Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial

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9781416564041: Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial

By the time Nate Fisher was laid to rest in a woodland grave sans coffin in the final season of Six Feet Under, Americans all across the country were starting to look outside the box when death came calling.

Grave Matters follows families who found in "green" burial a more natural, more economic, and ultimately more meaningful alternative to the tired and toxic send-off on offer at the local funeral parlor.

Eschewing chemical embalming and fancy caskets, elaborate and costly funerals, they have embraced a range of natural options, new and old, that are redefining a better American way of death. Environmental journalist Mark Harris examines this new green burial underground, leading you into natural cemeteries and domestic graveyards, taking you aboard boats from which ashes and memorial "reef balls" are cast into the sea. He follows a family that conducts a home funeral, one that delivers a loved one to the crematory, and another that hires a carpenter to build a pine coffin.

In the morbidly fascinating tradition of Stiff, Grave Matters details the embalming process and the environmental aftermath of the standard funeral. Harris also traces the history of burial in America, from frontier cemeteries to the billion-dollar business it is today, reporting on real families who opted for more simple, natural returns.

For readers who want to follow the examples of these families and, literally, give back from the grave, appendices detail everything you need to know, from exact costs and laws to natural burial providers and their contact information.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Mark Harris is a former environmental columnist with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. His articles and essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, E/The Environmental Magazine, Reader's Digest, and Hope. He lives with his family in Pennsylvania. Visit his website at www.gravematters.us.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

On a blustery late afternoon near the end of May, I joined a band of hikers that trekked a mowed path snaking through the grounds of the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve. Our rough trail took in a large swath of this hundred-acre burial site in the heart of New York's Finger Lakes region, leading us into wetland and meadows, and, as we ventured off trail, into a large, wooded tract that borders the four thousand-acre Arnot Forest. It was there, under a canopy of maples, ash, and beech that we came upon fragile-looking wild geraniums and tiny, seven-pointed starflowers, saw the delicate purple gaywing rising resolutely from the forest floor.

Emerging from the woods on our return to the keeper's cottage, red-winged blackbirds gliding in the distance, we climbed the meadow hillside that constitutes Greensprings's main burial ground, each grave site staked with a fluttering red flag. No body had yet been buried at the time of our visit; Greensprings's dedication was planned for the following day. But walking the cemetery grounds that afternoon, experiencing up close this thriving ecosystem of the Southern Tier, I couldn't help but believe that many people will seek their final rest here. One doesn't need to be an outdoors enthusiast to feel the powerful pull of the Greensprings promise: a return to bucolic, bountiful countryside in as simple and natural a way as possible. Per cemetery policy, no vaults or embalming will be allowed. Caskets must be basic and made from readily biodegradable materials. Fieldstones may mark the grave site, but native trees and shrubs are welcome as well. The idea is to allow the body to rejoin the elements, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life, to return dust to dust.

It's a concept hugely at odds with modern burial -- and it's catching on. Greensprings is one of some dozen woodland burial grounds that have sprung up in this country since a family physician named Billy Campbell opened South Carolina's Ramsey Creek Preserve to burial in the fall of 1998. A score of others are in the planning stages.

Natural cemeteries like Greensprings are literally regreening the deathscape in America. But as I discovered when I journeyed into the growing, green burial underground that's beginning to surface in this country, it's just one of many strategies we're embracing in search of more meaningful, more fitting, and, ultimately, more natural alternatives to the generic send-off proffered by the local funeral home. And if my research and travels of the last two years are any indication, it's doing nothing less than rewriting -- and, in the process, re-righting -- the American Way of Death.

I turned up a host of alternatives in my search. I found families who had their loved ones' ashes added to fireworks that blasted out colorful displays, still others who had ashes pressed into diamonds that looked like the real thing. Given an interest in environmental issues, I was most attracted to -- and thus chose to focus on -- what has become known as natural burial. Like "organic" or "green" or any of the variants on ecofriendly, "natural" defies easy definition. In this new burial movement, a few characteristics stand out. For one, natural burials tend to consume significantly fewer resources than standard funerals, going light on the goods and services that fill out the General Price List the local mortician is required to hand anyone who knocks at his door. Caskets, when used at all, are of plain, wood make; embalming is almost always avoided. As a consequence, these funeral costs tally into the hundreds and low -- not many -- thousands of dollars. Families generally also take a more active role in the conduct of the funeral.

