After her parents’ sudden deaths, Dr. Mallory McDuff took a one-year journey to revise her final wishes with climate change and community in mind. What she discovered about sustainable end-of-life practices changed not only her death plans, but also her life and her wider community.

By Mallory McDuff, Ph.D., Director of Environmental Education and Professor of Environmental Studies and Outdoor Leadership

This story was originally published in the 2022 Owl & Spade Magazine

Life From Death

I almost canceled our field trip to the cemetery.

In the cold, drizzling rain, one student arrived to class wearing Crocs without socks. It was the end of the semester in early December—the students had papers to write, and I had papers to grade. But I wanted my Environmental Education students to witness firsthand how death isn’t only a personal loss. The way we take our leave of this Earth has consequences for the climate and communities.

So I unlocked the van, and the students piled in, the last one riding shotgun. In preparation, they had read an essay about Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, the conservation burial ground we were visiting that day in the nearby town of Mills River. That chilly afternoon, we walked past the mounded graves as Director of Cemetery Operations Cassie Barrett ’08 shared stories of the dead and explained the ecological restoration of the wetland around us. For my book, Our Last Best Act, I would later volunteer at this cemetery where the land is protected from development in perpetuity through conservation easements with a local land trust.

Unlike conventional cemeteries, conservation burial sites look like nature preserves, with walking trails and native plants, rather than manicured grass and concrete vaults underground. During our tour, I scanned our group for signs of hypothermia, just in case. We gathered in a circle after returning to the van, and one student spoke up: “Today has been the most I’ve talked about death and dying in a long, long time.”

Their responses on the final exam revealed even more detail: “I lost two really important people since coming to college,” one wrote. “I wished that I could have buried my grandfather and my best friend in a similar place to this. It turns something painful into something beautiful and alive. It broadened my understanding of how important the land can be, in this case as a way to honor the deceased.”

An Exploration Propelled by Sudden Loss

In ways I couldn’t have predicted, my students and the College became an integral part of Our Last Best Act, the story of my one-year journey to revise my final wishes with climate change and community in mind. This narrative in Western North Carolina evolved within a national and even global movement for more sustainable end-of-life choices in a warming world. Within that context, I looked for answers to the question: What can I do to align my values in life with my eventual death?

It was my parents’ sudden deaths in my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, which prompted my exploration. One month after my mother, 58, was hit and killed by a teen driver while she was cycling, my father gathered his adult children to read the two-page directives for his own funeral: a pine casket, shovels so that young and old could close the grave, and his bluegrass gospel band at the cemetery, playing timeless tunes like “I’ll Fly Away.” He wanted what would become known as a green or natural burial, without embalming or a vault to line the grave and using biodegradable materials, much like at the conservation cemetery.

“I’d like to make my own casket,” he told us, “But I’ve asked my friend Jeff to build it if I can’t for some reason.” The level of detail felt oppressive to me. If I leaned toward Type A, my father was a solid A+. But I figured this planning, akin to his preparation for thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, was his way of grieving after the loss of his lifelong hiking partner, his wife.

“We’ll do everything on the list,” I said, assuming a time frame in the distant future.

Two years later, however, I got a call from my sister while I was cooking dinner in my 900-square-foot duplex, where I live on campus with my two daughters with a view of the White Barn and Night Pasture.

The unthinkable had happened. Biking to the farm where he volunteered, my father, 63, had been hit by a teen driver and killed.

The time had come to use his plan. In my shock, those details both grounded and propelled me. At the local funeral home, my sister and I lifted his body, wrapped in my mom’s linens, into the pine casket. After an overnight vigil at our Episcopal church, the friend who built the casket drove it in the back of his pick-up truck to the neighborhood cemetery, where my oldest daughter and her cousins helped to shovel dirt into the grave to the tune of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

From Aquamation to Body Composting

Fast forward 15 years: I hadn’t looked at my own final wishes for cremation since my children were young. I found the documents in a filing cabinet in my bedroom. I had forgotten about the post-funeral party I’d planned with beer and barbecue from Okie Dokies, a nearby restaurant that promises “swine dining.” Flame cremation had seemed an affordable and accessible choice, both appealing factors for me as a single mother teaching at Warren Wilson College.

But since I’d documented my directives, my children had grown from toddlers to teens on this campus, and my hair had turned a soft gray like my mother’s. During that time, I’d learned about more sustainable choices for our bodies after death, such as Carolina Memorial Sanctuary.

The choices, it turns out, are more diverse than simply burial versus cremation. During my one-year journey, I interviewed funeral directors about aquamation, a form of cremation available in 22 states that uses water and lye, rather than the fossil fuels needed for flame cremation. Indeed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu chose aquamation for his body before he died in late 2021.

In addition, I spent time at the forensics osteology lab of the body farm at Western Carolina University, where individuals can donate their bodies for the study of decomposition. (In contrast, body donation to medical research often requires embalming.) Research at Western Carolina actually contributed to the science behind body composting developed by the company Recompose in Seattle, Washington. This process, also called human composting or natural organic reduction, is approved in Washington State, Oregon, Colorado, and Vermont, with initiatives to introduce the practice in other states. With the help of local death-care providers, I attended home funerals, interviewed end-of-life doulas, and explored local options for green burial.

Most importantly perhaps, I talked about each choice with my daughters, especially my youngest Annie Sky, who was 14 at the time. My older daughter was studying at Berea College in Kentucky. “You want to put your naked body on the ground and let students study it decomposing?” Annie Sky asked when I returned from my visit to the body farm. “No thank you!”

