them around”. They are in some ways setting people up into thinking that they can't handle seeing the person in any other state.
T: That makes sense, and leads into what you mentioned earlier about how you see the male gaze affecting us at death and after death. Can you elaborate on that?
S: Definitely. Embalming came into popular culture during the Civil War and it was mainly for Union soldiers to be preserved so their families could see them one last time. When funeral services became industrialized and taken out of the home into a commercial space, the only people who were getting licensed were men, so they have been able to shape what the final image would look like. What they are recreating has been a perfect body image of someone's skin, good features, makeup. There was a study done in 2010 that showed that women were 20% less likely to get licensed as funeral directors if they had this embalming license attached to the licensure. So they're kept of out of the embalming service and are not able to exercise any voice or control over the aesthetics of the practice. We’re continuing to see this perpetuation of bodies laid out looking really restored and preserved and made more youthful, to what is a dishonest image, if you ask me.
T: You mentioned that also being a way to erase disabilities if that’s something the person was affected by when they were living.
S: People will have their scars erased, even small things like that - if that was part of their identity, who’s to say that it shouldn't be part of them when they’re at death? Or if their limbs are deformed, they might straighten them out or something like that. I don't really think that's the best thing to keep perpetuating. I think that also comes from the invisibility of disabled people. I have a real issue with the aesthetics of funeral service. I think it's really extravagant and pretty unnecessary.
T: You told me that you had in mind that you wanted to open your own funeral home, and that it would work around a very different model.
S: I was going to open up a funeral home that works exclusively with people who wanted to only do natural burial or cremation services that forwent the whole embalming procedure. There would still be a visitation period, you could still have a body out for view, they would just be presented as it was. The idea was any of the services that people paid for would go towards funding artists in the community. It would fund an artist’s space, or a work they were trying to finish - that sort of thing. The intention would be to be totally transparent about where the money for services was going to go, and to offer a different option for somebody who didn't want to have to go through a funeral home, that didn't want the option to embalm, they knew what they wanted in those terms and it would make it really easy for them to achieve. That was a difficult process in Texas because there are a lot of rules and regulations as to what is necessary for opening a funeral home. An embalming room is required and embalming equipment is necessary to have, because you have to offer embalming as an option on your list of services. It's something that I'm very opposed to, it's also very expensive to have all that equipment that you’re not using.
T: So people are totally excluded from embalming rooms and the process itself? It's something that people don't have access to while they are simultaneously pushed towards and in some cases required to do?
S: Exactly. A lot of funeral homes will have a policy that if you go through a funeral home and want to have a visitation the body needs to be embalmed. Therefore you have to engage with that service. People don't have any real idea what goes into that practice. I think if they did everyone would be against it- it's invasive and involves harmful chemicals that put the person embalming at risk. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and that's still what's used because it works so well. People aren't exposed to that process. So my thinking was okay, if I have this funeral home and am required by law to have the embalming facility, maybe my front room will just be the embalming space so right when you walk in you would have to see it. I don't know if that would be very helpful. It's not very pleasant and it really serves no purpose. It does not protect. It does harm to people and the environment, so that whole idea of sanitation is really curious to me.
T: What sort of environmental impact do you see as far as the chemicals being used?
S: Definitely a serious chemical impact because the truth is it's not preserving forever. It prevents decomposition for the time of the funeral. Then all that shit breaks down and seeps into the ground. So eventually it gets into the water.
T: What happens with bodies that are embalmed and put in caskets?
S: They decompose eventually, they're just encapsulated in these other boxes that are also treated with formaldehyde. Most of the wood that's being used in caskets has been treated with formaldehyde so all of that is just sitting in our cemeteries and they break down after a time. It doesn't happen overnight, but the slow breakdown of those materials makes its way back into our ground.
T: So it’s ironically insisted upon with the idea of environmental protection, and unembalmed bodies are made to seem…
S: Like an imminent threat. I get a lot of questions from people thinking that if the body isn't treated immediately it’s going to be this holy mess within minutes, hours, or a day. And that's not true. Unembalmed bodies are typically made out to be an urgent threat festering with disease. That isn't the case.
