One fine spring morning, Phillip Sheridan and his two siblings walked a path through a nature preserve in upland South Carolina. Dappled sunlight showed through the tree canopy; the woods were lively with wildflowers and birdsong. An electric cart followed behind the group, pulling a small trailer carrying a plain pine box containing the remains of their mother, who had died suddenly the previous weekend in California.
At her grave, the siblings and a few friends lifted the simple casket and carried it to a neatly spaded rectangular hole in the earth with the region’s iron-red soil mounded alongside.
“We opened the casket, and my mother had been wrapped in a white shroud,” says Sheridan. “Her body had not been embalmed, her bottom dentures were missing, she had no makeup on at all—and she looked stunning. I don’t know how to explain it. She had been dead five days, preserved only by refrigeration and dry ice, and still she looked gorgeous—better than anyone embalmed I had ever seen.”
After reading letters they had each written, the siblings lowered the casket into the hole, and then they and their friends took turns shoveling dirt onto it. When they finished, they carefully restored the topsoil and leaf litter set aside in the digging. “We walked down to the creek and washed the crimson soil from our hands and faces,” says Sheridan.
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