Advocacy for Green Burials at the Warren Wilson Cemetery

The biggest surprise I discovered during my research was less than a mile from my house, a burial site I had not visited in the 20 years I’d lived on campus: the Warren Wilson Cemetery. I had run almost every day on the campus trails and driven past the graves where so many of our College leaders were buried. Since the tombstones lie flat to the ground, it was easy to miss the small cemetery adjacent to the pastures where cows often graze. This seemed like a perfect spot—on land so close to my home—but I didn’t know if green burial was allowed there.

The Rev. Dr. Steve Runholt, Pastor of the Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church, took me on my first official tour on a bright blue summer morning when the air smelled fresh like earth. When we arrived, I saw three older men, the Presbyterian Trustees of the cemetery, including Ray Stock—a retired Math Professor who’d maintained the grounds for years, he told me, because he’d owned a lawn mower. The Church owns and manages the small burial ground on campus.

The three Trustees, Ray, Bill Sanderson, and John Laney, were digging a small hole for an interment of ashes that would take place the next day. As we chatted, I learned that the cemetery required concrete vaults, whose primary purpose is to keep the ground level for landscaping. Yet there hadn’t been a burial of a body in at least five years, according to Steve, as more than half of the U.S. population now chooses flame cremation.

As Ray could recall, the only recent burial without a vault had been Sheriff Disu ’06, a Muslim student I had known who’d been buried in a shroud following Islamic religious beliefs. And so began my campaign—sometimes a dialogue, often a debate—between me and Ray, whose loyalty to the way things had been done meant he wasn’t changing the cemetery contract on his watch.

At his house, he showed me the yellow poster board with the names of those who’d purchased plots. But he wasn’t convinced about the efficacy of removing the requirement for vaults, which meant a green burial wasn’t possible.

Seeking an Exception

I didn’t intend for this story to end on a Zoom call with four men, but that’s what happened. During our past discussions, I’d asked the cemetery Trustees for a one-time exemption to the requirement for a vault, based on my religious belief as an Episcopalian to care for creation.

“You’ve got quite a man cave there, Bill,” Steve said, as we gathered for our virtual meeting with the Trustees during the first pandemic summer of lockdown. The background behind this retired science teacher was a compound bow, antlers, and books. Bill’s wife Diana worked as the Archivist at the College Library at the time.

“Here comes John,” said Bill, as a black box appeared on the screen.

“We can’t see you, John, but you can hear us!” Steve said. “Wait, here’s Ray!” We could see him but not hear him.

“Unmute your mic, Ray!” Steve said, while I had gut-wrenching flashbacks to online teaching that spring.

After Steve began the meeting, I summarized my request for an exemption and answered questions about maintenance of the grounds without a vault. In conservation burial sites such as Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, the land isn’t mowed, but the Warren Wilson Cemetery needed landscaping, much like the local cemetery where my parents were buried without vaults.

After almost an hour of questioning, we’d established that Sheriff’s gravesite had not required additional maintenance, even without the vault, but Ray was not budging. As the elder at age 86, he seemed to hold the decision-making power. We’d come to an impasse when Steve suggested we let the committee convene for their deliberations.

“Why don’t we go to the cemetery to talk about it,” said Bill. “We could keep our distance.”

To my surprise, Ray chimed in. “I could go right now,” he said.

“I gotta get my shoes on!” said John, from his black box.

As soon as I closed my laptop, Steve called me at home.

“Ray’s never going to approve a green burial,” I said.

“There are cemeteries that are more inclusive and accepting of different spiritual practices,” he said. “It’s just sad we’re not one of them yet.”

The next day, I got a voicemail from Steve: “The Trustees made a decision,” he said. “They actually voted not to grant a one-time exemption.”

I sighed, disappointed, until he continued. “But they voted to change the policy. The committee is going to allow natural burial for those who want to minimize their environmental impact in the Warren Wilson Cemetery. This is the right thing to do. It’s right for our community.”

Then he took a deep breath: “You are good to go, as it were! And when I say ‘good to go,’ I mean that figuratively, of course.”

Matters of Life, Death, and Earth

About a month later, Steve emailed me with sobering news: Ray had taken a precipitous downturn due to cancer. He wasn’t expected to make it to the end of the week. It was the end of that first summer of the pandemic. My daughters and I had barely left campus. The 2020 election loomed. While I worried about Ray, I also wondered if the unofficial database of the cemetery—that yellow poster board—might get lost in his house. But Ray had asked the College Archivist to digitize the names and plots to preserve the information, even as we transitioned to burial practices that were better for this valley.

Weeks later, I learned Ray had been the Trustee to propose changing the policy during that pandemic meeting at the burial grounds, in an unexpected plot twist that surprised us all. Soon after his death, his family set up a fund in his name to maintain the Warren Wilson Cemetery.

Cassie, the Director at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, and I began to brainstorm about our shared vision of training students in green burial practices as a way of expanding their skills to protect the land on campus and beyond. Our students should recognize the diversity of options—aquamation, green burial, human composting, body farms, home funerals—as more sustainable end-of-life decisions and as a growing movement with jobs that steward the land and communities. Indeed, one of my former students, Ben Gordon ’19, now works at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary as a land steward.

In the beginning of this story, as I took my students to the conservation burial ground, I’d asked, “What can I do?” But in the end, the bigger question became, “What can we do together?” The people and the places of Warren Wilson College, once again, taught me more than I’d imagined about matters of life, death, and Earth.

This essay has been adapted from Our Last Best Act: Planning for the End of Our Lives to Protect the People and Places We Love by Mallory McDuff (2021, Broadleaf Books)

Copies of Dr. Mallory McDuff’s book are available through local Asheville retailer Malaprop’s Bookstore.

This story was originally published in the 2022 Owl & Spade Magazine