T: Can you tell me how the embalming process is being used to exclude cultural traditions or to exclude people from practicing certain types of burial?
S: There's a lot of evidence that when we enforce embalming it bars people who have cultural traditions of no embalming or very rapid burial from being able to practice their funeral rites in this culture. Islam and Judaism are the two that first spring to mind. They have strict rules around unembalmed bodies, which are either shrouded or put in plain pine box caskets and put into the ground within a certain period of time. For people from that community who want to get a funeral director's license- say they’re in a state that requires them to also get an embalming license. That's going to bring up conflict with their beliefs because that's not something that they practice, it's not something they want to offer their community, so it keeps them from being able to get that licensing or being able to effectively serve their community. Say they want to open a funeral home but they have to have this legality attached to it. It's a lot harder for them if they're feeling conflicted about it aligning with what they want to offer.
T: You gave the example that communities can essentially vote to prevent those types of facilities from opening for similar reasons.
S: So what ends up happening is if they are in a place where they are able to get that licensure and they are able to open their own space, they will typically want to be buried in a Jewish or Islamic cemetery. What's been happening is a Muslim community will try to purchase land to be buried on, and people will rally against them being able to purchase and designate the site as a burial ground because of the “concerns for the environment.” But if you look at the records, they usually go to a town hall meeting and there ends up being a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment coming out, saying they don't want it to be grounds for community and a space for Islamic ritual. They're in a lot of fear about it, so they use the framing of their concern for the groundwater even though it's typically not anywhere near an aquifer and if you bury people right it won't affect groundwater. So it prevents a lot of people from these communities to have space to practice their own death rituals freely.
T: To go back to your ideas about how you would operate your funeral home with transparency about the funding and where the money was ending up, where does the money end up in a funeral home? Especially with one that is a large corporation?
S: That's a really interesting question - funeral homes right now aren't making a lot of money. People are not as interested in paying as much money for the services. So the overhead is very high because of things like having to have a prep room, having to have a fleet of cars, having to have a space, having the space for a service to accommodate 100 people. There are rules about the casket merchandise you have on display and have in stock. You're also paying fees- your license and then you're paying your employees. When I was working in funeral services it did not pay well. Typically the managers are making a lot of money, but the people doing the real work and dealing with cancer causing chemicals daily aren't making any money. You may be making 30,000 for work that is very specialized and also very taxing. You're on call a lot, you're out all hours of the night working with families that are extremely upset. There's a lot that you sacrifice to do the job and it is very rewarding, but the compensation is not there.
T: So none of these services are anything that people as individuals can have subsidized, there's no government aid for funerary services?
S: It's very small. If you are an indigent person it's a couple hundred bucks max. Veteran services are also maybe a couple hundred dollars depending on your rank and service.
T: You were telling me about an instance where this large company that owns funeral homes here in Texas was misidentifying bodies of migrant workers near the border.
S: That's been an ongoing issue. It’s been a constant stream of new stories coming out around the border of Texas where bodies of people trying to cross have been misidentified. In one area in particular it was traced back that a funeral home that was run by this large corporation SCI had been the perpetrators of misidentifying bodies and not properly recording them, burying them improperly. That never gets talked about. The funeral home corporation is based out of Houston and they have a huge stake in the funeral lobby in Texas, which is why laws can't get changed here. That gets easily covered up because they're in charge essentially. There's really no group that can fight back against them right now because they have a lot of power. When I was looking into opening my own funeral home there was a loophole that I saw that said you could contract with a funeral home that has an embalming room if you don't have one on your site, and the corporation swooped in to write a letter and enforce an amendment that rendered that null. They are very much in charge.
T: The last time that we spoke, you mentioned that there is a way that you can choose to be buried where your body ultimately serves to protect the land in the surrounding area.
