Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Grave Matters

Just in time for Halloween, I interview Mark Harris, author of the new book, "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial." Mark tells us about his own journey from environmental journalist to book author and just how unnatural modern funerals have become.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m your typical college English major who -- after stints in high school teaching, graduate school, and book publishing -- found his way into freelance writing. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of writing, but as much as anything prefer working on my own (and not having a boss to pull me into yet another endless meeting).
I focused early on environmental issues, out of a love for the outdoors instilled by Boy Scouts, spending summers on my grandfather’s gentleman farm in southern Virginia and from devouring all those Foxfire books as a kid. I’ve since chosen to live in an in urban environment and have taken a lot of interest in trying to live more sustainably here. Shortly after the big Earth Day in 1990, an editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate saw some of my magazine and newspaper stories and offered me a weekly column on environmental issues, which I wrote for some dozen years. It was in the course of keeping my ear to the ground for column ideas that I heard about a woodland cemetery in South Carolina, where the unembalmed dead are wrapped in cloth shrouds or laid into basic, pine caskets and lowered into vault-free graves. I went down to visit and came away with the germ of what became "Grave Matters. "

Tell us about your new book, "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial."

The book examines “green” burial, a form of disposition that allows, even invites, the dissolution of one’s remains and seeks to return them to the natural elements, as directly and simply as possible. Each chapter follows a family that conducts a green sendoff for its deceased, from a home funeral and burial at sea to cremation and burial in a woodland cemetery. I also profile a retired meatpacker who purchases a plain, pine coffin from a local carpenter, and a Virginian who buries his wife in a cloth shroud on his own, rural property.

By way of contrast, two opening chapters examine the standard, funeral home affair. The first describes a typical arrangement conference with a funeral director and then shows step-by-step exactly what happens to a corpse in the embalming room. The second chapter considers the environmental impact of modern burial. Those chapters make for tough reading but, I hope, encourage readers to press on to learn about the natural alternatives that follow.

You're an environmental journalist, so this seems like a natural fit for you. But I just did a huge project related to grieving the dead and death in the U.S. has become such a taboo topic, were you afraid that a publisher wouldn't buy your proposal? How did you find your agent/publisher?

I felt the demographics were right for a sale. The leading edge of the 78 million-strong Baby Boom Generation is slouching into retirement and, as I argued in the proposal, will bring a do-it-yourself, earth-friendly attitude to bear on end of life issues, just as it has at every other stage of its existence (as in natural childbirth). Not many marketers saw it that way, frankly. A number of editors liked the proposal but were overruled by the number crunchers, who contended that few people would want to read “a book about death.”

The wonderful exception was Scribner. The green burial movement was just gaining ground when the proposal landed on the desk of my eventual (and outstanding) editor, Beth Wareham, who “got” it and convinced the higher-ups to sign on. My agent, Russ Galen, has a deep interest in natural history/science and, as it turned out, was keen on the idea of green burial. I found him via Publishers and Agents (http://www.publishersandagents.com/), which sent out a mass e-mail describing the book to editors around the country.

My mother passed away this year and I looked into not having her body embalmed. However, we were told that state law required it if we were going to hold a wake or viewing. Does your book give ways families can get around these laws if they're interested in a more natural burial?

I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s passing.
I’m surprised by the funeral director’s demand. Embalming is almost never required by law, and then only when the deceased died of a contagious disease or is being transported across state lines. (If neither applied to your mother and she passed away in your home state of Arkansas, for example, state law says your funeral director could have refrigerated her remains and presented her for viewing.) It’s more likely the case that the funeral home itself has a policy against holding wakes/viewings of unembalmed bodies.

In Grave Matters I review various laws that families must consider when pursuing their alternative burial of choice. Many states, for one, require a day or two-day waiting period before a body is cremated (in order to give authorities an opportunity to investigate any question about the cause of death); most regions prohibit whole body burial on one’s own urban or suburban property.

In general, however, I was surprised to find that families have much more control over the remains of their deceased than they think. The vast majority of states, for example, still allow families to lay out and wake their dead in their own homes as in days of old (with the aid of dry ice now, in many cases). You don’t even have to buy a casket from your funeral director. It’s perfectly legal to buy one from a local carpenter, an Internet discount broker, even the Costco retail giant and have it delivered it to your funeral director. By law, he must accept it and may not charge you a handling fee to do so.

