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Trees and Death

The National Park Service building coffins out of wood from a fallen oak tree that grew on the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
Rachel Hendrix
Wikimedia Commons
The National Park Service building coffins out of wood from a fallen oak tree that grew on the Manassas National Battlefield Park.

Many cultures and religions celebrate the Tree of Life. But trees also have deep associations with death. People all over the world have laid their dead to rest inside of caskets and coffins made of wood, a tradition that traces back to the burial boxes created in ancient China and Egypt.

In the United States, local furniture makers moonlighted as undertakers, making each coffin individually. During the Civil War, thousands of coffins were needed to transport the thousands of dead soldiers, which opened the era of mass-produced caskets. Since then, their manufacture has evolved into a $1.2 billion industry.

Caskets and coffins are made from of a variety of tree species, each type reflecting the resources of the departed. On the high-cost end, walnut, cherry and mahogany are used. Less expensive are those of poplar and pine, symbols of frugality and simplicity.

In the last two decades — partly due to rising funeral costs — people have increasingly sought funeral arrangements that don’t include caskets, such as cremation.

But there’s another reason for this decline. Because conventional burials involve toxic embalming fluids, the option of green burial is increasingly appealing to those who want to reduce their impact on the Earth, even after they die. Those burial containers are made of quickly decomposing bamboo and willow, and a tree is often planted in the hand-dug burial space, a symbol that life can spring from death.

Over 200 green burial cemeteries exist in the U.S., including a certified green burial garden in the natural landscape of the foothills of Bountiful, Utah.

Trees participate in the natural cycles of life and death, in the past and present, and in real and symbolic ways.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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