It goes without saying that death is probably not the best topic to start the New Year with. However, it’s never too late early to start thinking about how you might leave this world. As some of you know, I’ve recently delved deeper into the ‘alternative burial’ industry and months ago produced a short video and piece on a Green Cemetery that opened here in Ithaca. It was at the dedication of this cemetery that I met a gentleman named Mark Harris; a former environmental columnist with the LA Times. He was doing research for an upcoming book that took a look at the myriad of ways you and I can leave this planet. I mentioned to him that I looked forward to reviewing the book and he said it would be a pleasure to send one my way. This Christmas, such a gift arrived at my door.
Titled Grave Matters, Mark’s book gives us a front row seat in surveying the burial industry. From the modern burial to the green burial (and everything in between), we’re treated to the intimate details; some that will shock, some that will enlighten, and others that will simply make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about death. Ever since the character Nate Fisher was laid to rest in a woodland grave with only a sheet in the final season of HBO’s “Six Feet Under”, Americans have started reconsidering their options with burial. Harris’s book provides the details and lays the groundwork for making those decisions; and once and for all deciding how we’ll leave our mark on the planet.
The book itself is a very engrossing read that is broken into chapters dedicated to each type of burial. Set as a sliding scale, Harris takes the reader from the least eco-friendly options to the greenest. Chapters one and two cover the modern burial (embalming and internment in a modern cemetery) while the other chapters cover Cremation, Burial At Sea, Memorial Reefs, Home Funerals, Plain Pine Boxes, Backyard Burial, and then finally The Natural Cemetery or Green Burial.
For the eco-conscious among us, I’ll be surprised if after reading Chapters One and Two, you’re not ready to declare modern burial off-limits.
In fact, even those who previously didn’t want anything to do with ‘green burial’ will probably read on after these pages to consider the options. It’s not that Harris defames or attacks the modern funeral industry. In fact, he presents these opening chapters in the same scope as the succeeding ones. What makes the difference is how wide open the doors are blown off of the facade of modern burial. Any of us that have attended a wake or funeral know that the industry takes great pride in ‘caring for the dead’. We should not simply give Aunt Mildred a standard coffin, but something that befits her time on Earth, something grand and stylish. We should also be sure to include the best fabric, the most environmentally-secure vault for her coffin, and embalming to preserve. All of these accessories and additions once thought ‘part of the American tradition’ are actually beautiful marketing tools that are costly and, in most cases, completely unnecessary. However, modern Americans have never had much of a choice. Would your family automatically think to call a funeral home the minute someone passes away? I know mine would (Ahem, they’ll be reading this book). Our society has been brainwashed into believing that death is something completely out of our hands. In truth, and as Mark’s book shows, up until the mid-19th Century, death in America was very much a part of family life–from the care of the body to the burial. Only since the Civil War has an industry risen to rid us of the details and make us feel guilty for not providing our loved ones with the best. On average, this ‘best’ can range anywhere from $8,000-$20,000 per burial.
In a case analysis (using the fictional death of young woman), Grave Matters shows us how funeral directors make their keep–from assisting families in picking the options to the embalming process. Anyone with a queasy stomach will want to hold off on Chapter One until they’re absolutely ready to read the process for what it really is. Nothing is glossed over as Harris describes how a human body is prepared for ‘viewing’. It’s ironic to think that, for me, this was the most frightening chapter of them all. Even being buried in a sheet and sleeping with the bugs and flowers sounds convincingly more pleasing. We’re then taken to the modern cemetery, the silly claims of using vaults to protect coffins, and the environmental impact of the entire process. All in all, much like most Americans in life, we’re pretty good at screwing mother nature in death as well.
The following chapters (and costs of burial) lighten up considerably. For each example of alternative burial, Harris presents us with actual stories of real people who in death achieved their vision of rejoining the Earth. The author’s investigative reporting is particularly clever at weaving fascinating facts, history, and interviews around each person’s burial choice. With cremation, we go behind the scenes to witness how the entire process works–from the laws involved (most states allow you to transfer the deceased from the hospital to the crematory yourself) to the temperatures and time required to reduce each of us to some 5 pounds of sterile dust. With The Home Funeral, Harris show how most states allow families to care for their own dead at home; without embalming or additional resources. By simply keeping a body cool with dried ice, it’s possible to honor a loved one within the confines of their own home for several days. For those wanting the departed close, the chapter on Backyard Burial shows what steps to take, the process for adhering to the law, and the beauty of such an option. It was interesting to read that no state law requires that a body be buried in a casket or other container. It’s simply the case that regular cemeteries insist that a coffin be used (which is then placed in a vault) to discourage the ground from shifting (and therefore causing an obstacle for the lawn mower).
The last chapter, The Green Cemetery, completes the transition from environmentally-harmful to environmentally-beneficial. Even to those new to the idea, the progression of the book makes you eager for this conclusion. In many ways, people may find a sense of peace in discovering that the process is just as beautiful as what we pay for (and what the earth pays for) with a modern burial. Harris covers a burial that occurs at the first American Green Cemetery, Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina. What rules there are for a green burial deal primarily with making sure the entire process does not harm the environment. This means no embalming, choosing sites that will assist in strengthening the forest, and using only biodegradable coffins or sheets. In more ways than one, it’s a much more personal goodbye than we as a society might be used to. Families actually can take part in burying their dead or lowering them into the grave. Nothing throughout the process is considered hands-off or unorthodox. Green Burial, like the other alternatives in the book, is simply another simple, beautiful expression of letting go. With modern burial, it feels like we’re trying too hard to preserve something that wants to move on. Even religion teaches us that death is not the end, but the beginning of something greater than ourselves.