Outside the Box
The loggers, seeing the human figure which was actually God, crying, decided to get in one last lick before moving on toward the sawmill and then to the beer hall. "Hurry up, and let's bash that crying queer, there's some hot bitches waiting and I got to go to church with my wife at 7." "I'll bet that puke ain't took a bath in a month." "Let's pull that stupid robe off that commie fag."
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.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Louisville Cardinals College Football
TicketsThu., Nov. 17, 7:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTEP Miner Football
TicketsSat., Nov. 19, 11:00am
SWAC Football Championship
TicketsSat., Dec. 3, 3:00pm
TicketsSat., Jan. 7, 7:00pm
"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.
Originally from Missouri's boot heel, Russell's family moved to Huntsville in the early 1950s, when his father took a teaching job at Sam Houston State University. The elder Russell also created a side business in his garage called Educational Filmstrip Network, producing and distributing educational films to schools across the country. In the late 1980s, the company went video, changed its name to Educational Video Network, and business exploded. If in high school you ever saw a video about the French Revolution or the dangers of driving drunk, chances are it was one of Russell's. Recent titles include "Dying for a Smoke" and "Ecstasy: When the Party's Over."
The company's success allowed the family to buy much of the property in the Russells' neighborhood, creating an area of Huntsville called Russellville, where many of EVN's employees live for little or no rent. Russell spent the 1990s sinking about $3 million into 2,800 acres of woodlands sprawling through San Jacinto and Walker counties. Some of this property fronts Lake Livingston, extremely valuable land that Russell has protected from development with 99-year conservation easements. Steve Loy, Russell's friend and wildlife manager, calls the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral a tax burden, not a cash cow.
One surefire way to make yourself noticed in Huntsville is to create your own weird-sounding religion that holds its meetings in the woods at night. Then, dispatch artisans to hand-build a marble replica of the pyramid of Cestius and tell everyone it's going to be your father's tomb. After that, make sure you launch about 250 rant-filled .org Web sites with names like adamwasblack and jesus hateschristians. To top it off, erect a big blue billboard on FM 980 and mark it with a crucifix, a Star of David and a Muslim crescent. If that doesn't piss off enough people, start sticking bodies straight into the dirt.
That last one got the attention of SHECO, which was surprised to find out that what it thought would be a slam-dunk power line addition turned into a battle over so-called hallowed ground.
What's worse, some of the co-op's alternative routes involve running part of the nine-mile line through a nearly 200-year-old cemetery (where folks are buried the old-fashioned way). Now, critics of the different routes are weighing in on the battle before the Texas Public Utility Commission.
Russell says he's fighting an evil corporation that doesn't respect religion or the dead. The co-op's Austin attorney, Mark Davis, says he pretty much has a headache.
Davis accuses Russell of creating the cemetery out of spite and sticking the inaugural corpse in a spot only he can easily identify. The grave's makeshift marker appears to be a weathervane, but if the marker is ever knocked over or obscured by debris, the grave's GPS coordinates are listed on ethicianfamilycemetery.org.
According to Russell's online grave directory ("Who's Who in the Cemetery"), the first man laid to rest in the Ethician Family Cemetery is Rick Gallagher, a 40-year-old "food service worker." Per cemetery guidelines, Gallagher was posthumously anointed as an Ethician. Russell says he checks the grave every day to make sure Gallagher's corpse hasn't been mauled or dragged away by coyotes.
Driver's license information for Gallagher, listed on Publicdata.com, shows his last known address as a Conroe apartment. But as far as Davis is concerned, Gallagher was a homeless man from Houston whom Russell saw as the perfect anonymous soul to hold up the power line. Davis is not impressed with the cemetery, or with the Universal Ethician Church.
"He's invited me to come down there and make me a deacon in his church and lather me up with some oil, and I've managed to avoid that so far," Davis says from Austin.
What he hasn't managed to avoid is a daily influx of FedExed manifestos demanding the co-op to provide information on such subjects as "THE NEGATIVE IMAGE OF TEXAS AS A BACKWARD 'REDNECK' STATE THAT REFLECTS POORLY ON ITS BEAUTY AND CHARACTER [and] THE NEGATIVE IMAGE THAT WOULD LIKEWISE BE REFLECTED UPON SHECO AS BEING BACKWARD AND INSENSITIVE TO PRESENT AND FUTURE GENERATIONS OF NOT ONLY THEIR OWN CUSTOMERS BUT OF PRESENT AND FUTURE GENERATIONS OF TEXANS AND ALL AMERICANS AS WELL."
Then, to really make his point, Russell will invoke the Almighty.
"SHECO IS HEREBY COMMANDED BY THE BOARD OF THE ETHICIAN FAMILY CEMETERY AND THE UNIVERSAL ETHICIAN CHURCH TO CEASE AND DESIST FROM ALL CURRENT AND FUTURE ATTEMPTS TO DESECRATE GOD'S HOLY GROUND."
