A very wise piece on burial.
Touching Death: Mourning Physically through Burial by John Cuddeback
In mid-September of this year my father passed away after a several year decline with dementia.Posted by Jill Fallon at October 10, 2013 2:50 PM | Permalink
With the help and support of family and friends we were able to give him a very special burial — in that we buried him ourselves: opening the earth, setting him in it, and mounding the earth back. The experience was extraordinary, and one I found to be a gift. It was the catalyst for these reflections.
It was all about the earth. Opening it, placing something it, and closing it. Like planting a seed. We started with the assumption that the more we did with our own hands the better. We knew that my father had enough hearty pall-bearers that we could actually carry his casket. With an open casket wake, we knew we could at least put a hand on his breast or hands and feel him dead.
A body deserves to be buried. There is an apparent if somewhat disturbing proximity between human body and earth, as evidenced in the body's relatively quick 'return' to it, fortifying it as a kind of organic soil amendment. Having buried a body — whole or cremated — in earth or sea, we feel we have somehow done what needed to be done for the body. An oft overlooked issue is: have we done what needed to be done for us?
It seems fitting to ask: what kind of burial is good for those left behind? After all, though much of what we do after the death of a person is done for the sake of and in memory of the deceased, the needs of those left behind must also be considered. Prominent among these is surely the need for help in coming to terms with the truth of what has happened. We humans are prone to live in denial, especially of truths that make us uncomfortable. The death of a loved one, with all that it implies, is often just such a truth that we do not want to face.
The discomfort we spare ourselves now we reap later in unresolved sorrow. The Greek word catharsis refers to the release of an emotion that needs to be released. Loved ones of a deceased person stand in need of the cleansing experience of catharsis, and this especially through the fitting expression of sorrow. Though common wisdom speaks of the necessity of mourning, for some reason this wisdom does not seem to affect most of our post-mortem practices.
As we hefted the casket, the tension in the crowd was palpable, and my mother gasped "Dear God." Through my strain I whispered in her direction, "We'll make it Mom. We've got Dad just fine." A brother, three sons, son-in-law, God-son, and two grandsons eased Dad into the ground. And so the final committal was underway.
The prayers were brief. I stepped up to address the hundreds gathered and invite them to join us in backfilling. After the widow and the family, the guests were welcome to come forward and shovel earth in the hole. My brother handed a shovel-full to my mother. Supported by my sister, she dropped the first bit of dirt that would seal the body of her husband of fifty-seven years in the ground. The hollow thud was bracing.
It is very difficult to capture what happened over the course of the next half hour or so. Slowly, surely, the varied group of mourners came forward to do their part. It was as though they were playing a role they had played before — which, as far as we know was not the case: few had ever filled such a large hole and perhaps none had enclosed a coffin.
Everyone seemed to understand and be drawn in. The atmosphere was a unique blend of sorrow, communion, and hope. One young mother, nursling in arm, didn't wait for a shovel, and grabbing a handful of earth tossed in her contribution. Children were as engaged in the filling as they had been in marveling at the hole.
The act of burying is an act of piety that is fitting for the dead. It is also an act of mourning that is fitting for the living. Our fellow-mourners who blessed us with their presence that overcast Saturday afternoon have expressed what a profound experience my father's burial was. I think that we all experienced it as a gift: a gift that rends the heart, giving a healing and closure that lays it open to the consolation of new life beyond the grave.