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

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

by Mark Harris


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By the time Nate Fisher was laid to rest in a woodland grave sans coffin in the final season of Six Feet Under, Americans all across the country were starting to look outside the box when death came calling.

Grave Matters follows families who found in "green" burial a more natural, more economic, and ultimately more meaningful alternative to the tired and toxic send-off on offer at the local funeral parlor.

Eschewing chemical embalming and fancy caskets, elaborate and costly funerals, they have embraced a range of natural options, new and old, that are redefining a better American way of death. Environmental journalist Mark Harris examines this new green burial underground, leading you into natural cemeteries and domestic graveyards, taking you aboard boats from which ashes and memorial "reef balls" are cast into the sea. He follows a family that conducts a home funeral, one that delivers a loved one to the crematory, and another that hires a carpenter to build a pine coffin.

In the morbidly fascinating tradition of Stiff, Grave Matters details the embalming process and the environmental aftermath of the standard funeral. Harris also traces the history of burial in America, from frontier cemeteries to the billion-dollar business it is today, reporting on real families who opted for more simple, natural returns.

For readers who want to follow the examples of these families and, literally, give back from the grave, appendices detail everything you need to know, from exact costs and laws to natural burial providers and their contact information.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416564041
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 12/09/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 835,223
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Mark Harris is a former environmental columnist with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. His articles and essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, E/The Environmental Magazine, Reader's Digest, and Hope. He lives with his family in Pennsylvania. Visit his website at

Read an Excerpt


On a blustery late afternoon near the end of May, I joined a band of hikers that trekked a mowed path snaking through the grounds of the Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve. Our rough trail took in a large swath of this hundred-acre burial site in the heart of New York's Finger Lakes region, leading us into wetland and meadows, and, as we ventured off trail, into a large, wooded tract that borders the four thousand-acre Arnot Forest. It was there, under a canopy of maples, ash, and beech that we came upon fragile-looking wild geraniums and tiny, seven-pointed starflowers, saw the delicate purple gaywing rising resolutely from the forest floor.

Emerging from the woods on our return to the keeper's cottage, red-winged blackbirds gliding in the distance, we climbed the meadow hillside that constitutes Greensprings's main burial ground, each grave site staked with a fluttering red flag. No body had yet been buried at the time of our visit; Greensprings's dedication was planned for the following day. But walking the cemetery grounds that afternoon, experiencing up close this thriving ecosystem of the Southern Tier, I couldn't help but believe that many people will seek their final rest here. One doesn't need to be an outdoors enthusiast to feel the powerful pull of the Greensprings promise: a return to bucolic, bountiful countryside in as simple and natural a way as possible. Per cemetery policy, no vaults or embalming will be allowed. Caskets must be basic and made from readily biodegradable materials. Fieldstones may mark the grave site, but native trees and shrubs are welcome as well. The idea is to allow the body to rejoin the elements, to use what remains of a life to regenerate new life, to return dust to dust.

It's a concept hugely at odds with modern burial — and it's catching on. Greensprings is one of some dozen woodland burial grounds that have sprung up in this country since a family physician named Billy Campbell opened South Carolina's Ramsey Creek Preserve to burial in the fall of 1998. A score of others are in the planning stages.

Natural cemeteries like Greensprings are literally regreening the deathscape in America. But as I discovered when I journeyed into the growing, green burial underground that's beginning to surface in this country, it's just one of many strategies we're embracing in search of more meaningful, more fitting, and, ultimately, more natural alternatives to the generic send-off proffered by the local funeral home. And if my research and travels of the last two years are any indication, it's doing nothing less than rewriting — and, in the process, re-righting — the American Way of Death.

I turned up a host of alternatives in my search. I found families who had their loved ones' ashes added to fireworks that blasted out colorful displays, still others who had ashes pressed into diamonds that looked like the real thing. Given an interest in environmental issues, I was most attracted to — and thus chose to focus on — what has become known as natural burial. Like "organic" or "green" or any of the variants on ecofriendly, "natural" defies easy definition. In this new burial movement, a few characteristics stand out. For one, natural burials tend to consume significantly fewer resources than standard funerals, going light on the goods and services that fill out the General Price List the local mortician is required to hand anyone who knocks at his door. Caskets, when used at all, are of plain, wood make; embalming is almost always avoided. As a consequence, these funeral costs tally into the hundreds and low — not many — thousands of dollars. Families generally also take a more active role in the conduct of the funeral.

In the end, these families choose natural burial because it achieves the very end our modern funeral industry labors to prevent at literally all costs: to allow, and even invite, the decay of one's physical body — its tissue and bone, its cache of organic components — and return what remains to the very elements it sprang from, as directly and simply as possible. In their last, final act, the deceased in this book have taken care in death to give back to the earth some very small measure of the vast resources they drew from it in life and, in the process, perpetuate the cycles of nature, of growth and decay, of death and rebirth, that sustain all of us. For Sharyn Nicholson, one Virginia native I write about, that meant being buried on a wooded hillside in view of her mountain cabin, wrapped in nothing but a shroud. Avid angler Leonard Nutter found his final rest in an aquatic environment, his ashes scattered over the Pacific waters he trolled off the coast of Southern California.

Such natural return is, of course, little more than a return to long tradition. Much of what constitutes natural burial, as I show throughout this book, was once standard practice in this country, the default, not the exception. Practiced well into the twentieth century in some places, this truly traditional send-off was a largely simple affair, light on the pocketbook, conserving by nature and, no doubt, as meaningful to the assembled mourners then as the more elaborate and well-orchestrated funeral is to some of us today — and, very likely, even more so.

Families in this book are reviving those not-so-aged traditions — be it laying out and "waking" a loved one at home, or hiring a local carpenter to build a coffin of plain pine boards — as well as one ancient rite of disposition that predates civilization itself: cremation, an option expected to be our most popular way to go by mid-century. At the same time, they're giving old custom a decidedly modern twist. The woodland burial grounds springing up in this country, for example, may descend from the pastoral, "rural" cemeteries that flourished in the early to late 1800s, but they also show the strong conservationist focus of the Baby Boomer environmentalist who first inspired them. In these leafy environs, the dead more than rest in blissful, green repose: their burials help preserve significant, threatened land from the bulldozer and, in some cases, work to restore it to ecological health. Other options offer entirely novel, natural retirement. When Carrie Slowe added her husband's cremated remains to the concrete slurry of a "reef ball" that hardened and was later sunk into the Atlantic Ocean, she not only returned her mate to the waters that held such firm purchase on his affection, she created habitat for new life under the sea.

Not surprisingly, some of the families looking outside the mainstream at the time of death are the very ones who inhabit its margins in life. In my forays into the new deathscape I turned up vegetarians, massage therapists, Waldorf school teachers, as well as one amateur organic gardener who wore dreadlocks and idolized Bob Marley. It's a mistake, though, to categorize all, or even most, adherents of this form of alt.burial as habitués of Whole Foods Markets or hybrid-drive motorists. In my experience, the majority largely comprise what for lack of better description I'd simply call "regular" folk. In addition to those above, my research put me in touch with a hospital nurse, a court stenographer, an elementary school teacher, and an employee at a sporting goods factory who stamps the company logo onto golf balls. There was also a retired meatpacker in Iowa who attends Sunday Mass, and one engineer now buried in a natural cemetery who even expressed a dislike for "environmentalists" and admitted to being less than fond of nature hikes. The families in this book span Gen X to the Greatest Generation, include Republicans as well as Democrats (and Greens), and literally inhabit Middle America and other parts of the compass. As I've seen it on the ground, natural burial is a big tent, not fringe, phenomenon.

