Our Last Best Act
Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love
By Mallory McDuff
Broadleaf Books, pp. 211, $18.99

Review by Douglas LeBlanc

In a brisk and inquisitive style, Mallory McDuff confronts a question we all must face: What should be done with our body after we die? For many people, the answer may be as simple as whatever the nearest funeral home recommends, or what family custom favors. But in a culture of vastly increased mobility, in which many people live hundreds of miles away from their hometown for decades, the likelihood of being buried in a family plot has diminished.

Funeral homes no longer enjoy their onetime role as unquestioned experts on best choices. Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death helped expose the loathsome practice of pressuring grieving families to measure their love for the deceased by the astronomical expenses of an elaborate casket.

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McDuff raises fair and legitimate questions about the long-dominant American tradition of embalming a body, placing it within a casket of wood and metal, and surrounding the casket with a concrete vault that assures a level ground for lawn mowers.

She explores a wide variety of alternatives: green burial, cremation, aquamation, human composting, and above-ground decomposition. That last method is available to those who live near the rare “body farms” run by universities that study how bodies decay when left to nature, red in tooth and claw.

McDuff teaches environmental education at the historically Presbyterian Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. Resisting climate change dominates her criteria for choosing among these options, so that cremation is less harmful than embalming, and aquamation (which uses lye, hot water, and pressure) is less harmful than cremation.

The book’s greatest weakness is its neglect of what Christian theology has to contribute to these considerations. Consider aquamation, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose. McDuff writes that families could “take the liquid — also called ‘essence’ — and use it as a fertilizer in a garden, due to the salts, sugars, and amino acids remaining. Otherwise, the fluid could go down the drain.”

That passage is chillingly matter of fact, considering that it describes a former body (the skeleton remains) either becoming a utilitarian object or flowing into a sewer. The biblical doctrines of imago Dei and the physical resurrection of the dead merit consideration, but they receive none.

As a practical guide to how your burial will affect climate change, Our Last Best Act does its job commendably. But as a book written by an Episcopalian and published by a Lutheran imprint, it fails to engage with important Christian questions of ethics, human dignity, and the meaning of death.

Douglas LeBlanc, copy editor of The Living Church, lives near Charleston, South Carolina.

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Ben Lima
1 month ago

Fascinating – thank you. It’s striking to me that Frances Knight argues that the rise of cremation is intimately linked to a decline in the belief in literal hellifre: “Historically, the burning of the dead and the scattering of their remains had been the fate meted out to suspected witches and heretics, which meant that burning and scattering had strong associations with the punishment of the wicked. … A decline in a literal belief in hell among many (although by no means all) Anglicans and Free church people gradually made the action of fire and flames seem less symbolically worrisome….There… Read more »