By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
They surrounded the stump with their chain saws running, hoping to terrorize the "enviro-freak." When they saw God rise above the stump and take the form of an eagle, they dropped their saws in disbelief, for they were so afraid.
-- Ethicius I, Prelate, Universal Ethician Church, edenlost.org
A few dozen yards from the giant marble pyramid and the Swedish bio-toilet, 13 Ethicians ("e-THEE-sheeuns") sit on green plastic chairs overlooking Lake Livingston. Above their heads, Spanish moss hangs from branches and spiderwebs thick as elevator cables span the sky. They have come tonight to pray to God and nature. And for the wine. Can't forget the wine.
"This is my favorite part, since I'm a wino," jokes the gray-haired Ethicius I, a.k.a. George Russell, he of the Hawaiian shirt, jeans with the cuffs rolled up and sandals. Benefit No. 1 of starting your own religion: casual dress.
Screw-top red wine is poured into plastic cups; an 11-year-old girl offers the Ethicians Goldfish crackers from a small glass jar.
"Today, we saw two eagles out here," Russell says, as the Goldfish are munched, and it's like he's speaking of the Red Sea parting. Oh, and the pelicans, he adds. Hundreds of them.
"Here" is the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral, a peninsula jutting out from the 2,800 acres owned by the church and Russell, about 30 miles northeast of Huntsville -- the City of Death, Russell calls it.
Now it's time for the Meditation Moment, the portion of Sunset Services where Ethicians can silently reflect on, as Russell says, the "spirit of the biosphere that keeps us all alive." Meditation Moments range from one to five minutes. Tonight, they get four. Everyone stands up and walks off. One woman sets her black toy poodle on the ground and, as if caught in a tractor beam, floats toward the nearest oak, where she extends a hand and caresses the moss.
Russell strolls to the peninsula's edge to gaze at the water. Everyone is as quiet as the stone statues of deer crouching in the weeds.
Away from the peninsula, near FM 980, nature is interrupted by a power line snaking through an easement owned by the Sam Houston Electrical Co-op (SHECO). In the easement is a mound of dirt about three feet wide and six feet long.
Under the mound of dirt is a cardboard casket containing the rotting corpse of a man with no known friends or family. He is the first person to be buried in Texas's first, and the nation's third, green cemetery.
The co-op wants to clear a 40-foot swath of trees along this easement for a new power line. The Ethicians say Russell created this cemetery to get in the co-op's way and make them look like ghouls. Russell says he wants to bury as many bodies there as he can.
Shortly after the Meditation Moment, Sunset Services wrap up. Invigorated by another evening of celebrating nature, Russell invites everyone to the nearby country club for a Mexican buffet on him.
January 2, 2004: We had our first burial today in the Ethician Family Cemetery. Two college boys dug the grave by hand yesterday. They raked the leaf litter into a pile so that it could be placed back on the grave when it was filled in. They were very careful to not damage even a blade of grass and we only encountered a few tiny roots.
-- Ethicius I, ethicianfamilycemetery.org
Two years ago, a South Carolina doctor named Billy Campbell opened the country's first green cemetery, where eco-conscious folks could bury their loved ones in the woodlands, sans embalming fluid and burial vaults. Shrouds were all right, as were caskets, as long as they were biodegradable. Campbell told the Baltimore Sun he wanted to market Ramsey Creek Preserve after a certain socially responsible ice cream company.
"We want to be the Ben & Jerry's of death," he said.
In his working-class town of 2,700, Campbell was branded a lunatic by some and a revolutionary by others. But the truth is, green cemeteries have been popular in the United Kingdom for more than ten years.
According to English newspapers, there are about 185 green cemeteries in the UK, which has faced a burial-space crisis for years. The problem has only escalated, getting to the point where England's Home Office is considering exhuming the remains of bodies more than 100 years old, shoving them deeper into the earth, and dropping new corpses on top of them. This unattractive squeeze factor, coupled with the fact that green burials cost about half as much as funerals in that country, has made these eco-friendly woodlands a popular alternative.
It's not surprising that this alternative found its way into the heart of George Russell. Wherever there's a weird idea, you can bet that Russell is right around the corner, wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Or, to be precise, the ideas may be weird only to his neighbors. And in Russell's case, his neighbors are the residents of the ultraconservative environs of Huntsville, home of Texas's death row. But unlike many eco-conscious activists, Russell has the money to back up his cause.