Grave, by Allison C. Meier
I read this book via NetGalley. It’s out on Feb 9, 2023.
As long as these are being published by Bloomsbury Academic, I will keep reading these. (… there’s a joke here relating to the subject matter of this book, but I won’t go there.)
For a book about graves, this book isn’t morbid at all. Which is exactly the tone that I would expect from this series. It takes graves, and the reason for graves, seriously; but it doesn’t dwell morosely on the idea of death. Nor does it romanticise it. Instead, this is a thoughtful and engaging examination of burial practises – particularly in post-colonisation North America – and how and why they’ve changed. That time and place is important to note; while various global practises are mentioned, like the very earliest burials known and Tibetan sky burials and others, this is focused on one specific place and time. And that’s fair: this is a short book! It’s not meant to be an all-encompassing tome. I guess this could be seen as a snapshot of a place that has changed a lot in terms of its ethnic makeup over the last few centuries, that has (for better or worse) often been seen as leading the way in innovation, as well as sometimes dragging its heels on change (hello metric system). So it’s a useful way of getting a glimpse at one history of grave practises.
The author is someone who has led cemetery tours and has done a lot of thinking about what graves and burial practises mean. I learnt surprising things: like, in the USA, it’s quite standard for a body to be embalmed before burial in a coffin. I’m pretty sure that’s not standard in Australia (I just looked up one undertaker group; embalming is an optional extra). A sobering aspect was the history of unmarked graves, and segregation within cemeteries (a relatively new word, apparently!) – I know at least some old general cemeteries in Victoria are, or were, Catholic/Protestant separated (and different areas for Chinese dead, especially in goldrush areas and I guess there must be a few towns with small, historical, Jewish sections?). I most enjoyed the fact that there are new practises being developed. I had already learnt of ‘water cremation’ (yes, it’s a nonsensical term), which is far more eco friendly than the standard creation; but ‘natural burial’ – like a pine coffin that degrades quickly – and other more environmental options are just going to be increasingly necessary. We already have issues with perpetual leases on graves…
Anyway, this is yet another excellent entry into this series. I loved it and continue to look forward to more.