Chief among Russell's concerns are the sanctity of his land's longleaf pines, rare red-cockaded woodpeckers and ten pages' worth of plant names. And, of course, the dead guy.
Chief among SHECO's concerns are improving reliability and shortening the outage time to its 50,000 customers in ten counties.
"There's no mystery to this at all," Davis says. "The cooperative doesn't like going out and spending this kind of money on a project unless there's really a need for it and unless the customers are really going to see some benefit from it."
But thanks to Russell's cemetery gauntlet, Davis says, the cost of the PUC battle will trickle down to the customers. And the allegations don't stop, he says. One of the latest is Russell's contention that SHECO's power line will threaten homeland security.
"I'm not really sure [why], but I'm anxious to find out," he says. "I've been waiting ever since to get a call from Tom Ridge."
Defiling God's creation in order to worship the graven images upon the faces of hundred dollar bills is an insult to God far worse than merely taking the Lord's name in vain in a fit of anger, or displaying a momentary carnal weakness.
-- Ethicius I, hellwaitsforclearcutters.org
True story or, maybe an apocryphal story Russell likes to say is true:
Russell walks into the Waterwood Country Club a few years ago in his usual getup, when a staff member stops him in the lobby to inform him of their new no-jeans policy.
Fine by me! Russell says, unzipping his jeans and proceeding in his skivvies. The club immediately withdraws the policy.
This is how Russell fights the Man.
Russell has friends at the Waterwood Country Club and eats there often, but, unlike many an aspiring lawyer or doctor, the country club life was not the pot at the end of the rainbow. For one thing, Russell hates golf (In America, golf kills hundreds of golfers and thousands of birds every year -- golfkills.org). Russell got a free membership when he donated some of his land the club needed to develop a portion of its course.
Russell hates the Man, who uses corporations, organized religion and pocketed politicians to destroy the environment and pervert God's word. Russell has used his and his family's millions to buy and conserve 2,800 acres of woodlands by Lake Livingston. This is the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral, and it's a country club where the Man is not welcome.
"When Jesus went to church, it was to kick ass," says Russell, who's trudging through the cathedral in his omnipresent sandals. He's on one of his rants, fueled by the hypocrisy of evangelism and a travel cup of Jack and Coke. He's like Thoreau on a bender.
After spending hours of nearly every day of his life walking through the woods, Russell maneuvers like a ninja through fallen branches, sinister thorns and patches of mud. He's mindful of the snakes, more for their safety than for his. He loves snakes, as does God (It is our duty and obligation to God to protect his snake children from harm -- godlovessnakes.org).
Jesus despised organized religion and fancy churches with pillow-cushioned pews, Russell says. Furthermore, Jesus came from an aristocratic family and was quite possibly a druid. These are all issues Russell wants to tackle in his historical novel.
"I haven't had time to write my novel because I'm battling SHECO," he says.
Like Jesus' sermons, Russell's Ethician services are held outdoors. In inclement weather, the group retreats to a tiny 1840s log cabin Russell had imported from Moscow, Texas, and outfitted with unadorned wooden pews.
"There's no 'chosen people,' " he continues. "That's pure bullshit."
Ethicians are no more chosen than anyone else, which is why you don't have to give up your primary religion to join Russell's church. You can be Jewish, Methodist, Mormon, Muslim or atheist and still be an Ethician. You don't even have to be human. Russell recently anointed a toy poodle named Max as a deacon.
All Ethicians care about is the Golden Rule, which is why Russell doesn't care about sexual orientation, either.
Stopping at a narrow young tree to demonstrate his liberal attitude toward nearly all sexual proclivities, Russell wraps his hand around the trunk and rubs his crotch against the bark.
"If I want to fuck this tree, then what the hell?"
It's this kind of talk that give some folks around Huntsville pause. Sometimes it looks like Russell gets a kick out of it. Climbing back into his truck and whipping down the main road that winds through the Waterwood resort community, he laughs and shakes his head when he tells of a recent trip to a convenience store. The cashier -- a friend -- told him that a customer was spreading rumors about Russell luring little boys into the woods at night to cook and eat them.
Russell told his friend to correct the customer next time she came in. Russell said he eats only girls. And he doesn't cook them.
"I eat them raw, and they've got to be 18 years old or older -- and I card 'em first."
This talk, mind you, comes from a happily married grandfather. Russell and his wife, Susan, have four adult children and homes in Huntsville and Italy. Russell's got the means to live a comfortable, worry-free life, but instead he wages war against utility companies and tries to save the world from what he prophesies as an environmental holocaust.