(Kerri's note: My mother didn't pass in Arkansas, and she did have MRSA, the super bug staph that is considered a very contagious disease).

Did you find the subject, at times, a little depressing? I know I had to keep reminding myself on the project I did on grief that I was supplying information to help others, but at times, it was just very sad.

I don’t find the subject itself sad or depressing. How we bury and memorialize our dead in this country is actually pretty fascinating, the natural alternatives even more so. Interviewing the families I profile was certainly tough, though. They shared these heartbreaking stories about the decline, passing and burials of their loved ones, usually while crying or struggling to control themselves. I was often crying myself. The toughest part was then having to step outside myself during these emotional encounters and work as a journalist to get the story, to ask the still-grieving man in front of me just what happened the moment his wife slipped away, or question the mother about what she was thinking when the funeral directors wheeled her son out to the waiting hearse.

Their losses were devastating, of course. The funerals and burials, on the other hand, I found uplifting. In part, I think that’s because they were just so personal and celebratory. Also, they recognized death as a natural part of the cycle of life – of growth and decay, decomposition and rebirth -- that sustains all life. To walk the woodland cemeteries where some of the deceased are buried is to see that they literally live on in the trees and flowers and other wildlife abounding there. And that itself is a positive end to a life.

How did you find the experts for your book and conduct the research?

I turned up organizations, experts and companies that offer the alternatives I profile in the book – i.e., a home funeral “midwife,” a coffin builder, a boat captain who conducts sea burials – and asked them for leads to clients who might be willing to talk with me. I conducted initial interviews with those clients over the phone. Once I settled on the families I wanted to profile, I sometimes traveled to their homes and interviewed them at length in person.

Many of the burials/funerals I ended up writing about had already taken place. For a single burial, say, I’d interview a number of participants to get a fuller view of what happened. Families also gave me a wealth of tremendously helpful resource material, such as photographs and videos of funerals, death certificates, eulogy scripts, etc. I attended a couple of the burials I write about, including one scattering of ashes off the coast of San Diego and the deployment of an ashes-containing “reef ball” in the waters off Ocean City, New Jersey.

What is the writing process like for you - when is your best time for writing?

With two young daughters – one in fifth grade, the other in ninth – I schedule my working hours for when they’re in school. Generally, it’s writing in the morning when I’m freshest, research in the early to mid afternoon. I take a run every afternoon through a forest preserve to clear the cobwebs and move my generally hidebound hindquarters. I run to escape writing, but that’s often when I get my best ideas for whatever I’m working on. I work out of a garret office in our home and sometimes return to it at night, though that’s getting harder to do the older I get.

I love the idea of an outline but tend to make one only when working on complicated, detailed sections (as in the case of the embalming chapter). I hone constantly as I work. I’ll bang out copy to new section and then return to an earlier passage to smooth and re-smooth it, working my way down. By the end, the copy’s pretty clean.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

The interviews, as I note above. Also, leaving the book behind when I was done for the day. This project was engrossing, challenging, fun – the most satisfying endeavor of my writing career – and I had a hard time keeping it from occupying my waking hours. Of course, the year deadline helped keep it there. My wife was not thrilled with my emotional absence.

Were there any surprises in the research process - anything you never knew?

Hands down, the biggest surprise was learning about the embalming process. I thought I understood the basics, but I had no idea how invasive and gruesome the process really is. The book focuses on the natural alternatives to standard burial, but it’s the embalming chapter that readers comment on most.

Where can people find your book and what's next for you?

Like most authors, I’d love to think they can find it in any bookstore. A more certain venue is my web page, where I have links to on-line booksellers: http://www.gravematters.us/

Right now I’m speaking at colleges, senior centers, churches, and memorial societies about natural burial and the funeral industry. I’m also trying to maintain a weekly blog on the topic (http://grave-matters.blogspot.com/).

And I’m thinking about the next book project. Later this week, in fact, I’m presenting a bunch of ideas to my writers group. These accomplished, talented, funny, and irreverent writers saw Grave Matters from inception to birth. They’ll prove just as vital to the next book.

Did you know that the 20th century term "living room" that replaced the old-style word "parlor" was actually coined by a popular ladie's magazine who thought the term should be used in place of parlor because of the association with old-time wakes in the parlor?


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