Dying in Dirty Places: How to Honor the Dead in the Era of Ecocide

William Allen “Rookie” Kruse worked as a charter boat captain, leading fishing trips off the Gulf coast of Alabama for 25 years before the oil came. Then, as the sludge began to spread all over the place, no one felt much like fishing anymore, and Kruse, like many other Gulf captains in his position, was forced to work for BP to help with the cleanup operation. Kruse signed himself and his boat, “The Rookie,” up for the “Vessel of Opportunity” program, through which BP contracts independent captains to use their private vessels to perform tasks such as laying down “booms,” skimming and burning oil off the surface, ferrying other BP employees about, and plucking tarballs out of the water.

After just two weeks into this program, on the morning of June 23, Kruse climbed aboard his boat and shot himself in the head. His friends and family consider him to be the 12th human casualty of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Ashes and Oil

Kruse’s struggle against the devastation of the Gulf did not end there, however. Long before his apparent suicide, and long before the oil spill that apparently led him to kill himself, Kruse knew that when his time came he wanted to have his remains scattered off the coast of his hometown in Alabama. It is there where Kruse lived and loved deeply, and it is there where his younger brother, also a charter boat captain, had had his ashes deposited after his death in 1997. But now, in the post-Deepwater disaster era, there was a problem with this plan: the burial-at-sea site was infested with oil. Kruse’s surviving brother, Frank, explained this complication to reporters at al.com, “We’d like to [scatter his ashes] sooner rather than later, but we really don’t know when we’ll be able to do it because you can’t predict what the oil’s going to do,” he said. “One day there’s no oil, and the next day we’re covered up with it.”

I don’t know the Kruses, and, as a Gulf outsider, I’m afraid I have nothing to offer them but the condolences of a stranger. Nevertheless, as I listen to this story, I cannot help but overhear a haunting chorus of overlapping elegies. There is an elegy for Kruse’s way of life, which was robbed from him by the oil spill. There is an elegy for the Gulf of Mexico, whose plants and animals will never understand what hit them. There is an elegy for Kruse’s dead brother, a re-elegy of sorts, for a man who had his burial site despoiled and vandalized by an invasion of toxic murk. And then, finally, there is an elegy for Kruse’s death itself, in which there are at least three distinct aspects worth mourning: 1) the fact that he died 2) the manner in which he died and 3) what happened to his body after he died. He was able to have his remains scattered into the Gulf, but it was surely not that same Gulf he had envisioned as his eternal resting place.

The Needs of the Dead

I would venture to say that this third aspect applies not only to Kruse and to the Gulf, but to everyone who has ever lived and ever died anywhere on this planet. Here’s why: the world is—among other things—an enormous cemetery, and when we destroy the world, we are both digging and, simultaneously, desecrating our own graves. Thinking about our engagement with nature in this context can be fairly depressing, as desecration is a depressing subject, but I believe that we can use these sentiments of guilt and sorrow to remind ourselves not to behave in a manner that leads to ecological ruin. It is possible that, in order to conserve this planet, we need to consecrate it, and perhaps one thing we could do towards this end is simply bear in mind the fact that all around us, our ancestors are trying to R.I.P.

I see great potential in this morbid idealism because, for whatever reason, homo sapiens appear almost hard-wired to venerate things that are either invisible or no longer exist. From time immemorial, our species has had an almost officious concern for the needs of the dead (who are, ironically, the most easygoing and unparticular of all demographics).

Five of the “Seven Wonders of the World,” for example, were erected either to house the deceased or to attract the attention of deities who looked after them. Burial services mark one of the most sacred rites of passage: the “return” of a body and/or spirit to its “home” (perhaps this is why the idea of a “homeless ghost” is so disturbing). An ancient, unambiguous morality compels us to lay our loved ones to rest in proper, dignified fashion. Even the most pagan-phobic, sky-god-reviling atheist out there would think it unnatural to toss his or her dead mother’s cadaver into a dumpster.

The fact is, curious as it may seem, human beings have always treated the dead with a greater degree of respect than the living. And so, again, I wonder, and I hope: if we are too greedy, careless, and confused to preserve the environment for future generations, might we feel at least a slight compulsion to do so for generations past?

I suspect that, if the connection were to be made apparent enough, environmental degradation could indeed kindle our collective anti-desecration instincts. The story of William Kruse—and the universal pathos that this story engenders—is but one example of our capacity to recognize the connection between the environment, life, death, and after-death. In this era of ecocide, other examples, unfortunately, abound.

God’s Green Earth

The good news in this otherwise grim picture is the fact that, with very few exceptions, everyone is in agreement that desecration is a bad thing. Across cultures and throughout time, most any human being would say that dousing a dead person’s tomb with millions of gallons of crude oil is wrong. We should take advantage of this rare instance of human unanimity, and use the spiritual appeal of honoring the dead to help frame political arguments about ecological preservation and restoration. The term “environmentalism” has acquired some divisive connotations over the years, and I feel that most people—most Americans, anyway—who would otherwise be turned off by the notion of doing “green” things, would respond well to a religious call to look after “God’s green Earth” and to treat those who’ve come before us with the decency and dignity that they deserve.

In other words, let’s revise our public theologies so that they sync up with our innate tendency towards reverent caretaking of the dead. We possess a reflexive zealotry to lament ecological tragedies when they occur, so why not use this same sacred impulse as an inspiration to prevent them? We could, in this manner, make our efforts to save the planet seem more like a ceremony that we are summoned to perform, and less like a chore that we will never do.