Russell pulls off the road and into a blanket of grass spread out before the woods. This area contains the first designated burial plots, a plot being big enough to hold 12 human bodies or 24 pets (have you not looked into the eyes of your faithful dog or your loving yet independent cat and not seen the spirit of God? -- animalshavesouls.org). Larger animals are placed above-ground in a wooded spot, the Vulture Sanctuary, for a Tibetan monklike sky burial. If the animal's owner so chooses, the bones can be buried afterward. About a month ago, someone deposited a dead horse in the Holy Trinity Wilderness Cathedral, and Russell felt obligated to honor the creature. He speaks in awe of how the carcass must've fed 50 vultures.
"There's not a bone left of this horse," he muses.
Russell, through the church, sells individual plots for a suggested $300 donation and family plots for $3,000. But, he says, he's flexible. He has been known to give away sites, as he did with his friend Sollie Jackson. Jackson has no insurance, makes a meager living as a hospital cook, and says he can't afford a traditional funeral. As of July, the average cost of a funeral was $6,500, not including cemetery costs, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.
Everyone buried in the cemetery must be an Ethician, which involves a simple anointment of a frankincense-and-myrrh solution out of a glass lip-balm tube Russell always carries in his pocket. Russell first reads the person's soul, of course, to determine if the person is really the type who would abide by the Golden Rule.
And, as in the case of the late Rick Gallagher, there are posthumous anointments that preclude a soul-reading. Russell looks at it this way: When you're dead, "you can't do any more evil you can do some good because you can fertilize our trees."
This concept is the polar opposite of a traditional burial, which involves pumping a body full of preservatives, sticking it in an expensive, nonbiodegradable container and dropping it into a cement vault. That, Russell says, turns a loved one into a "toxic pickle."
And cremation's no better, because of all the fossil fuels required to burn the body, he says. No, the only way to be laid to rest is the green way, the natural way, which ensures the dignity of both the person and the planet.
It also protects the deceased's family from what Russell calls the funeral Mafia, who peddle brass-handled, velvet-lined caskets to turn misery into profit. Conversely, a decent cardboard casket runs about $80 and can be ordered online at cardboardcasket.com. Or you can wrap your loved one in a shawl.
Jackson has already staked out a beautiful, tall oak where he wants to be buried. He says green burials are no nonsense -- no $10,000 casket, no roomful of flowers, no $2 million church.
"That's just the way it was at the beginning of time," he says.
Russell's friend Terri Reed has purchased the first family plot. A Pennsylvania native, Reed fell in love with the East Texas piney woods more than ten years ago and bought a house in Waterwood. A hiker, horse-rider and mountain biker, Reed is outdoors with her boyfriend when she's not interviewing and deporting incarcerated aliens for the Department of Homeland Security.
"I think the burials lately have gotten extremely commercialized, where you're kind of removed from the whole intimacy of a special loved one," says Reed, an anointed priestess in the Universal Ethician Church. "There's too many artificial barriers."
But now, Russell says, his cemetery is threatened by SHECO's power line. In one of his filings with the PUC, Russell writes: "Would SHECO or any other power company be allowed to desecrate the Vatican, the Mormon Tabernacle, the National Cathedral, Notre Dame or any other place of prayer and meditation?"
As Russell says, "It's a damn thankless job to get out there and kick butt against evil."
Carnal whores have over the centuries caused far less damage to civilization, ethics, and morals than have another class of whore--the POLITICAL WHORE!!!
-- Ethicius I, politicalwhores.org
On May 24, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union, Union Army Colonel Elmer Ellsworth was leading a volunteer squad of New York soldiers through the streets of Alexandria when he noticed a Confederate flag flying from the roof of an inn.
Ellsworth took four soldiers to the inn to remove the offensive banner. Ellsworth climbed the stairs to the roof, cut down the flag and was heading back down the stairs when the innkeeper put a hole in his chest with a shotgun.
Upon hearing the news, Ellsworth's friend and mentor Abraham Lincoln dispatched D.C. morticians to embalm Ellsworth's body for a state funeral, followed two weeks later by an open-casket funeral in Ellsworth's hometown of Mechanicsville, New York.
Seeing how well Ellsworth's body was preserved, Lincoln thought it would be a good idea to have embalmers follow the troops to give families a chance to honor and bury their fallen loved ones. These early military-friendly embalmers would go on to become some of the biggest and most respected names in the funeral home industry.
This was the birth of modern death, according to Thomas Van Beck, director of Houston's Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service.
Embalming was used for years before the Civil War, but that's when it really took off, he says.
Coffins (body-shaped containers narrow at the head, wide at the body and narrow at the feet) and caskets (the rectangular boxes typically used in American burials) were around before then, too, but mostly for utilitarian, not spiritual, purposes. Locking and sealing caskets thwarted grave robbers, who sold corpses to medical schools, Van Beck says.
Incidentally, if you think bodies in coffins are protected from creepy-crawlies, you're mistaken. Phorid flies, also known as coffin flies, are a mortuary nuisance that can deposit eggs on a preburial corpse, insuring that hundreds of maggots will be sealed in tight once the casket is buried.
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.
"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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.