by Samuel Perry
My first big lesson from teaching an online green burial course has been, “None of us are teaching to ourselves,” said simply by Cole Imperi, a colleague of mine.
That sounds completely obvious, right? Well, it wasn’t. To be totally honest, I thought teaching an online course was going to be really easy and fun. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun, but not exactly how I expected it and it certainly is not easy. I was thinking, “I get to be in whatever clothes I want, in the comfort of my own home, and teach something I love to people I know how to talk with, funeral directors.”
Easy, right?... wrong. In retrospect, the naïve assumptions I made seem so obvious now, but that is what I love about learning, the good bits don’t come easy because change is never easy. That said, not everyone loves to learn either.
I love to learn and I love the idea of providing for nature. I’ve always loved gardening and growing food, being outside, and being with the animals. I grew up on a mini farm working with my Mom and Dad in the yard regularly. We didn’t sell anything or have livestock like you would expect when you hear “farm,” we just gardened and kept what animals we could on our nine acres because we liked it. It’s a hobby farm. My parents started it all to get out of town and find solace from being under the eyes of a small rural community, or, at least that’s how I’ve seen it. They have always loved being out in the quiet away from it all. And I always loved helping them curate it all. “Perry Pastures,” as we call it, has become quite a little paradise.
Fast forward several years, my partner and I recently moved out of the city and into the country for similar reasons. We both love the country. We are always planting new flowers and we are working toward growing our own food. We have a dog, chickens, and I’m in my fifth season with honey bees. It’s amazing to find what nature has to teach us. It provides so much! It’s so subtle and humbling to learn lessons slowly, through sweat and dirt. If I’m not working as a mortician or teaching and learning, I’m outside curating a new paradise.
Ironically, it’s my love of the outdoors that brought me to the funeral industry. I often did lawn and garden maintenance in high school. When I got asked to do it at the funeral home in my area, I thought, why not? Slowly but surely, I got more involved and interested, went to mortuary school (near the Shawnee National Forest at SIUC), and despite my reluctance at times, I’m still in the industry.
When I learned about natural burial along the way, I knew it was what I wanted to be involved with for some time to come. As I’ve talked more and more about natural burial, I’ve realized how little the funeral industry knows about it. It was not a topic that was discussed in mortuary school, and only rarely, under the right circumstances, in my work places. So when I was offered the opportunity to teach funeral directors about green burial, I jumped right on board.
Now I finally get to move on from just talking about green burial to advocating and educating funeral directors about green burial. I have never done anything like this before. I had no idea where to start but I hoped my passion for it would show through.
I started by (big headedly) creating my own structure for the course, different from the text book, Changing Landscapes: Exploring the growth of ethical, compassionate, and environmentally sustainable green funeral service by Lee Webster. The course had been designed by her as well, with a course map and detailed syllabus that followed the layout of the book, comprehensively incorporating the many diverse voices in the various movements that are speaking loudly to funeral reform.
I thought, as a mortician, surely I must know best how to present this to my fellow funeral directors, so I recreated the class to fit my own personal interests. I wanted to organize it like you might go through a conventional service—from a “death call” (as the first calls are termed in the industry) to the final disposition. I thought all I had to do was sell them on the environmental advantages, like burying without metal or concrete caskets and vaults. However, this took the emphasis off important topics, such as, funeral and cemetery history and innovative products, like the mushroom suit. It wasn’t just about the industry changes, like using Techi-ice or refrigeration instead of embalming. There was a depth that I was missing by using the structure I created.
It wasn’t long before I realized my mistake. I could see that changing the original structure of the course had confused my students and was making a muddle of my own approach. What had I done?! That’s when I learned my Big Lesson. Teachers are not there to teach to themselves. Teaching about upcoming funeral trends is not just about my journey to have natural burial for myself; it is about helping industry insiders see why someone would want alternative options to conventional American funerals, and especially natural burial, at all, and how they can be prepared to provide it. Big Lesson.
I’m working on approaches and materials now that complement those funeral reform advocates whose voices make up Changing Landscapes. The book is designed to highlight multiple perspectives so that funeral directors can begin to understand the culture and depth of the movement. After nearly two semesters, I’m realizing I’m not the director of that movement. But I am another voice pushing it forward. I want to teach the industry about the green burial movement. I’m not just teaching myself anymore.
Samuel C. Perry
Licensed Mortician and Green Burial Advocate