Outside the Box

In keeping with the Halloween spirit, we bring you the tale of George Russell, who buries people in cardboard on his property. Welcome to his neighborhood.

In Van Beck's 36 years in the funeral industry, he has seen all sorts of fads, so green burials aren't a surprise. In fact, it's a tame concept compared to other niche markets, such as the Iowa mortician who will pack the cremated remains of your loved one into a shotgun shell.

"It's almost like sex -- they're always trying to find a new way," Van Beck says of niche funeral directors. But what it boils down to, he says, is "people are going to care for their dead in a consistent manner with how they live their life."

As for Russell's toxic-pickle theory, Van Beck says nothing could be further from the truth.

The marble pyramid is only paces away…
Photographs by Daniel Kramer
The marble pyramid is only paces away…
…from where George Russell, shown with Jenny Zeitner and Mike Reagan…
Daniel Kramer
…from where George Russell, shown with Jenny Zeitner and Mike Reagan…

"Revlon uses more formaldehyde in making lipstick and fingernail polish than all of the embalming fluid combined in the United States in a year's time," he says, adding, "I wouldn't want my mother to be described as a toxic pickle."

He also balks at the idea that the funeral industry exploits the grief-stricken. If people planned ahead and found a funeral director they trusted, they could avoid the stress of last-minute decisions.

"The poor vulnerable consumer, I just think that thing has been wrung out," he says. "I know people that spend more time selecting their barber and their hairdresser than they do a funeral director…When they have a death in their family, is that the funeral director's fault that they're walking in dealing with a stranger?"

Given the fact that there are only a handful of green cemeteries in the country, the Texas Funeral Directors Association is not experiencing or anticipating a blow to the industry.

"I had never even heard of a green cemetery until two months ago," TFDA President Gary Shaffer says from his San Angelo funeral home. "As far as having an official position, I don't think we have one."

In Texas, it's legal to bury someone on your property as long as there is at least two feet of dirt covering the body. No grave liner is necessary, nor is embalming, if the body is refrigerated within 24 hours of expiration, according to Chet Robbins, director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission.

And, according to Elias Briseno, a sanitarian with the Department of State Health Services, green burials pose no health concerns unless the body is buried within a shallow water table providing community drinking water.

But Russell's critics aren't just worried about health. They're worried about their property values if the power line is routed away from the Ethician Family Cemetery. And they're also worried about the sanctity of Mt. Capers Cemetery, consisting of about 100 graves, with the oldest legible marker dated 1873.

"It's a ploy," Danny Benois says of Russell's cemetery. Benois, who sells gun safes in Conroe and Houston, bought about 60 acres near Waterwood for him and his wife to build a home on when they retire. One of SHECO's nine route proposals would have the power line running through his front yard. "We're looking at the cemetery he's talking about crossing, that's hundreds of years old -- that doesn't bother him a bit."

But Russell accuses SHECO of feeding lies to Mt. Capers's supporters. He says SHECO could run a line near that cemetery without actually going through it and disturbing graves.

And ultimately, he says, "Our cemetery is of international significance. Mt. Capers is a nice little local cemetery."

Like everyone else involved, Benois has no idea how long Russell is going to fight. But he thinks he has an easy solution: "My thoughts are, just get a damn bulldozer and go take care of it."

MACHO MADNESS is responsible for many wars, hate crimes, environmental destruction, abusive behavior, and lack of respect for God and Creation.

REAL MEN love beauty, take joy in watching birds and butterflies, read story books to little children, write poetry, and work for peace and the protection of all of God's Creation.

-- Ethicius I, machomadness.org

"We don't hang goats or drink blood or nothing," Sollie Jackson says over a rib eye steak and wine, courtesy of Russell, at the Waterwood Country Club.

Jackson is fresh from work, wearing the lime-green scrubs he dons for work in a kitchen at the East Texas Medical Center.

Ethician Sunset Services are all about hearing the birds and giving thanks to God, he says. Jackson, a deacon, usually thanks the Lord for the past week and what he hopes will be a better week ahead. These brief services are a way to decompress from workaday life and see the true beauty most take for granted.

"You would be surprised at the people who need it," he says.

Russell calls nature God's art gallery, and he can stare at Lake Livingston or a red-cockaded woodpecker hole like another man might stare at Monday Night Football.

Traipsing through the woods along FM 980, not far from the late Rick Gallagher, Russell points to this tree and that, marked with colored ribbons. He's establishing trails and monitoring the trees' growth. Weaving through the woods, he comes across a towering pine that looks like it's been done growing for decades. This is Jackson's headstone. He wants to be buried right in its shade. Russell thinks Jackson has picked one of the best trees in the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral.

Beaming, Russell lies down on the dirt and leaves under the tree. He looks straight up through the cracks in the leafy canopy and into the sun.

"He loves this tree," he says.

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