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

May 15, 2007


 Death, be not proud: A green sequel on funerals

By Mark Harris Scribner, $24 

Looking for some bedside reading with a high "eeewwww" factor?

You can't beat Mark Harris' "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial."

Here's Harris on the embalming of a young woman who died of a heart attack: "With an audible sucking sound, the trocar (a funeral home's long, thin suction device) vacuums up the visceral matter it liberates with each puncture: congested blood, accumulated fluid and gases, fecal matter, urine, the semidigested hamburger and fries Jenny ate for her final dinner, and masses of bacteria."

This goes on for pages! Call it Jungle Fever for the death industry.

Harris (with two generations of funeral directors in his family tree) is simply describing business-as-usual in the ecological nightmare known as the modern funeral business. The highly toxic fluids (including formaldehyde) that replaced blood in Jenny's veins and arteries will, over the long term as the body decomposes, likely end up leaching into the soil. So on top of the financial insult to the bereaved – people in the worst possible position to act as informed consumers – our modern American way of death also contaminates our soil and groundwater.

Harris has produced a wonderfully readable book on an unusual subject. Fans of Jessica Mitford's "An American Way of Death," first published in 1963 (and selling out immediately) might appreciate this green sequel. The death industry, long preying on the vulnerable with $10,000 coffins and other outrages, is now undergoing a makeover.

The book's chapters, each a stand-alone essay in itself, focus on alternatives ranging from simple cremation to natural burial in a woodsy setting. Why not a simple pine box, or (as seen on the HBO series "Six Feet Under") a canvas shroud and a gentle lowering into the Earth? How about a "reef ball," a sunken concrete haven for marine life with earthly remains going along for the ride? There are worse options than spending eternity providing fish with a useful habitat. The book is packed with practical information, too, and each chapter concludes with an extensive resource list.

Grave Matters is a beautifully written narrative journey that documents how an intrepid few are opening some closed doors, getting rid of the polished caskets and other expensive line items and allowing people to leave their bodies with dignity. We begin and end as dust, after all, and the growing natural burial business is assisting the worms to do their work.

Jim Motavalli writes for and edits E Magazine.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2007 issue.


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