S: Yeah, that's something that can be done anywhere. The project that I'm working on now is trying to formalize that and make that a part of protecting state parks. Essentially the idea is that once you put a body into the ground it serves as a burial site. Like a public cemetery or a community cemetery or a family plot that is protected indefinitely from further development. I really advocate for people going that route because it does prevent a lot of mass development. The project that I would be working on would specifically be around environmentally sensitive lands where there are things like routes for monarch migration, trees that are endangered, plants, things like that. Or state park areas where the view around it is in danger of being encroached upon by development, creating burial spaces around that state park land that will eventually be absorbed into the park itself. We have engaged some state agency parks who are willing to facilitate that which is really exciting and hopefully it can happen this year.
T: What would be the possible implications or possibilities of that in a broader sense? Is that something that could be potentially used as a tool to halt gentrification in certain areas in a more urban area?
S: Slowing urban sprawl is more likely than slowing gentrification. It's really hard to establish burial grounds within cities. Most cities today in the U.S. have really strict laws about setting up burial grounds within city limits and it's not easily done anywhere that I'm aware of. Near urban areas you're going to be limited to the outlying areas, and you could prevent urban sprawl that way. It's probably going to be five miles out at least depending on how many people you plan on burying. I really advocate for people to consider full burial which I know isn't very easy and is not popular right now. Everybody is on this cremation tip, because it is less expensive and it is seemingly easier- but it's incredibly impactful on the environment. Cremation releases a lot of toxins into the atmosphere. It takes an incredible amount of energy to burn a body and it releases an incredible amount of carbon. Once you get ashes back, there's a lot of product out there right now that says ashes turn into trees but that's not really true. Ashes are inorganic at that point. They can't really do anything with them. If people are considering both options, I really would push them to think about a whole body burial. That’s definitely not the easier route, but it is the most effective.
T: How do you see this fitting into broader American cultural ideas about death? As far as what people do want to see, what they don’t want to see, what this industry was created to protect, prevent, etcetera.
S: That's where my work really focuses now because I realized I'm aiming for the moon- getting people to change their relationship with a dead body is incredibly hard. People are very emotional, it’s very sad. This is not an overnight thing. This is a long distance run that I don't know if I will ever see come to fruition. What I do see happening though is a lot of people are asking more questions, experiencing more unique burials where somebody wasn't embalmed, getting comfortable with these discussions and there's been a rise in home funeral workshops. There are these things called “death cafes” where people are able to go and express their ideas and fears around death and dying. Those conversations I try to remain a part of because that's what's going to get people informed when they go to a funeral home. You don't really see a lot of funeral homes out there trying to engage folks. People who are in school are encouraged to not talk about what they do to the general public. It’s very clear they are maintaining the stigma.
T: You mentioned there were certain things in place at the funeral homes that would almost tell people that they wouldn't be able to handle it, underestimating them to begin with.
S: Right off the bat they use language that disempowers people from handling their own dead. I’m very against that. I think people have dealt with more than they are given credit for. Especially women-you see a lot of women coming into the death movement and getting right into the alternative death movement because as women we deal with our own mortality on a daily basis. From anything from child miscarriage to being the caretakers at someone's bedside when they're sick and dying. So it's funny to me that women aren't a part of the institutionalized conversation, but they are big on the alternative side because we know what it's like. I think it disempowers people who have been there all along. They have been with these people who are sick and dying the whole time, why wouldn't they be able to continue that service after death?
T: That also raises the question of it being a massive privilege to not have to deal with death, whether that's because you have the funding to put elderly people in full time care outside of your home, or because you live in an area where you are not afflicted by gun violence and deaths of young people, or maybe never having to attend a funeral until later in life.
S: I hesitate to take all power away from funeral homes because, especially in the African American community, they have been a real solid place for people who are experiencing a lot of trauma to go and be a part of their ceremony and their ritual. They have had to deal with it more than white Christians in America. When I do go to events that are around death awareness or when I'm working in DIY spaces like home funerals and stuff, it's a lot of old white ladies. Or young white people who are maybe finally dealing with an aging parent or an aging grandparent. There's just not really a dialogue around that in white culture. They've always been able to have someone else deal with it. So they're just coming around to this idea of doing it yourself when this is actually an old way of doing shit. This is not new, this is not new to anybody other than white people.