What unites this disparate group is the welcome promise of natural burial: simplicity, low cost, and return to the elements, be they on land or sea. Or, as one gentleman who buried his wife in a plain, pine casket put it to me one frosty January afternoon: "It just strikes me as the most logical thing to do."

I've included a broad range of burial options under the rubric of "natural." Clearly, some are more natural than others. Shrouded burial in a woodland cemetery that's devoted to restoration of the land is likely the more conserving and less polluting choice than cremation, with its consumption of natural gas and electricity and release of mercury and other potentially hazardous emissions into the atmosphere. (Though how green any burial turns out to be depends on the given burial. Air-freighting a body to a distant woodland ground for shrouded interment — as has happened — say, must surely negate much of its positive impact on the planet.) Nonetheless, I've arranged the progression of chapters from generally less to more green, with cremation and the options for memorializing with one's ashes at the front, the book ending with burial on one's own rural land or in a natural cemetery.

A word about cremation. Incinerating a body produces an environmental impact of some degree (though just how much depends on any number of factors, including whose figures you believe). Cremation makes it into this book because, its ecological footprint notwithstanding, the average cremation consumes fewer resources and emits less pollution than the outfitting and conduct of the typical, modern funeral. The resulting ashes may — and in these pages do — then return to the natural environment out of which, as the Genesis verse that graces this book's epigraph puts it, we are taken.

An enterprising investigative reporter or doctoral student will some day document the many detrimental environmental consequences that result from the production of the standard funeral. In the meantime, I've attempted to present a scenario of potential and likely effects based on the limited published research to date. Yet while the known evidence may read a bit thin here, I hope it's sufficient to make the point that goes to the heart of the matter of modern memorialization: that the once simple and natural act of laying our dead to rest has been transmogrified into a large-scale industrial operation that, like any other manufacturing process, requires the inputs of vast amounts of energy and raw materials and leaves a trail of environmental damage in its wake.

All the individuals in this book are real (though, in certain cases, I have changed names and identifying characteristics) — with a few exceptions. Myra, Jim, and Jenny Johnson, as well as the funeral director Tom Fielding, are composite characters based on information I gleaned from various printed materials and from the many conversations I had with family members and with funeral personnel I interviewed for background purposes. The narrative that comprises their interactions in chapter one and parts of chapter two did not take place. However, all the events that transpire there — from the Johnsons' arrangement conference to their daughter's embalming in Fielding's prep room and subsequent interment — are nonetheless real to life. The Johnsons' engagement with Fielding in his parlor is typical of what an average family experiences when they sit down with a funeral director on his home turf. The prices he quotes them for goods and services are pulled directly from current price lists I gained from existing funeral homes. As for Jenny's embalming, it's what's known in the trade as a "normal case," and derives from my interviews with funeral directors and from articles, videos, and textbooks assigned to students of mortuary science.

I have also created pseudonyms for the funeral goods — caskets and vaults, mostly — mentioned in the first two chapters. I thought it neither fair nor particularly useful to single out, say, a particular casket for scrutiny when it's not significantly different than the similar model of a competing manufacturer. A vault may fill with water because no vault is impervious to the elements forever, not because it's Brand X.

The funeral industry, surely, won't welcome this bald assessment of its services, but my intent is not to bash the dismal trade. (Whatever criticism it deserves Jessica Mitford already leveled, deftly and with devastating wit.) My goal is to simply offer a picture of the kind of funeral a bereaved family can expect to be presented with when it walks through the parlor doors of Any Funeral Home U.S.A. and, then, show how the effects may play out on their loved ones and on the environment.

My interest, in the end, lies less in the modern funeral, however it's delivered, than in the burgeoning, natural alternatives that are springing up to supplement and, I believe, ultimately change it. Copyright © 2007 by Mark Harris

Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.

Attributed to William Gladstone, British prime minister (1808-1898)


The Embalming of Jenny Johnson

At nine o'clock on a brisk October morning, less than twelve hours after they'd left the Brakertown Memorial Hospital, Jim and Myra Johnson arrive at the Fielding Funeral Home to make arrangements for the burial of their eighteen-year-old daughter, their only child, Jenny.

Tom Fielding greets them at the door. The funeral director in the three-piece suit and polished wingtips is the one who'd taken Jim's first call the previous night, telling him that Jenny had suffered a heart attack in her college dorm room; he'd been the one to meet them at the hospital after Jenny had died, had told them he'd handle all the necessary arrangements. Ushering the couple into the parlor's hushed receiving room — harp music sounding in the background, votive candles burning on a pair of side tables — Fielding doesn't try to console or comfort his new clients. After nearly twenty years in the business, Fielding believes that whatever solace a funeral director can offer bereaved families comes less from grief counseling than from the ritual of the well-run funeral service — something for which he has developed a reputation in this small city. So after motioning the Johnsons onto a couch and taking a seat himself on the other side of the coffee table, Fielding comes gently but quickly to the point. "I'm very sorry for your loss," he begins. "Let me assure you we'll do everything we can to help you plan a service that honors the life of your daughter. Have you given any thought to the kind of arrangements you'd like to make?"

After a pause, Jim speaks up. On the way over this morning, he tells Fielding in a halting voice, he and Myra agreed they wanted to give Jenny the kind of funeral that's traditional in their Catholic family. A viewing. Service at St. Matthew's. Burial in Holy Savior. Her family owns a number of plots at the cemetery, Myra adds, and her parents have offered them one, next to Myra's grandmother.

Fielding jots the Johnsons' directions onto a legal pad in his lap. He then pulls out a gray sheet and lays it on the coffee table, turning it to face them. Known in the trade as the General Price List (GPL), the double-sided sheet itemizes all the goods and services the Fielding Home offers, along with their prices. Two package deals at the top of the page would certainly meet their needs, Fielding says: a traditional funeral service with evening viewing ($3,595) or a traditional funeral service with one-hour viewing prior to service ($3,295).

The packages bundle most everything they'd need for either type of funeral, except for the casket, vault, cemetery fees, and other miscellaneous charges. If they'd rather, however, the Johnsons can pick the services they want individually, choosing from the nearly three dozen separate items that follow. To whatever they choose, however, Fielding will add a base fee of $1,395 for his handling of arrangements. And because the Johnsons have requested a viewing, they'll also have to agree to embalming ($825).

Like most of his clients, the Johnsons don't think to question Fielding's request to embalm, even though the GPL states that embalming isn't required by law.

If they'd asked why he insists on it nonetheless, Fielding would have replied with an explanation he mostly cribbed from industry talking points. "Embalming replaces body fluids with a chemical solution that retards natural decomposition and enhances the appearance of your daughter," he'd say. "Without it, she might not be presentable to your family and friends for a viewing that's still a couple of days away." Had the Johnsons known enough to ask Fielding if he'd instead hold Jenny in a refrigeration unit until the viewing, which also would have slowed her decay (and at a fraction of the cost of embalming), Fielding would have said he doesn't offer refrigeration because it won't make Jenny look "nearly as good as she could be" in the casket.

Still, federal law prevents Fielding from embalming Jenny for a fee without first gaining her guardians' express permission. (The Federal Trade Commission had imposed the rule in 1984 after families had complained that some funeral directors, without asking, had embalmed bodies that clearly didn't need it. Among those were remains headed directly to the crematorium, as well as those of orthodox Jews, whose faith opposes the practice.) When Fielding makes his request, he keeps it short and to the point: "Your wish for a viewing includes embalming," he tells the Johnsons. "That okay?" Jim hesitates, perhaps for the first time considering what embalming may mean for his daughter, before slowly nodding his head. Fielding will later translate that nonverbal agreement into writing when the Johnsons sign the contract he'll draw up at the end of this meeting.

