Warren Wilson professor discusses new book on end-of-life choices and climate change

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Warren Wilson professor Mallory McDuff discussed her new book "Our Last Best Act," her research into environmentally friendly burials and changing the campus cemetery contract.

Warren Wilson professor of outdoor leadership Mallory McDuff discussed her new book "Our Last Best Act," a look at sustainable end-of-life practices with climate change in mind, and her yearlong process to revise the college's cemetery contract. 

"I took this one year journey to revise my own final wishes by keeping climate change and community in mind," McDuff said. "We have a diversity of different options that most people don't know about."

The idea for the book came about through McDuff's parents' early deaths, motivating her to look into other options aside from cremation or traditional burial.

From conservation cemeteries to body donation at places such as Western Carolina University to aquamation, a form of cremation using water and lye, McDuff thoroughly looked into each practice, her story culminating in a discussion with the Warren Wilson Board of Trustees to change the school's cemetery requirement for vaults during burial.

"A vault is a concrete box the size of a gravesite," McDuff said. "In conventional burial, it rests in the grave, primarily for landscaping so that it's easy to mow." 

McDuff became engaged in a debate with the cemetery trustee, Ray Stock, a man who'd been mowing the campus cemetery for years. She said he was adamant that the contract would not change, but in a special meeting with a few other trustees that McDuff was unable to attend, it was agreed that vaults would no longer be required. 

It took a year of advocacy, but McDuff was finally successful.

A month later, Stock died. His family set up a fund to maintain the Warren Wilson cemetery in his name. 

McDuff said roughly 50% of people in the U.S. are cremated, a number expected to rise to 80% in the next three years.

With her background in environmental education, McDuff realized the fossil fuel requirements for cremation, the funeral she had imagined for herself. Locally and throughout the region, McDuff said she soon found a multitude of different alternatives.

"Most people think burial or cremation, but what I discovered in this research is there's a lot more options out there," McDuff said. 

McDuff said "Our Last Best Act" is available locally at Malaprop's Bookstore or online on Amazon.