Mallory McDuff is a university environmental educator who believes individuals should consider the planet’s climate crisis as well as their loved ones when deciding what to do with their bodies when they die.
She tells her story both earnestly and humorously in “Our Last Best Act: Planning For The End Of Our Lives To Protect The People And Places We Love”, published by Broadleaf Books in 2021 and now in its second printing.
The professor from Warren Wilson College outside Asheville, North Carolina, will discuss the book in a public lecture at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24 at Ascension Episcopal Church, 800 S. Northshore Drive. The Right Reverend Brian Cole, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee, will participate in the discussion and lead a question-and-answer session. Union Avenue Books will be on hand to sell copies.
“The title of the book came from a conversation we had,” McDuff said in an interview, referring to Cole. The two knew each other in Asheville, where Cole previously served as assistant dean at All Souls Cathedral, among other positions.
Cole is featured in the book as one of three people she mentioned in “Gratitude” as “close friends and readers for their generosity and humor”. She also references him in several chapters as she goes on a journey to decide what she wants to do with her body when she dies so her two daughters aren’t left to make the decision. She writes that Cole helped her frame the decision in larger terms.
“How should we die to heal ourselves and the planet? he asked. “How are we going to live beyond our death? We talk about resurrection in times of climate crisis. We know the planet will probably survive, but maybe not. The legacy we leave with our death will impact generations to come.
McDuff’s previous writings in books and essays focused on religious communities dealing with climate change. She has visited more than 50 congregations across the country with her two children and taken steps to install solar panels on shrines, respond to disasters and get rid of fossil fuels.
She wrote her last book after the death of her father, who had left instructions on how he wanted to be buried. It marked her. Another influence has been her own environment, where she teaches at Warren Wilson College in southern Appalachia. She lives on campus in a rental house, which she described as having “a much wider view than I could ever afford.”
His book discusses various practices for funeral and burial options, some new. They include green burials, cremation, aquamation, conservation cemeteries, home funerals, and human composting. Ties to Tennessee in the book include the Body Farm, part of the University of Tennessee Center for Forensic Anthropology, and a conservation cemetery, Larkspur, outside of Nashville.
Aquamation is a choice considered a greener alternative to cremation. In an interview, Cole mentioned it was the funeral choice of former South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu after his death in December. “It is fitting to know a world-class person” like Tutu, known as a human rights activist who was also an environmentalist, he said.
Aquamation is a water-based process whose scientific name is “alkaline hydrolysis”, sometimes called flameless cremation.
The funeral option that includes embalming and interment in lined coffins is not only the most expensive, but does the least for the environment, the book says.
One point McDuff emphasized the most is the need for proper documentation for everything you need in your life through to final plans. She suggested people get copies of a death certificate and complete personal information that includes the name of the county in which they were born. It’s a detail that family members wouldn’t necessarily know, she said.
She also said it’s important to write down what you want to do — “type it out” — and talk about the roadmap with family members. She included her death plan in the book, addressed to her daughters, Maya and Annie Sky.
And she wants Brian Cole to deliver the homily at All Soul Episcopal Church in Asheville “(or wherever I worship at the time).”
Georgiana Vines is a retired associate editor of News Sentinel. She can be contacted at [email protected]