Joyce Hinnefeld


Monday, September 15, 2008

Avoiding the Ten-Thousand Dollar Casket

When I began In Hovering Flight, I had no idea the book would, in many ways, center on the question of where the body of Addie, the novel’s mother/artist/activist character, would come to rest. Back then I just knew Addie was going to be a bird artist married to an ornithologist; before long, I also knew she would become an environmental activist. But when, as a member of a writers’ group in Bethlehem, PA, I read Mark Harris’s book Grave Matters ( in manuscript, it suddenly dawned on me: of course Addie would seek a natural burial (and a pretty complicated one, compared to those described in Mark’s book).

Grave Matters is a wonderful book. What I’ve loved about it, from the beginning, is that it isn’t a “screed,” (no raging, doctrinaire voice), and it also isn’t so mired in data and statistics that it’s impossible to read with any pleasure. (I don’t have specific works in mind when I say that, but I do have to confess that I sometimes find works on conservation and the environment pretty impenetrable.) What Grave Matters does, in compelling, straightforward terms, is tell the stories of some regular people who have chosen not to be buried in the conventional way (that is, in “a ten-thousand dollar casket and . . . shot full of formaldehyde”—in the words of Dustin, the “alternative burial” specialist in In Hovering Flight).

Reading Grave Matters with my fellow writing group members, back in those days before it was published, was a powerful experience. All of us in the group are of roughly baby boomer age, we all have children, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all given our own post-death possibilities considerably more thought than we would have, had we not read Mark’s book. Read it and talked about it, pretty obsessively, for a lot of weeks back in 2004 and 2005. If you haven’t read it, or learned about the growing green burial movement, I encourage you to take a look. And to start thinking about this for yourself. More and more green burial options are becoming available, as you can learn at the Green Burial Council’s web site: We won’t all have to go to the lengths Addie asked for in the weeks before she died.

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