A couple of related items are bulleted beneath the embalming section. Fielding checks those he'll require for Jenny — hair styling, which he'll turn over to a beautician ($90); and dressing and "casketing" the remains ($50). Fielding himself can outfit Jenny from the wardrobe of professional funeral wear he keeps in stock, in this case a white burial gown whose backside has been cut out for easy dressing ($135). He'd also touch her up with cosmetics specially formulated for application to bodies infused with embalming dye. But when he asks Myra if she'd prefer that Jenny be dressed in her own clothing — a prom or bridesmaid gown, maybe — and that her own makeup be used, Myra says yes, she'll bring them in.

The options for viewing, Fielding continues, vary with place (church or funeral home), time (day, night), number of days, and actual length. After considering all the variations, the Johnsons decide to hold a viewing in the funeral home, with visiting hours from five to seven the night before the funeral ($410). On Fielding's recommendation, they agree to have their priest lead a praying of the Rosary and end the viewing with a prayer (for which a $100 gratuity will be needed). The Johnsons can bring in a disk of music to be piped over the sound system; if they'd prefer live organ music, Fielding says he'll provide a soloist ($100). The Johnsons tell Fielding they'll drop off a disk of light classic music, one Jenny used to play to help her fall asleep at night.

The actual funeral service will be held the following morning at St. Matthew's ($610, Fielding's charge for coordinating arrangements with the church and preparing for a funeral there, roughly the same price for holding the funeral in his own parlor). Fielding often works with St. Matthew's and tells the Johnsons the church charges a fixed fee of $200 for the hour-long funeral Mass and the services of the priest, altar servers, and organist. Fielding then asks if Jim and Myra can provide him with the names of four to eight pallbearers to carry Jenny's casket in and out of the church, and to the grave site, which they do. (Had they not, Fielding would have hired his own, $50 per pallbearer.)

St. Matthew's is a five-minute drive from Fielding's, the cemetery another ten minutes from there. He'll use a gray Cadillac hearse to transport Jenny to both places ($215). If the Johnsons think they'd rather not drive on the day of the funeral, Fielding can provide them with a six-door Cadillac limousine ($195); other close relatives can follow directly behind in the company's fleet of four-person Lincoln sedans ($85 per vehicle). An escort car, if they want one, will precede the cortege, carrying Fielding and the priest to the cemetery ($60).

The Johnsons are obligated, however, to lease Fielding's "flower van" ($95). Jenny's likely to receive many floral arrangements for the viewing, and he'll need a separate vehicle to forward them to the church and cemetery afterward. A police escort will probably be needed, too ($150). The only other transportation cost, Fielding adds, is his charge for picking up Jenny at the hospital and bringing her back to his funeral home ($205).

The average funeral in America runs to $10,000, accounting for one of the single most expensive purchases a family will make in its lifetime. At this point the Johnsons are already over the $4,000 mark, and that's before the casket cost and cemetery fees are added in. Fielding isn't privy to the Johnson's financial situation. (For older clients, he'd get a better idea of that when he asks them how many copies of the death certificate they'll need. A higher number generally indicates greater wealth, as financial institutions usually demand death certificates to disperse funds.) But if the mounting price tag worries them, the Johnsons aren't showing it. Staring silently down at the itemized list, they look too consumed in their own grief to closely follow Fielding or question the need for — and price of — certain services. Like most of his clients, the Johnsons are new to the business of funeral making, and at this late date they lack the knowledge, energy, and time to figure out what's best for their daughter and their pocketbook. Cost may not even figure into the Johnsons' plans. In Fielding's experience, young parents tend to want to pamper their children right up to the end — as a sign of love, out of a sense of guilt — regardless of what they can afford.

Fielding now turns to the calendar. "Today is Saturday," he begins. "We could have a funeral as soon as Tuesday, with a viewing Monday night, as long as the church and priest are available." That would give him an opportunity to submit an obituary for tomorrow's paper, giving the community enough advance notice and any distant family time to fly in. Holy Savior Cemetery would have the forty-eight-hour lead time it needs to prepare a grave site, saving the Johnsons the additional weekend overtime fee ($60 per half hour).

Holy Savior is a Colonial-era cemetery by the river that's overspread with mature trees. On weekends, it's filled with joggers and walkers seeking a quiet refuge from the town's bustle. It's a beautiful spot, and, in terms of funereal real estate, fairly exclusive. The Johnsons don't know it, but Myra's parents saved the couple nearly $900 when they gifted them a plot for Jenny. The parents' generosity doesn't cover the burial costs, however. Pulling out a sheet labeled "Holy Savior Interment Fees List," Fielding shows Myra and Jim that they'll still have to pay $900 for a backhoe to scoop out — or "open" — Jenny's grave, and then "close" it following the service. The cemetery also charges an additional $130 to install a concrete "foundation" at the head of the grave to support the marker or monument the family will eventually place there. There's an additional onetime fee of $150 for the ongoing maintenance — mowing, mostly — of the plot.

Fielding anticipates the graveside ceremony will last about twenty minutes. He'll coordinate everything in advance with the cemetery ($350), and provide a tent over the site and thirty chairs for family. The actual grave markers the Johnsons will need to purchase on their own. Fielding recommends that they contact local manufacturers listed in the telephone book. Depending on what they want, they can expect to pay anywhere from several hundred dollars for a modest flat marker to several thousands for a granite or marble headstone.

Fielding now comes to the most delicate part of the arrangement conference: the casket selection. It's often at this point that the reality of death hits a family hardest; it's also when the family's confronted with one of the most expensive items in the entire funeral. Fielding lays the groundwork before proceeding. "I'd like to take you now into our casket selection room," he says. "We offer nearly two dozen models, in both wood and metal. They range in price from $500 to $10,000. So, if you'll please follow me." Fielding then rises and hands the Johnsons a casket price list before leading them out.

The selection room lies at the bottom of a long, broad flight of steps. It's an open, low-ceilinged space, with soft light from recessed lamps illuminating an array of open caskets that fan the perimeter of the room; a smaller sample circles a pillar in the room's center. At the sight of the plush caskets, Myra and Jim both falter. From long experience, Fielding knows these parents are picturing their daughter in one of these caskets, realizing they'll be choosing her final resting place. It's a sobering moment, and Fielding continues into the room alone, leaving the family to join him when they're ready.

When eventually they do, Fielding directs them to a trio of coffins he says represents the basic options. Aside from the obvious differences in styles, he explains, caskets vary according to the material from which they're fashioned. Wood caskets offer the natural warmth and beauty of fine furniture, though they will decay over time. Metal is more resilient and resists the elements. Of the latter, bronze and copper tend to be more expensive because they're semiprecious metals that are virtually indestructible; in fact, Fielding says, archaeologists have retrieved ancient artifacts from copper coffins in near pristine condition. Stainless steel is less durable, but it's cheaper and won't rust. Signs on the caskets indicate the metals' "gauge," a lower gauge indicating a thicker metal.

"If protection of a loved one against water and soil is important," Fielding begins, "a sealed casket might be best." These sealer models, which come in metal only and boost the price of a casket by hundreds of dollars, are outfitted with rubber gaskets that help keep out the elements when the casket's closed. (Federal law prohibits Fielding's from contending that gasketed caskets keep a body from decomposition, which they don't.) Other differences in quality and cost have to do with construction — curved corners are more desirable than sharp, metal hardware is superior to plastic — and such interior features as the fineness of the stitching, color selection, and plushness.

