Summer Reading List

I know there are only a few weeks of summer left, but if you’re headed to the beach (or the mountains, or just to your favorite reading chair), here are some books you might consider taking along. They are certainly discussion-starters, and each is a must-read for anyone interested in natural burial or reforming the funeral industry.

If there is one book to get you started, it’s Grave Matters, by Mark Harris. This is Grave Mattersthe primer on both why our modern American funeral industry needs reform, and how individual Americans and families can find alternatives to the one-size-fits-all funeral. Harris’ style is direct and readable. Through real-life (and death) stories, you’ll learn what really happens when your loved one is embalmed — and thereafter. (To be an informed consumer, we each need to know this information, distasteful as it may be.) You’ll learn about alternatives ranging from natural burial to burial at sea. If you read one book about death and burial, this should be it. (Though if you do read it, you may not want to stop there!)

Harris’ book includes a chapter on cremation, but for a much more in-depth treatment of America’s most popular alternative to burial, I highly recommend Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (And Other Lessons from the Crematory), by Caitlin Doughty.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

This bestseller is part expose, part manifesto, part sardonic autobiography written by a young woman who confronted her own (and by extension, our societal) fear of death by taking a job in a crematory. If you want to know what cremation is, and what it involves, this book is for you. If you appreciate dark humor, this book is for you. If your tastes turn to deeper reflection on the meaning of mortality, with perhaps a side of erudite, eclectic humor — this book is for you. The paperback version is coming at the end of September.

Doughty has already become, for many, this generation’s Jessica Mitford — a cultural crusader who uses dark humor and insider knowledge to cut to the core of our society’s denial of death. But your curriculum would not be complete without a reading of the original source herself. Pick up a copy of Mitford’s The American Way of Death Revisited, which should be easy to find at your local library or online. This 1998 update of the 1963 classic will tell you everything you need to know about the most pernicious practices of funeral purveyors (spoiler: they are still going on), while hinting (at the end) of the hope that has become the 21st century green burial movement.

In order to be the most informed funeral consumer possible, however, you’ll need to get (and keep on your bookshelf) the indispensable Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, by Josh Slocum and Lisa Carlson. This encyclopedic compendium of state-by-state funeral laws (you’d be surprised what is not legally required in most states!) is a godsend for do-it-yourselfers and consumer advocates alike. Be sure to get the most recent (2011) version, which includes everything you need (and leaves out most of what you don’t) from the groundbreaking 1987 Caring for Your Own Dead by Lisa Carlson.

Enjoy! Oh, and when you’re done — share these books with a friend or loved one. Education occurs one reader at a time. Change occurs one conversation at a time. Happy reading!