In the end, these families choose natural burial because it achieves the very end our modern funeral industry labors to prevent at literally all costs: to allow, and even invite, the decay of one's physical body -- its tissue and bone, its cache of organic components -- and return what remains to the very elements it sprang from, as directly and simply as possible. In their last, final act, the deceased in this book have taken care in death to give back to the earth some very small measure of the vast resources they drew from it in life and, in the process, perpetuate the cycles of nature, of growth and decay, of death and rebirth, that sustain all of us. For Sharyn Nicholson, one Virginia native I write about, that meant being buried on a wooded hillside in view of her mountain cabin, wrapped in nothing but a shroud. Avid angler Leonard Nutter found his final rest in an aquatic environment, his ashes scattered over the Pacific waters he trolled off the coast of Southern California.

Such natural return is, of course, little more than a return to long tradition. Much of what constitutes natural burial, as I show throughout this book, was once standard practice in this country, the default, not the exception. Practiced well into the twentieth century in some places, this truly traditional send-off was a largely simple affair, light on the pocketbook, conserving by nature and, no doubt, as meaningful to the assembled mourners then as the more elaborate and well-orchestrated funeral is to some of us today -- and, very likely, even more so.

Families in this book are reviving those not-so-aged traditions -- be it laying out and "waking" a loved one at home, or hiring a local carpenter to build a coffin of plain pine boards -- as well as one ancient rite of disposition that predates civilization itself: cremation, an option expected to be our most popular way to go by mid-century. At the same time, they're giving old custom a decidedly modern twist. The woodland burial grounds springing up in this country, for example, may descend from the pastoral, "rural" cemeteries that flourished in the early to late 1800s, but they also show the strong conservationist focus of the Baby Boomer environmentalist who first inspired them. In these leafy environs, the dead more than rest in blissful, green repose: their burials help preserve significant, threatened land from the bulldozer and, in some cases, work to restore it to ecological health. Other options offer entirely novel, natural retirement. When Carrie Slowe added her husband's cremated remains to the concrete slurry of a "reef ball" that hardened and was later sunk into the Atlantic Ocean, she not only returned her mate to the waters that held such firm purchase on his affection, she created habitat for new life under the sea.

Not surprisingly, some of the families looking outside the mainstream at the time of death are the very ones who inhabit its margins in life. In my forays into the new deathscape I turned up vegetarians, massage therapists, Waldorf school teachers, as well as one amateur organic gardener who wore dreadlocks and idolized Bob Marley. It's a mistake, though, to categorize all, or even most, adherents of this form of alt.burial as habitués of Whole Foods Markets or hybrid-drive motorists. In my experience, the majority largely comprise what for lack of better description I'd simply call "regular" folk. In addition to those above, my research put me in touch with a hospital nurse, a court stenographer, an elementary school teacher, and an employee at a sporting goods factory who stamps the company logo onto golf balls. There was also a retired meatpacker in Iowa who attends Sunday Mass, and one engineer now buried in a natural cemetery who even expressed a dislike for "environmentalists" and admitted to being less than fond of nature hikes. The families in this book span Gen X to the Greatest Generation, include Republicans as well as Democrats (and Greens), and literally inhabit Middle America and other parts of the compass. As I've seen it on the ground, natural burial is a big tent, not fringe, phenomenon.

What unites this disparate group is the welcome promise of natural burial: simplicity, low cost, and return to the elements, be they on land or sea. Or, as one gentleman who buried his wife in a plain, pine casket put it to me one frosty January afternoon: "It just strikes me as the most logical thing to do."

I've included a broad range of burial options under the rubric of "natural." Clearly, some are more natural than others. Shrouded burial in a woodland cemetery that's devoted to restoration of the land is likely the more conserving and less polluting choice than cremation, with its consumption of natural gas and electricity and release of mercury and other potentially hazardous emissions into the atmosphere. (Though how green any burial turns out to be depends on the given burial. Air-freighting a body to a distant woodland ground for shrouded interment -- as has happened -- say, must surely negate much of its positive impact on the planet.) Nonetheless, I've arranged the progression of chapters from generally less to more green, with cremation and the options for memorializing with one's ashes at the front, the book ending with burial on one's own rural land or in a natural cemetery.

A word about cremation. Incinerating a body produces an environmental impact of some degree (though just how much depends on any number of factors, including whose figures you believe). Cremation makes it into this book because, its ecological footprint notwithstanding, the average cremation consumes fewer resources and emits less pollution than the outfitting and conduct of the typical, modern funeral. The resulting ashes may -- and in these pages do -- then return to the natural environment out of which, as the Genesis verse that graces this book's epigraph puts it, we are taken.

An enterprising investigative reporter or doctoral student will some day document the many detrimental environmental consequences that result from the production of the standard funeral. In the meantime, I've attempted to present a scenario of potential and likely effects based on the limited published research to date. Yet while the known evidence may read a bit thin here, I hope it's sufficient to make the point that goes to the heart of the ...

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