When he finishes his practiced spiel, Fielding slowly ushers the Johnsons past an arc of burnished coffins, moving from least to most expensive. The gray, cloth-covered Rustic ($500). Steel Cortege ($1,595). Stainless-steel Branson ($4,450). Mahogany Congress ($8,200). Solid bronze Eternity Gold ($10,000). For outdoor enthusiasts, Fielding points out, there's a chestnut-colored steel casket with camouflage interior and an image of a deer embroidered into the inside head panel ($7,300). Mourners can write messages with Magic Marker all over the body and interior lid of another casket ($4,500). A few models feature interior "memory drawers." In one of these Fielding has arranged an ensemble that features a Bible and a set of baseball trading cards before the small, framed picture of a handsome, smiling boy on a pitcher's mound.

What's best really depends on personal preference and how one feels about the value of protecting a loved one, Fielding offers. "I'll leave you now and let you peruse as much as you'd like. If you have any questions, I'll be just outside the door."

The Johnsons wander the room in a fog. Eventually, they stop at the Damask Rose ($4,500), a bronze casket with a plush, pink-tinted interior. Myra would later tell Jim she was attracted by its feminine quality, the images of roses stitched into the lid and skirt, the colored fabric, the soft pillow and blanket that reminded her of Jenny's bedroom. The price was high, but, they felt, worth the protection bronze afforded. (Had they known, they could have gone online and, tapping into the score of Internet brokers, ordered the very same casket for overnight delivery for twenty-five percent less. By law Fielding would have been required to accept it, and without charging a handling fee.)

Back upstairs, Fielding and the Johnsons come to the final selections. One concerns the "outer burial container," a requirement of Holy Savior (though not of any local, state, or federal law). "This is a box the casket's buried in," Fielding explains, laying out a set of miniature models. "It's lowered into the ground, the casket is set inside, and a heavy lid is placed on top." Originally designed to deter grave robbers, this "coffin case," as it was once called, is mandated by most cemeteries to keep the ground from caving in around the grave site when the casket degrades. That's not an issue with an impermeable bronze casket like the Damask Rose, Fielding admits. But even more than the coffin itself, a quality case does afford "the best" protection from the elements.

Holy Savior permits two kinds of burial containers. The most inexpensive is a basic grave liner, a bottomless box made from lightweight concrete ($665). It will hold the soil's weight but allows the intrusion of water and the elements. A vault, on the other hand, envelopes the entire casket in a fiberglass or stainless-steel inner liner that's further encased in reinforced concrete; its thousand-pound lid is joined to the body with a tongue and groove joint, sealing top to base. Vaults are more expensive than grave liners, costing as much as $10,000, Fielding explains, but "if protection is important, it's the better choice." He offers a number of them in a range of prices. After reviewing the models and reading the description from Fielding's handouts, the Johnsons choose the midpriced Clematis, a near three-thousand-pound, steel-lined concrete vault whose exterior is finished in pink and sports a single bloom on its lid ($2,100).

Family and friends will be sending flowers to honor your daughter, Fielding says, moving on. He'll arrange them around the casket when they arrive. If Jim and Myra want to provide a "floral tribute" of their own as well, they can do that through him. Working with a local florist, he's able to offer a variety of fitting arrangements, which are pictured in a small catalog he pulls out to show them. Considering the theme and colors of the casket interior, the Johnsons choose the "casket spray" ($350) from Fielding's Traditional Rose Collection, an arrangement of fifty pink roses to be placed on Jenny's casket during the viewing and funeral. If they'd like, Fielding says, the Johnsons' friends can order flowers directly from him as well.

Only a few details remain. With Fielding's guidance, the Johnsons decide to purchase a register book for the service ($40) and a packet of prayer cards, the Twenty-third Psalm on one side, Jenny's obituary on the other ($30). At this point, Fielding asks the Johnsons for Jenny's personal information — age, social security number, names of surviving relatives — for the death certificate he'll file with the county and for the obituary to run in tomorrow's paper. The Johnsons ask for six copies of the death certificate to be sent to them ($6 each).

When he's done, Fielding reviews the arrangements with the Johnsons. He then transfers their selections onto an itemized contract and tallies the costs right there at his desk. The total cost of the embalming, funeral, and burial of Jenny Johnson comes to $12,376.

After seeing the Johnsons out, Fielding returns to his desk and calls the regional casket company rep to order the Damask Rose, for delivery Monday morning. Arrangements have already been finalized for the viewing that evening of an elderly "case," whose embalmed and prepped remains now repose in the air-conditioned slumber room across from his office. With a few free hours ahead of him, Fielding decides to start Jenny's embalming.

A body can decompose rapidly after death. Its cells, proteins, and tissues begin to break down almost immediately, and pathogenic bacteria in the gut that are normally held in check during life maraud throughout a fresh corpse in as little as four hours. The sooner an embalmer gets to work the fewer the difficulties he'll face in preserving a body for viewing.

The embalming, or prep, room sits in the basement of the Fielding Funeral Home, a Victorian-era abode that Fielding's grandfather retrofitted in the 1940s to process the dead. It's a small, compact space whose only access is a broad, metal door that's equipped with a keypad lock. State law requires that any embalming room be "secure" against public "entrance," to protect the privacy of the dead. Access to Fielding's basement is limited and restricted, but he installed a keypad lock on the door nonetheless to keep out those few curious clients who invariably wander down from the parlor upstairs.

To most outsiders, the odor of an embalming room is distinct and powerful, an acrid smell reminiscent of high school dissection labs. When Fielding punches in his code and opens the door, he barely detects it. His adaptation to the pungent chemical, a phenomenon common to embalmers, allows him to work here without experiencing the typical burning throat and runny, itchy eyes. But not without some cost to his health. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) deems formaldehyde a potential occupational carcinogen, and decreased sensitivity to it increases the likelihood that embalmers unknowingly overexpose themselves to the toxic gas, boosting their odds of contracting brain, colon, kidney, and other cancers for which the trade shows elevated rates.

A faint light ebbs into the prep room from a lone, ground-level window at the far wall. The window's clear panes were long ago replaced with small, opaque blocks, for privacy's sake (and per state law). Feeling along the edge of the doorjamb, Fielding finds and then flicks a light switch, flooding the room in a brilliant, white light.

In an effort to further legitimize its profession in the eyes of the public, the funeral industry sometimes refers to embalmers as "derma" — or skin — "surgeons." And with its gleaming white tiled floor and walls, well-stocked glass cabinets, porcelain sinks, and metal trays laden with syringes, scalpels, clamps, and other instruments of the medical establishment, Fielding's workspace closely resembles a hospital operating room. But for the quiet. Years ago Fielding lined these walls and ceiling with soundproofing tiles, so none of the noise attending his work — the clicking of the embalming machine, the vacuuming aspirator, a dropped scalpel — would disturb the tranquillity of the funeral quarters upstairs. The tiles also block any outdoor noise from penetrating the embalming room. When the door's closed and locked behind him, Fielding can't hear the hum of traffic or even voices in the conference room directly overhead. Besides the din from the embalming procedure, the only sound here comes from circulating fans and the radio he sometimes tunes to talk shows or a classical music station.

Before getting down to work, Fielding checks the room to make sure it's stocked with the supplies he'll need for Jenny — bottles of embalming and cavity fluid, sealing compound, Superglue, hypodermic needles, forceps, scalpels, lengths of clean hose. The door he props open to accommodate a mortuary cot, and then turns on a pair of fans, one drawing in fresh air, the other venting the caustic vapors of the formaldehyde, menthol, phenol, and other chemicals he'll be handling in this tight, enclosed space.

