Over the course of his 90 years, Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu gave voice to his beloved nation in its struggle for change and reconciliation under Black majority rule. His last wishes for a green burial have sparked a tweet storm on the mostly unfamiliar practice among devoted followers of “the Arch.”
Archbishop Tutu was a key figure telling the world of the grievances of South Africa’s exploited Black majority. He did not mince words in a meeting with Pres. Ronald Reagan. American policy toward South Africa, he said, known as “constructive engagement,” was “evil, immoral and un-Christian.”
To the foreign investors still reaping profits, he urged “persuasive pressure” for racial change but if that failed, “pressure must become punitive, that is, economic sanctions should be imposed.”
He even took on his countrymen, faulting the new political rulers for seeking their own advancement before that of the poor. “What is Black empowerment when it seems to benefit not the vast majority but a small elite that tends to be recycled? We are sitting on a powder keg.”
The former teacher, cleric and activist was fearlessly outspoken across a range of topics, from Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories to gay rights, climate change and assisted death.
His last request, befitting a man who scorned ostentation and defended the environment, was that there be no “lavish spending” for his funeral and that his casket be simple, made of pine with only a bouquet of carnations from his family. He directed his remains to undergo alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation, an eco-friendly alternative to traditional cremation that uses water rather than fire.
Aquamation is part of a growing “green burial” movement that avoids non-biodegradable materials and promotes natural decomposition. Advocates say it’s an environmentally friendly alternative to ornate caskets and cremation by fire, which emits greenhouse gases.
After the private aquamation ceremony Archbishop Tutu was interred behind the pulpit from where he once denounced bigotry and racial tyranny.
The California-based Green Burial Council tweeted: “Even in death, Desmond Tutu remains a vigilant protector of the environment. He chose a green alternative to cremation—#aquamation—as his final act to nurture the Earth.”
“There is a more eco-friendly way of [cremation] and that is aquamation. It’s a process involving water and is more environment-friendly which is what he aspired to as an eco-warrior,” said the Rev. Michael Weeder of Cape Town.
Aquamation was introduced to South Africa in 2019. Currently there is no legislation there specifically covering the practice.