How’s Business: George Russell

Zoroastrian cemetery owner/operator, Huntsville, Texas

Photograph courtesy George Russell

George Russell lives in Huntsville, Texas, otherwise known as the “City of Death,” the execution capital of the US. Russell is a vocal opponent of the death penalty, and owner of three green cemeteries: burial grounds with “no chemicals, no embalming, and no big bronze caskets.” When I first called him, the sixty-five-year-old entrepreneur and cultural ecologist yelled back in a heavy Texan accent, asking if he could call me back — he was out riding on his tractor and could barely hear me. Tall and distinguished-looking, with sparse silver locks, Russell is the founder the Universal Ethician Church, which practices a new religion devoted to defending “God’s biosphere” from human greed and ignorance. The first of his green burial grounds, the Ethician Church Cemetery, was opened in 2003.

Russell is also the webmaster of and the founder of both the Educational Video Network, which creates instructional media for teachers and schools, and Gothic Films, a production company that makes horror movies, including Long Pig (2008) and Naked Horror (2010). He appears in both films as the nefarious church leader Preacher Man. Russell says these films contain deep philosophical undertones, which he fears audiences might not always understand amid the gore and the nudity.

In 1968, I was 175 miles from the nearest telephone, in Toledo District, British Honduras — now Belize — working on a PhD in cultural ecology. We had a 1968 Ford Bronco, one of the very few internal-combustion vehicles in that whole area. Fuel had to be hauled to the village in fifty-five-gallon drums. The local people were a mix of cultures: East Indian; old Southerners who’d escaped from the post–Civil War South; and the Garifuna, black Caribs descended from slaves whose ship ran aground there in the 1700s. But they were all British-educated, and although they lived in grass shacks with dirt floors, they thought it would be really impressive — first class — to have their loved ones hauled to the cemetery in a brand new Ford Bronco instead of on the backs of relatives.

The cemetery happened to be in a rain forest: magnificent trees dripping with orchids, howler monkeys squealing, parrots flying — an absolute paradise. Normally, they would just dig a hole in the ground. Within a matter of hours, the bodies begin to be recycled back into nature, as microorganisms consume and reconstitute them. The loved one becomes part of a bird or a butterfly or a monkey or a tree. Our bodies are nothing more than recycled material, the things we’ve consumed, the container that transports our minds. I found this wonderful. I wished we could do it this way back home.

When I got back to Texas, I was busy with my family, raising four children and running my business, the Educational Video Network, which develops educational materials for schools. I bought a beautiful house near a place called Pool Creek, which is full of alligators and egrets. One day I was peeing off the balcony — which every American should have the freedom to do — killing the azaleas and looking at all that open space behind my house. I realized that eventually it would all be developed. Someday, there’d be a bunch of houses back there; I’d take a pee and, twenty minutes later, there’d be a knock on my door. And it’d either be some poor old crone who hadn’t had any loving in about forty years, trying to hop in the sack with me, or it’d be a fourteen-year-old girl with two big, burly cops who’d put me in cuffs and haul me away to the hoosegow. So I called up the realtor and said, I need to buy 10 acres over there so I can piss in peace for the rest of my life.

I found out that the owner of the land was Charles Hurwitz, an investment titan. He was willing to sell, but those 10 acres were connected to another 990 acres. I wrote a check and bought the whole thing for $2.2 million. Then, in 2000, I bought another thousand acres. I realized that this could be the green cemetery I’d always imagined. It took three years to cut through all the red tape, but we started burying people there in 2003. It was the first green cemetery in Texas, and only the third in the country.

Today I have three cemeteries spread across two thousand acres. One is habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species. Another is a rock peninsula in Lake Livingston, where pelicans live. It has Catahoula boulders that are thirty million years old. The land was inhabited by Native Americans for twelve thousand years, until they were extirpated by Mr. White Man. The third cemetery is savannah.

I buried my mother in the second one. She chose the spot and watched her grave being dug, which she found to be exciting. We put a temporary wooden box down there so that, when the time came, we could just lift the lid and slide her in. When she finally died, we wrapped her in a blanket and loaded her into the back of my pickup truck. We let the dogs jump in and say goodbye to her. Then we wrapped her in a quilt and covered her with Spanish moss, as she had wanted. And then everyone grabbed a shovel. It was a really simple, sweet ceremony. But so many people around here in the Below-the-Bible Belt are filled with hate, and they were saying, “Why would you treat your mama like that?” They don’t get it. “Shouldn’t you have had the $25,000 bronze coffin?” No! I did what my mama wanted, and that $25,000 can send a grandkid to college.

I have capacity here for twenty to thirty thousand people, but I don’t do any advertising; people find me on the Internet. I can’t say the economy is affecting me — there was never much money in the first place. But more people should be thinking about going green in death. The average cost of a burial in America is close to $7,000. It costs us about a third of that. Since we’re a nonprofit, we just ask for a donation. I’ve got gravediggers who will prepare the site, and a hearse to carry the body if you don’t want to do it yourself. I’ll officiate for free. And we take anybody here: Christians, Muslims, atheists, Wiccans, Jews — anybody.

I don’t support cremation. It wastes fossil fuel, and releases toxins into the air. And I definitely don’t support traditional burials, with all their embalming chemicals and concrete vaults. Green burial is what we do here, but, really, the best option is the sky burial, where you just leave a body out and let nature take care of it, as the Zoroastrians in India have done for thousands of years. I’ve been working with the Zoroastrians here — a fellow from Houston — to design a Tower of Silence where we can lay out the bodies, but that might cost upwards of $100,000.

If you read Matthew 23, you’ll see that Jesus despised hypocrisy, organized religion, public prayer, and all other kinds of stuff. So if you can get past that goofy psychosexual pervert Paul and the others who in my opinion destroyed Christianity, you’ll see a simple guy who was very sophisticated intellectually, who traveled the world and brought back revolutionary ideas to Old Testament Judaism, which was really filled with hate — characters like Moses, who was a genocidal pedophile. I too always wanted to be a revolutionary who says, “Look, let’s simplify this.” The Universal Ethician Church only has one rule, which is the opposite of the Golden Rule. I personally know some high-level politicians who like to have their asses slapped. So, say I like my ass slapped — am I going to do unto you and slap you on the butt? No. The Ethician Rule, instead, is, Do unto others as others would hope that you would do unto them.