Fielding expects the embalming of Jenny to last under two hours. Unlike some of his colleagues who boast of twenty-minute embalmings or of those that go light on preservative, he isn't one to cut corners. In his experience, shortcuts in time, procedure, or material weren't worth the risk of having a casketed case blurp, bloat, expel gas, or even leak during a public viewing. Those disasters obviously upset the family, and at minimum compel the embalmer to return the body to the prep room and start from ground zero.

Jenny has been cooling in his basement refrigeration unit since he retrieved her from the hospital late last night. The fridge's constant thirty-eight degrees will slow her decomposition and keep bacteria in check. Still, on the off chance that the trim, young athlete may unwittingly harbor some yet transmittable disease — tuberculosis or AIDS, perhaps, whose pathogens can, for a time, survive the death of its host — Fielding sheds his jacket and tie and dons the protective uniform of the trade: a full-length, waterproof bodysuit, a pair of Tyvek shoe covers, a surgical cap, and latex gloves. Over his mouth and nose he ties a gauze mask, and pulls a clear plastic splash guard over his face.

Covered from head to foot, Fielding wheels Jenny from the fridge into the embalming room, parking the mortuary cot next to the porcelain embalming table, and locks the door. Grabbing the edge of the plastic bag she's zipped into, he pulls the teen onto the table, taking care not to bump the body, which could raise bruises he'd have to cover over later on.

Fielding then draws down the brass zipper and works the bag off the body. Clad in a green hospital gown and pair of shorts, Jenny shows little sign of trauma. No blood, wounds, or bruises. No broken bones. Just a few needle sticks he'll eventually close up with Superglue. Thankfully, the county coroner had signed off on an autopsy, since Jenny had been under a doctor's care for the congenital heart condition that had triggered her heart attack. Even a routine autopsy — in which the skull and chest are opened, rib cage removed, and organs (including the brain) pulled out, dissected, and, with the exception of the brain, stuffed back into the abdomen, which is then stitched up — complicates the embalmer's labors. Some cases are so thoroughly mutilated on the autopsy table that an embalmer is compelled to reconstruct lost features with his toolbox of waxes, webbing, plaster of paris, glues and the like, and otherwise artfully cosmeticize a body to a viewable state.

Taking up a pair of scissors, Fielding snips off the hospital gown covering Jenny, and carefully tugs off her clothing — shorts, underwear, socks, tennis shoes — which he'll launder and return to her parents. The gold chain and pendant around her neck he unclasps and sets aside, tapes in place the high school class ring on her finger to prevent it from slipping off during the embalming.

Though somewhat ashen from her time in Fielding's refrigeration unit, Jenny shows little outward sign of decomposition or contamination, no visible distention or swelling. Fielding nonetheless spritzes her from top to toe with a strong disinfectant and then scrubs her with germicidal soap.

The topical spray won't reach any pathogenic bacteria inside Jenny, which could still leak out when Fielding manipulates her on the embalming table. So before bending and flexing her limbs stiffening with rigor mortis, Fielding takes a pair of packing forceps and pushes wads of cotton soaked in phenol into Jenny's anus and vagina. He follows the wet cotton with tufts of dry, fully packing each organ. (Instead of cotton, Fielding could have used any of the "A/V closure" devices for sale in the trade catalogs — A for anus, V for vagina — threaded plastic plugs that screw snugly into their targeted cavities.) He likewise stuffs dry cotton deep into both ears.

Before her death, Jenny had pulled her blond hair into a tight ponytail, now disheveled. Fielding will later wash her hair, and have his beautician on call style and dress it. At this point, though, with the teen freshly bathed and her skin more supple than it would be when infused with embalming fluid, he lathers Jenny's face with cream and shaves it. Like many embalmers, Fielding shaves all his clients — men, women, and children — as a matter of course. Makeup's easier to apply to a smooth, hairless face, and it won't show the powder he'll dust onto Jenny's features before her casketing. He moves the blade in long, slow strokes, taking care not to abrade skin. Any cuts he makes now won't heal.

As do most of his fellow funeral directors, Fielding insists on embalming any case on view because it delays the body's inevitable decay. But preservation is only part of his goal; presentation's just as vital to a successful viewing. For Fielding doesn't merely want Jenny to hold up in the casket; he wants her to look both lifelike and at peace. In the end, the modern embalmer is just as much artist as dermasurgeon. With his arsenal of chemicals, tools, and techniques, he's an illusionist who literally changes the face of death, transforming the ashen, lifeless corpses in his care into lifelike bodies at rest.

The funeral trade has christened the embalmer's creation a "memory picture," a pleasing illusion of a loved one who has simply slipped off to sleep, and insists it's necessary. A family must view the deceased's remains, its argument goes, to accept the fact that a death has occurred and to begin the necessary grieving and subsequent healing process. And the more pleasant and true-to-life the "picture" the easier it is to acknowledge the death and, perhaps, let go.

The artistry involved in arranging that snapshot consumes most of the embalmer's labor. And much of it happens here, with what's known as "setting the features."

The embalming chemicals Fielding will shortly inject into Jenny arteries will firm her soft tissues to a rigid and unalterable state. Now's his best chance to set her into final form. Standing at the head of the table, Fielding raises her head onto a rubber block where a pillow will eventually be placed, and sets the elbows and shoulder blades onto elevated rests. (He could have achieved the same ends with less effort and more precision with "arm positioners," prefab metal forms into which arms are locked.)

Fielding's broken up most of Jenny's rigor mortis, but he continues to manipulate the limbs, and begins to massage the muscle stiffness out of regions that are most visible at a viewing — the forehead, cheeks, eyelids, and hands. When he feels the hands relax, he cups them around a ball of dry cotton and joins them at her lap, right over left. A final twist of her head, fifteen degrees to the right, ensures that mourners will see her face — not just its profile — when they approach the casket. The angle also keeps Jenny from looking like she's staring fixedly at the ceiling, an unappealing position dubbed "stargazing."

A small-busted woman like Jenny poses fewer presentation challenges for Fielding than a larger one. If she'd been endowed with "pendulous" breasts, as one mortuary text puts it, Fielding might have felt compelled to bind them together in the center of her chest in an effort to grace her with "a more natural appearance" (and also permit her arms to be brought in closer to her sides, preserving casket space). For the rebusting, he'd have joined the breasts with a foot-long piece of duct tape. Some of his colleagues follow a more traditional technique that involves running a half-curved needle threaded with suture into each breast at a point just off the nipples and pulling the suture taut, to bind the breasts. An injection of embalming fluid would have then firmed the breasts into place, after which Fielding could have safely stripped off the tape (or, in the case of those fellow embalmers, pulled out the sutures).

More than most features, the appearance of Jenny's eyes and mouth will determine just how natural Jenny looks to her friends and family. Fielding's goal here is to establish what's known in the business as a "pleasant" demeanor. Achieving it proves to be one of the trickier parts of the embalmer's job.

To set the eyes, Fielding can at least rely on two modern inventions of the trade: a tub of "stay cream" cement and a pair of eyecaps. The eyecaps, which are pressed from plastic, are lens-shaped domes covered with raised spurs. After squirting disinfectant onto Jenny's eyeballs and swabbing them dry with cotton, Fielding dips two of the caps into the stay cream and positions each one onto an eyeball. With a needlelike hook he first pulls Jenny's upper eyelids two-thirds of the way down and then raises the lower lids to meet them at an imaginary "line of closure" the industry believes best creates the "illusion of sleep." Fielding then tamps on the lids, sticking them to the spurred caps. When the stay cream dries it will permanently cement the lids to the caps and, on the underside, the caps to the eyeballs. (Some of his colleagues skip the stay cream and simply run a line of Superglue along the lid rim, a strategy Fielding believes unnecessarily risks getting glue into the lashes).

