Grave Matters

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

by Mark Harris

Published by Scribner

208 pages, 2007



What Could Be More Natural?

Reviewed by Caroline Cummins

When Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé, The American Way of Death, became a bestseller, readers were shocked, shocked to discover that the funeral industry routinely overcharged and defrauded its grief-stricken clientele. Cremation, instead of embalming and casketing, rapidly became more popular as the cheapest and most environmental funeral option; today, nearly a third of the dead in the United States are cremated.

But there are plenty of other ways to go, as Lisa Carlson pointed out in 1997’s Caring for the Dead. Don’t dig the conventional funeral industry? As Mark Harris describes in his new book, Grave Matters, you don’t have to wind up six feet under.

Harris, an environmental reporter, has assembled a collection of short profiles documenting the experiences of families who have chosen different paths to the grave. Like Carlson’s book, Grave Matters is a handbook as well as a good read, with resources and how-to lists at the end of each chapter. The work is organized on a sliding scale from least environmentally friendly to most; it opens with a gruesome chapter describing a “traditional” embalming and funeral and closes with a chapter about “natural” burial, or burying an unembalmed, uncasketed body directly in the ground.

The entrée chapter is both the strongest and the weakest part of this book, with the most vivid details -- the “eyecaps” used to clamp eyelids shut, the high cancer rates among embalmers as a result of the chemicals (such as formaldehyde) they use daily, the stunning cost (upwards of $13,000) of the entire ordeal -- deployed in the service of a chapter about an admittedly fictional family and funeral director. Harris shows how grim it can be, but he doesn’t name names, just asserts that this is a “typical” process. Mitford had more guts.

However, as Grave Matters progresses, it’s hard not to feel a sense of reassurance, even enthusiasm, about the variety of funeral alternatives available. Harris looks at cremation, burial at sea (including a variation called the “memorial reef,” which involves ashes stirred into concrete “reefs” that, dumped into the ocean, encourage sea life to grow), do-it-yourself home funerals, burials on private land, and, finally, burials at one of the nation’s several “natural burial grounds.” Here’s his description of Ramsey Creek, an “ecological cemetery” in South Carolina:

Walking through Ramsey Creek is to experience Carolina country as it must have looked when Cherokee still roamed these hillsides, before cotton farmers settled the piedmont in the early 1800s and began clearing land. With one important difference: dozens of flat fieldstones that lie at irregular intervals along the trail’s edge. Half buried in the dirt and covered over with vegetation and decaying pine needles, the stones are often inconspicuous enough that you wouldn’t be the first hiker to walk right by them. But stumble onto one, brush it clean, and you’ll see that its face is engraved with a name, range of dates and, often, an epitaph. These native fieldstones, you then realize, are more than the mere product of local geology: they’re gravemarkers, and below each one a body or its ashes lies buried.

Blissfully pastoral resting places aside, figuring out the myriad local regulations for disposing of the dead -- and asserting your right to do things differently -- is clearly not easy. Harris documents just how confusing it can be, even for attorneys, to figure out who has the right to do what when, such as embalming (not required by U.S. federal law anywhere) or scattering ashes on water (frowned upon, though ignored by most authorities). But unlike Mitford, who was all about outrage and reform, Harris (like Carlson before him) is all about knowledge and empowerment.

Thanks to Jessica Mitford, the U.S. funeral system is far more regulated than it was. Thanks to Harris and Carlson, you can navigate or even circumvent that system in the way that seems best to you. | October 2007

Caroline Cummins, a longtime contributor to January Magazine, is now the managing editor of the online food magazine Culinate.