T: What do you think people can do if they are interested in undertaking that shift in perspective for themselves? What do you think are things that people can engage with to help them in that?
S: I got really depressed and I had to get ready for a wedding the other day and I got fake nails, I got my hair dyed, I got my makeup done and I was like. Holy fuck, this is death denial. The denial of the aging process I think is one thing that people can resist. That's the first step. Embrace the breakdown of your body. I think we need to be more exposed to the seniors in our society and the reality of what the process of aging does to people. Disabled people, making them a more visible part of our society, as well as people with chronic illness. I think going to funerals and looking at dead bodies- people really don't want to go to a memorial service. If you can at all, see the body. Do it. If you have the opportunity to have a small vigil for people- do it. I think people find that that is very rewarding and very healing.
T: And it can serve as a training wheel experience for dealing with it on a more personal level.
S: Definitely. If you know people who have lost somebody, I would encourage you to talk to them about it. Because that's another thing we don't do, ask people how they're doing and what that experience is like to them. I think people are afraid of sadness and not knowing what to say. Just being available to people is a really good exercise for you to do. It's not easy. I don't want to be a person that's like look, death is easy and fun and it's cool. It's not. Its none of those things. I'm living in reality here and it’s a lot of work. I want to help people do that work basically. Weirdly, I don't feel like the funeral industry allows me to do it.
T: On a lighter note, you were talking to me about people entering the funerary industry who expect to have a goth lifestyle experience within it and that not being the case. Can you elaborate on that?
S: It was really funny when I was in school and I was apprenticing to see the kids or adults that really lived what they considered to be a goth lifestyle-you know, the studs and the skulls, and the black and all that. They tried to get into the industry because they wanted to be around bodies and had this idea that they are just going to work with the dead bodies. They’re like- I don't wanna work with the families, I just wanna work with the dead bodies, right? That's my thing- i'm goth. That's a very common attitude and they get into the business and they realize that's not acceptable and there is a very formal appearance to a funeral director that's widely accepted.
T: Because people don't want a morbid aesthetic around their loved ones?
S: People don't necessarily reach out for that when they're looking to plan a funeral. And the idea that you don't have to work with families is a complete fallacy. All funeral directing is is working with the grieving. You spend very little time dealing with a dead body.
T: I guess that goes to the philosophy of goth outside of the aesthetics of it. To me the thing about goth was that it wasn’t just about being morbid, it was about it being a healthy way to live to not be afraid to look at the darker parts of society.
S: That translates correctly to me in the funeral industry in that when you actually talk to the families, you get to an honest place with them. That is the real scary dark shit because they will express the stuff that they don't tell everyone else. That's hard for people to handle. If you can show up for someone on that level, there's some power in that and that's been darker and scarier than any kind of goth shit. When you do that, you realize that people actually want to be involved. They want to be with their person, and they don't want to just hand over the body to someone else. They want to be a part of that process. I think funeral homes are scared to do that. They don't want to give over that control.
T: To wrap up, do you have any personal idealized vision of what sort of change or what shift you want to see? You said the long finish line- what does that look like to you?
S: To me that looks like a widely accepted viewpoint that embalming is never necessary and understood that it's bad for the environment and that natural burial isn't harmful. Those are the things that I would like to see changed. I think those are enough to dismantle what we are experiencing right now in the industry. And more people just requesting to see dead bodies…it's hard to say that stuff while also having compassion for people who have experienced a lot of death and who have had to see a lot of dead bodies without choice in the matter. I’m sensitive to saying it in that simplistic a way, but ideally it would just look like people wanting to be faced with that task and people being equipped to handle it.
Sarah Wambold is a writer and funeral director in Austin, TX.
Website: sarah-wambold.com Instagram: @sah_raw.