The mouth requires more preparation since rigor mortis has locked it shut. Taking the lower jawbone in hand, Fielding works it up and down until it finally slacks and gapes open. Fielding squirts disinfectant into the opening, killing off bacteria that could darken a ring of skin around the lips and stuffs cotton into the throat.

Fielding has a choice of methods to close Jenny's mouth. (The rigor mortis that locked it would have retreated on its own within twenty-four hours, again gaping it open.) One is to sew the jaws shut from inside the mouth. This bit of internal stitching, dubbed "muscular suture," entails passing a needle threaded with suture through muscular tissue at the base of the inside lower gum, pushing up into a nostril via the inner gum line, punching through the septum into the opposing nostril, and then coming back down into the mouth by way of the gums. The embalmer then pulls the suture taut, closing the jaws, and ties off.

For Jenny, Fielding takes a more common and easier approach. His tool is a spring-activated "needle injector," a cross between a syringe and a workshop staple gun that shoots barb-tipped wires. Its target is the upper and lower jawbones. Pulling back Jenny's upper lip first, Fielding places the tip of the injector at a point of strong bone above the canines, and pushes the trigger. With an audible crunch, a barb drives into bone, securing its five-inch length of wire; a second barb he shoots into a similar spot on the lower jaw. Fielding then pushes Jenny's tongue behind her teeth and twists the wires together, drawing her jaws shut. (Before the advent of the needle injector, embalmers achieved the same ends with a method known as "tack and thread," which required hammering into the jawbones long carpet tacks connected to strong cord.)

It's now up to Fielding to restore a peaceful appearance to Jenny's frowning, sunken mouth. Again, he works to achieve that "pleasant look." Many embalmers simply pack and seal the mouth, stuffing cheeks with cotton and gluing the lips shut. But Fielding's experience has shown that cotton tends to wick moisture from the cheeks, discoloring the mouth. It also sops up "purge," the abdominal or respiratory discharge that sometimes blurps into the mouth (or out the nose), which then has to be mopped out and repacked. Fielding chose instead to use a nonabsorbent mastic filling. Pulling open Jenny's cheeks, he squirts a wad of mastic into both hollows with a fat syringe (though some embalmers find it more convenient to inject into the cheeks via the nostrils). Switching nozzles, he then pushes a narrow ribbon of mastic into the upper and lower gums to fill out the lip line. Compound oozes out of the mouth, which he scrapes off with a spatula.

Filled with mortuary putty, Jenny's mouth is easy to form. Fielding pushes the lips into a gentle upward curve. To ensure the lips stay closed during the embalming, he smears them with "seal cream." He'll glue them permanently shut later. He remembers the needle sticks, and over each prick squeezes a drop of Superglue.

The preembalming, which lasts less than half an hour, is complete. If she'd been dressed in pajamas and had more color in her cheeks, Jenny might look like the college freshman who rolled out of bed yesterday morning and prepared for class. But Fielding knows she wouldn't stay that way for long. Jenny is actively decomposing from the inside out, and it was his job to at least temporarily slow that inevitability long enough so she could be put on view two days from now.

The actual preservation he approaches in two stages. The first, known as arterial injection, involves draining the blood from Jenny's circulatory system and replacing it with liquid preservative. The fluid's main ingredient is formaldehyde, a potent, soluble gas that kills bacteria and fortifies tissues against decomposition; it also contains, among other agents, the solvent methanol, phenol (a preservative), and a pinkish dye formulated to stain body tissue to a lifelike tint.

From the cabinet Fielding pulls four sixteen-ounce bottles of a formaldehyde — "formalin" — cocktail and pours them into the threegallon clear tank atop a Portiboy embalming machine. The tank fills with water, cutting the solution, and mixes it for injection into Jenny's artery.

Fielding's preferred injection site is the carotid artery, which lies just below the surface of the skin, along the right side of the neck near the collarbone. On Jenny, he draws a sharp scalpel here, opening a two-inch-long gash that exposes a grayish mass of fat and tissue. Switching scalpel for blunt hook, Fielding probes within the mass until he locates the cream-colored artery; he pulls the vessel to the surface and, slipping a thin file beneath the vessel, secures it. Returning to the cut, he likewise raises and secures the neighboring bluish jugular vein.

An artery and vein now protrude from Jenny's neck. With scalpel in hand, Fielding saws an opening into the tough, rubbery artery and guides the head of a metal tube into it, pointing the head toward the heart. A hose affixed to the tube's free end runs to the Portiboy, whose pressure and flow rate Fielding adjusts for a body that looks to be one hundred twenty-five pounds or so. He then trips the machine to life. With a loud, regular clicking sound, the Portiboy begins to pump pink embalming fluid through the tube into Jenny's artery.

With the machine's relentless force behind it, formalin pushes blood from arteries into veins. Fielding is careful not to dial up the pressure. Excessive pressure can bloat a body within a matter of minutes, making it look fifty pounds heavier. The blood is now building up. To release it, Fielding slices a hole into the raised jugular and into it inserts the shaft of the drain tube, pushing south until the tip banks against the upper chamber of the heart. Brackish blood streams from the tube and spills into the gutter that rims the embalming table. From there it flows into a porcelain basin at the head of the table called a "slop" sink and gurgles down the drain on its way to the city sewer system.

With the Portiboy ticking away, arterial fluid being pumped in, blood being forced out, Fielding begins to vigorously massage Jenny's arms and legs to encourage the flow. A couple of times he stops the massage to attend to blood clots that block up the veins. Some embalmers push down on the chest to dislodge them; Fielding pumps a priming lever on the end of the drain tube. When he does, a few clots plop into the slop sink, looking something like currant jelly. These clots are small. Bigger clots, which resemble, and are called, chicken fat, he sometimes needs to smash by hand to keep them from clogging the drain.

After twenty minutes, three-quarters of a gallon of blood are drained from Jenny, and the dark color in the hose begins to brighten, one sign embalming fluid is filling the girl's circulatory system. A pink, lifelike tinge has returned to Jenny's ashen skin as colored dye trickles into underlying tissue. When Fielding pinches Jenny's now plump fingertips and earlobes, the skin rebounds as it would in life. Fielding shuts down the Portiboy, removes both drain nozzles from vein and artery, and ties off the vessels with surgical thread. He stuffs the knot into the incision, follows it with cotton, and squirts a powdery sealing compound over both. Taking a curved needle threaded with suture, Fielding then closes the wound with a baseball stitch.

In the thumbnail definition of embalming he recited for Jenny's parents, the arterial component he's just completed is all he referenced. What he didn't tell the family, and what he still has to accomplish, is the other vital half of the embalming procedure: the cavity injection.

Arterial embalming preserves Jenny's tissue and skin by creating an unwelcome environment for bacteria. It leaves largely untouched, however, the many billions of bacteria that reside — and thrive — within and around her visceral organs. In the early days of embalming, practitioners eliminated those decay-causing microorganisms by cutting open and "eviscerating" the corpse, pulling out abdominal organs and flushing the cavity (and then, depending on the historical period, repacking them with everything from spices to grain alcohol). The invasive activity, popularly known as "ripping the corpse," remained standard embalming procedure for virtually thousands of years. With the rise of modern embalming in mid- to late-nineteenth-century America, however, the nascent industry devised a more sanitary and, in a sign of the times, efficient strategy for disinfecting the abdominal cavity. Instead of opening and cleaning out the abdomen, embalmers learned to siphon out its contaminants through a single, small hole in the abdomen. The tool they designed specially for the purpose is a long, hollow needle called a trocar.

