April 12, 2007

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Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial, by Mark Harris (Scribner, 2007, 193 pages)
Reviewed by Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com

When do you read?

I read right before bed, when I’m relaxed and drowsy and looking to calm away the worries of the day. I read Grave Matters, or at least started the book, in such a comfy state some sleepy evening. Chapter one introduced me to Jim and Myra Johnson who were stumbling, numbed, through funeral arrangements for their 18-year-old daughter, Jenny. I read how they picked out her casket ($4,500), the burial container (a box into which the coffin goes, here priced at $2,100), flowers ($350) and a series of other expensive funeral-related items. I read how the funeral director prepares her body by washing it, stuffing cotton balls in certain orifices to prevent leakage and gluing plastic caps on her eyes to help them stay shut and to help make her appear that she’s sleeping.

Nighty-night!

It was at the eyecaps, which are “are lens-shaped domes covered with raised spurs” that are glued on the eyeballs and then closed over with the eyelids, that I got a serious case of the willies and decided that Grave Matters was a book best read at lunch breaks or before settling in for a night of serious sitcom watching. Which is Mark Harris’ point, really. Death was once upon a time a thing that was always with them — for the most part, everybody was born and died in their homes. You saw your grandmother die, helped prepare her for burial, sat with her body during the wake (also at home) and then took her in a wooden coffin to a burial ground, which might have been down the street or might have been somewhere on the estate that was essentially your backyard. This probably wasn’t a pleasant process but it keep death in the family and made it something familiar.

Now, death happens elsewhere, a hospital maybe. Your relative dies and is transported to another facility where they are gussied up to look the most life-like (which, by definition, means the least death-like) and then put in a casket and grave line that can, combined, cost as much as a used car and then buried with care that implies that the body will be in someway preserved (nobody says this directly because of course it isn’t true but in the discussion that the funeral director has with Jenny’s parents he talks a lot about how certain coffins and burial boxes can “protect” her).

This is, of course, the least natural, most resource (financial and environmental) consuming way to be buried. As the book goes on, it investigates other means of burial, explaining with each (cremation, burial at sea, variations of more natural land burials) the cost, any prohibitions and what each forms of burial means to the surviving family. With each means of handling ones remains, we also get bits of the history at how the tradition was born. Despite the prices and the author’s own obvious preference for more natural forms of burial, the book doesn’t scold anyone for choosing as they do (there’s plenty of sympathy for Jenny’s parents and her funeral director as well as for the families that buries its loved ones in a simpler fashion).

The book looks at each means of burial through a different dead person and their loved ones — yet another way that takes death out of the shady idea realm and puts it in the present. By the end, you feel as sad as if you’d just read about the funeral of, well, if not a friend at least then a very close acquaintance. You also start to wonder about your own death and plans for eternal rest (another reason not to read this book before going to bed). Personally, I liked the burial in a natural cemetery as described in the final chapter — a woodsy environment where the inhabitant of graves go “back to the earth” if you get my drift and where only a small, unobtrusive plaque marks their final resting place. It’s all very Where the Red Fern Grows, though, you know, the sad part. B+