The slender trocar Fielding holds above Jenny is typical of the variety. It's a narrow, two-foot-long metal tube that runs to a sharp, arrowlike point, with slits to the fore of the shaft. An opening at the other end connects to clear, plastic tubing that hooks to an aspirator, a device on a slop sink's faucet that creates the suction a trocar needs to vacuum up — or "aspirate" — abdominal contents through its slitted shaft and carry them into the sink.

The trocar can be fitted with fresh tips, but Fielding hones the point of his with a small whetstone prior to each embalming. The business end of the trocar has to be sharp enough to pierce the tough abdominal wall and reach the organs. The embalmer's ideal point of entry is a soft spot of flesh two inches to the left and north of the navel. With a practiced probe of fingers, Fielding fixes that spot on Jenny and places the silver tip of the trocar there. And then, grasping firmly, he drives it into her stomach.

Jenny shifts on the table as the trocar enters, and moves in motion as Fielding proceeds to impel the shaft in and around her abdomen. To the outsider, Fielding's thrusting — or "belly punching," as early viewers of the practice described it — appears blind and random. But there's method behind it. Each thrust works to puncture a separate organ — first Jenny's heart, lungs, and stomach, and then colon, intestines, liver, and bladder. With an audible sucking sound, the trocar vacuums up the visceral matter it liberates with each puncture: congested blood, accumulated fluid and gases, fecal matter, urine, the semidigested hamburger and fries Jenny ate for her final dinner, and masses of bacteria. Fielding then sweeps the trocar over and around the perforated organs, sucking up additional cavity content.

As he does, darkened mass passes through the clear hose and splashes into the slop sink. After a couple of minutes, it stops. Fielding then clicks off the aspirator and withdraws the soiled trocar from Jenny's abdomen. (If brain matter had begun leaking from Jenny's nose — a sign of advanced cranial decomposition — Fielding would have inserted a small "infant" trocar or a curved metal hose called a nasal aspirator into her nostril and, pushing up into the cranium, sucked out brain tissue and built-up gases before shutting down. He'd have then injected fluid into the aspirated cranium, and then plugged the nose with cotton to keep fluid from leaking out.)

To preserve and further disinfect the area he's just cleared, Fielding moves to flood it with formaldehyde and phenol. Unlike arterial fluid, the liquid cavity compound is used undiluted; it's so astringent that within seconds of popping the cap off a sixteen-ounce bottle, even Fielding's desensitized eyes water and his nose burns. Through his tears he attaches a fresh length of hose to the bottle, connects the other end of the hose to the trocar, and holds the bottle aloft. Again Fielding drives the trocar into Jenny's stomach, thrusting more slowly now in order to evenly and fully distribute the fluid gravitating from bottle to trocar. After two bottles are drained, he stops. (If Fielding had been working on a male and seen that arterial solution had not reached the genitalia, he would have then inserted the trocar separately into the shaft of the penis and scrotum.)

A pool of cavity fluid bubbles up onto Jenny's stomach as Fielding withdraws the trocar. He flushes it away with cold water. Into the opening he's created he packs fresh cotton, which will allow the escape of any "reaction gases" that form when the embalming fluid mixes with cavity contents.

It's nearly one o'clock. Almost ninety minutes have passed since Fielding first slipped on his plastic gloves and snipped off Jenny's hospital gown. Her embalming is now complete. With a hose that has been running for most of the procedure, Fielding washes Jenny once more, scrubbing off dried blood and shampooing and conditioning her hair. Her body he pats dry with a soft towel, and rubs massage cream into her face and hands to keep them from drying out.

A portable dressing table sits along the far wall of the room. Fielding wheels it over to the prep table and slides Jenny onto it, grasping her by the leg and neck. Formalin has replaced the blood that once coursed through her body, so she weighs about the same as she did prior to embalming. He takes a moment to swab the inside of her nostrils with Nair, to loosen unsightly nasal hairs from their follicles. A white sheet is then draped over her clean body, Fielding positioning the sheet off the nose so the cloth's weight won't flatten the most visible feature on her face.

Fielding could now dress and casket Jenny if he had to. But he prefers to let his cases "firm" when time allows. So he parks Jenny in a corner — she'll hold for a good week now with little change, without the need for refrigeration — cleans the room, and after discarding his protective gear, clicks off the light and shuts the door.

Early Monday morning, the day of Jenny's viewing, Fielding returns to review his work, as he has every day since her embalming. Pulling the sheet off her this morning, he sees that the colored embalming fluid has fully perfused the girl's body, which now glows with a natural-looking hue and is firm to the touch. Except for Jenny's abdomen, which is visibly distended, a textbook sign there's an active pocket of bacteria somewhere in the gut. If he lets it go, the bacteria will continue to proliferate, potentially forcing Jenny to purge. Fielding decides to reaspirate. Transferring Jenny to the embalming table, he pulls out the cotton plug in her abdomen and slips in the trocar. This time the metal tube vacuums up bacteria, gas, and old cavity fluid; afterward, he saturates the area with fresh cavity fluid and stops up the open bore in her stomach for good with a threaded, plastic cone called a trocar button.

Despite the cream he applied, Fielding sees that Jenny's lips have wrinkled in the interim. They're a highly visible focal point, so he elects to "hypo" them back into shape. With a small-gauge needle, he injects a mastic of "tissue builder" into four points along the outer edges of the top and bottom lips. He's careful to inject slowly, working to plump but not bloat the lips. (The few times he's overfilled lips, Fielding has had to cut them open with a scalpel, scrape out excess builder and then glue the lips back together.)

For the last time, Fielding washes and dries Jenny, applies more massage cream to her face and hands, and returns her to the dressing table. The Nair he worked into the nostrils has loosened her nasal hair, which he now wipes out with a cotton ball attached to the end of a pair of forceps. Fielding's not one to use a lot of makeup, and fortunately in this case doesn't have to. Myra has dropped off the daughter's makeup kit, a recent picture of Jenny at the senior prom, a rosary, and her white prom gown. He stipples onto her smooth, shaved face the kit's pinker hues, to raise a blush he believes will complement the rose colors of the casket and her gown; he follows the makeup with light rouge. White baby powder is then dusted on top of that, so the face won't reflect light shining from the lamps she'll be sitting under in the reposing room. Using the prom picture as a guide, Fielding proceeds to darken the eyebrows with pencil and, after mixing a bit of cosmetic oil with her lipstick in the palm of his hand, paints the lips with a fine brush.

Only the face and hands will be visible in the casket. As in life, their color must match — and Jenny's, Fielding plainly sees, do not. Returning to the makeup kit, he brushes more pink onto the backside of the girl's hands, applies the rouge and powder; he then clips, buffs, and cleans beneath her fingernails. The cuticles themselves now look somewhat washed out in contrast to the rest of the hands, so Fielding paints the nails with a light pink polish. And stops. He'll wait until Jenny's lying in state upstairs to make final touch-ups, so he can see just how she looks under viewing room lights.

The prom gown Myra dropped off, he's happy to see, is long-sleeved, saving him the effort of having to cosmeticize her arms for color and to cover over those needle sticks from the hospital. Its neckline swings low, though, exposing the incision he made just above her collarbone when raising blood vessels for the arterial embalming. No worry. He'll cover it with a scarf later on.

Jenny's gown is loose and billowy. But he can't easily slip it onto a body whose arms and hands are locked in place. He'll have to cut the backside out of the gown and work it onto Jenny's frame. Before he does this, Fielding pulls a pair of watertight plastic pants onto the teen and dusts the insides with a deodorizing mold killer. The cotton he packed into Jenny's vagina and anus during the preembalming is usually sufficient to keep smelly discharge from leaking out and spoiling both her clothes and the casket bed for the next two days, but the plastic pants are cheap insurance.

Fielding slips a pair of panties over the pants. A bra and socks follow. On top of the panties he lays a cotton cloth, smoothing Jenny's lap so the dress won't emphasize the contour of her crotch. The gown he now cuts and fits to the girl, places a pink scarf around her neck. Myra had accompanied the dress with a pair of stiff shoes, but they'll only fit her feet if Fielding slits them down the back, which he doesn't do, preferring to place them as is at the far end of the casket. Finally, Fielding returns the gold chain to Jenny's neck and removes the tape that had secured her ring during the embalming.

As Fielding fine-tunes his handiwork, the beautician arrives. They confer on the styling of Jenny's hair, which Fielding asks her to match to the picture he hands over. The beautician sets to work and, after cleaning the embalming table and returning materials to their proper place, Fielding heads upstairs.

Half an hour later he returns, accompanied by an assistant, who helps wheel the Damask Rose casket into the prep room and position it next to the dressing table. The assistant opens the lid, and each man takes one end of the stiffened teen and lifts her off the table and into the casket. After closing the casket, both men roll it out of the room and up a ramp that leads to the receiving room.

When the casket is in place, Fielding opens it and primps the embalmed, dressed, cosmeticized, and coiffed eighteen-year-old for viewing. The pillow below Jenny's head, he sees, is overstuffed, elevating her head at an awkward angle. Fielding cuts a third of the padding from the backside and sets the reshaped pillow beneath her head, now more comfortably positioned.

Jenny's head is already turned fifteen degrees to the right, the side facing mourners. Fielding wants more of her head to show so that her face can be seen clearly as her casket is approached. Using the Damask Rose's cranking mechanism, he raises the mattress bed until Jenny's right shoulder is level with the casket's rim, and then tilts her entire body ever so slightly to the right. He now tucks loose clothing in and around the body, readjusts the scarf, and entwines a rosary in her fingers. Jenny's color is perfect under the lights. With a clean brush, he dusts off makeup that colors a bit of hairline, and combs stray strands of hair back from her face.

Looking down at Jenny, Fielding is satisfied. Under his careful hand, the young girl now looks at rest. In her gentle repose is the "memory picture" he wants her family to leave with, the lasting illusion of a beautiful girl who has slipped quietly, peacefully off to sleep. None of them, of course, will ever know the effort it took to achieve that look.

Resource Guide: The Embalming of Jenny Johnson


Embalming is a three-stage process of preserving a corpse for viewing: setting the deceased's "features" as they will appear in the casket, draining the body of blood and replacing it with a formaldehyde-based preservative, and then inserting a sharp-pointed "trocar" into the abdomen in order to puncture the body's inner organs, vacuum up the released bacteria and surrounding visceral fluids, afterward flooding the "cleared" area with more preservative.

The Laws:

No federal law requires that a body be embalmed. States rarely require it, and then sometimes only when a body is being transported within or across state lines or when the deceased died of a contagious disease.

In the latter case, embalming is sometimes mandated despite the lack of definitive evidence to show that the procedure does, in fact, protect the public from disease a cadaver may harbor. The few studies that examine the public health benefit to embalming show decidedly mixed results, one indicating, for example, that tuberculosis bacilli may remain active in an embalmed corpse. In reviewing the evidence, a 2004 report by the British Institute of Embalmers states that "the disinfectant properties of embalming fluids are unclear." Embalming may, in fact, increase the risk of spreading, not containing, disease, as another British report on communicable diseases suggests, stating: "Opening cadavers infected with tuberculosis is dangerous." Recognizing the potential health hazards, the state of Hawaii prohibits the embalming of a body infected with any of half a dozen communicable diseases, including smallpox and yellow fever.

About half of all states require that a body be preserved if not buried or cremated within a few days of death, but permit methods of preservation other than embalming. Those may include refrigeration or the use of dry ice (or even frozen ice packs that are regularly changed).

That said, a funeral home is under no legal obligation to handle funeral arrangements for an unembalmed body, and may refuse to do so unless the burial/cremation occurs within a short period following the death and no viewing take place.


Funeral homes that own refrigeration units may agree to refrigerate a body and offer an abbreviated public and/or private viewing. They're more likely to agree if the remains present no major trauma.

The funeral director may try to insist on "preparing" an unembalmed, refrigerated body for viewing, which may involve washing, "disinfecting," and dressing the body as well as "normal cosmetic restoration." The latter could include somewhat invasive procedures, such as gluing lips and eyelids closed and the use of eyecaps, among others. Make sure you and the funeral director agree on what exactly he or she will do to "prepare" the body in his or her care.


Expect to pay $200 to $400 for such preparation (in lieu of embalming). Prices for refrigeration vary widely, anywhere from $50 a day to many hundreds of dollars, depending on the willingness of the funeral home to work with unembalmed remains. You'll pay a lot less and afford your dead a multiday wake by holding a funeral in your own home — see chapter six for details.

What You Need to Know:

For a death that occurs in a hospital, Lisa Carlson, author of Caring for the Dead (1998, Upper Access Books), advises families opposed to embalming to ask the staff if they may spend time with the deceased there. The funeral director may even allow families a brief "visit" with their deceased in the funeral home, for a nominal charge (sometimes listed on its price sheet under "private family viewing").

For a death that occurs at home, such as under hospice care, don't rush out to call the funeral director. This is time you may spend with the deceased in the private, quiet setting of your home.

To find funeral directors/providers who understand and are willing to provide families with green burial services (including embalming-free viewings), see the state-by-state list maintained by the Green Burial Council (, click on "Providers").

Embalming restores a lifelike appearance to the deceased. Refrigeration does not, which may only matter if you expect the dead to resemble the living. Copyright © 2007 by Mark Harris

Table of Contents


Part I: Modern Burial 1: The Embalming of Jenny Johnson 2: After the Burial

Part II: Natural Burial 3: Cremation 4: Burial at Sea 5: The Memorial Reef 6: The Home Funeral 7: A Plain Pine Box 8: Backyard Burial 9: The Natural Cemetery

Afterword Acknowledgments Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Educated consumers are taking back control of the funeral experience, saving thousands of dollars with options that are more personal, meaningful, and environmentally-friendly. Mark Harris is a gifted story-teller; Grave Matters will surely provoke much-needed family discussions of these important issues." — Lisa Carlson, author, Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love

"As the researcher for Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death Revisited, I have bookcases filled with nearly twenty years of information on this subject. Not one of those books covers so much, so succinctly and with such grace as this one does. Bravo." — Karen Leonard, director, The Mitford Institute

"Anyone who reads Mark Harris' straight-forward account of Americans who are taking back control of funeral rituals will come away inspired. The families in Grave Matters remind us what funerals are really for. No amount of money, no conspicuous funerary consumption, can buy the satisfaction of honoring our dead in a truly personal way." — Josh Slocum, executive director, Funeral Consumers Alliance

"Here's a practical, helpful book on a subject you've almost certainly given too little thought to. I'd always told my friends to carry my body out back in the woods in a canvas sack — but Mark Harris shows us there may be more creative ways than that to avoid the clutches of the funeral industry and help the earth at the same time." — Bill McKibben, author, Deep Economy

"A well-organized, valuable resource for anyone considering the disposition of their own or their loved one's earthly remains." — Booklist

"Grave Matters contains no-nonsense information that will change everything you thought you knew about funerals and dying in America. Essential and highly recommended." — Tucson Citizen

"A practical and affirming book." — Publishers Weekly

"The one book you should truly read before you die." —

Customer Reviews