Burial Customs and the Search for Faith
Warning: This post contains some blunt descriptions about death and what happens to our bodies afterwards. In the context of today’s holiday it may be an uncomfortable topic for some.
While the official meaning of Memorial Day is an honoring of our military dead the unofficial observance of Memorial Day has long been an occasion to visit the graves of departed family members, regardless of whether they served or not. Like many adults, my childhood was marked with trips to several cemeteries with my grandmother on Memorial Day where we would place flowers on the graves of her parents and my grandfather and later my own father. This was a carry-over from the old Decoration Day holiday that proceeded Memorial Day. To be quite honest I didn’t really know that the holiday was intended to only observe military dead until I was well into my 30s.
Because of my childhood obsession with archaeology and my later career path I have always been fascinated with the burial process itself. I spent countless hours in my youth reading old copies of National Geographic and staring at photos of graves from various sites around the world. I have lost count of how many books I have read on the subject of burial customs. It has been a topic I have thought about often. This culminated in 2002 when I was involved with the removal of the Old Frankfort Cemetery in our state capital. During that time we excavated the remains of 242 individuals in a cemetery that had been lost in the historical record.
Spending hours upon hours laying on the side of an exposed grave, using dental picks and small trowels to carefully expose the skeletons of people who had been buried for nearly 200 years, will give you a unique perspective on death and burial. One of the things that struck me as most obvious is how much more dignified the bodies were in their state of decay as compared to modern burials. All of the subjects that we exhumed had been buried in simple wooden coffins. The coffins had disintegrated long before but in many of the graves we could see a faint green stain in the soil from the decomposition of the nails and the stain would indicate the shape of the coffin (usually hexagonal as was common in the 19th century). The graves were often lined with slabs of limestone and covered by another large slab. In many cases this was enough to protect the grave from collapse as the body decomposed naturally. What was left were clean skeletons with no trace of any other biological materials.
The natural decomposition of bodies in the Old Frankfort Cemetery represented for me a clear contrast to more modern burials. While I have never participated in the exhumation of a metal coffin, one of my professors had extensive experience with these types of burials and his descriptions were unpleasantly vivid. Even in 19th century burials, the use of a metal coffin (usually cast iron) was so effective in halting the natural process of decomposition that exhumations often reveal remains that are still ‘squishy’. If a modern casket with gaskets is exhumed what will often be found is a body that has essentially liquefied in it’s own bacteria. Knowing what I do now it’s hard not to think about this when visiting the graves of my relatives, all buried in modern metal coffins and vaults.
In today’s eco-friendly world there is a growing movement of people who are looking for a more natural burial method. While the funeral industry still sells millions of modern caskets per year, ‘green burials’ in biodegradable wooden coffins are becoming more common. Even more popular today is the choice of cremation (more on this later). Most of the people my own age who have shared their thoughts on the subject have told me they have chosen cremation and I have been to a few funerals in recent years where the deceased remains were not displayed in a coffin but instead resided in an urn on a pedestal.
This brings me to the ‘faith’ part of this post. Over the years, as my own beliefs have changed I have struggled with the thought of my loved ones who are departed and if I will ever see them again. I am not an atheist but I am agnostic about the idea of Heaven. I don’t have the answers for what the afterlife might look like and as much as I would like to believe there is a place where I will be reunited with those people, I could just as easily join some cosmic pool of energy with no consciousness. Or maybe the atheists are correct and when I am gone there is simply nothing.
After my father died in 1996 we made a point to visit his grave on a semi-regular basis. I looked for some sort of connection to him every time I was there and despite my desire to feel his presence it became increasingly clear that I would not find it at his grave. As time passed I visited with less and less frequently and as of this writing I have not been there in about six years. What I was fortunate to find though was an alternative way of connecting. My dad left behind a treasure trove of tools, guns and various other artifacts that are dear to me. Just this past weekend my nephew carried my father’s rifle while hunting with me. When I told him that it had belonged to his grandfather, who he never knew, I could see the recognition in his eyes. When I am building something in my garage with my dad’s tools, I feel his presence always. At times, uncertain how to proceed on a project, I have asked for my dad’s guidance and usually find it. Skeptics might say this is simply me taking time to think through a problem but I choose to believe something different.
Despite the fact that my father’s grave is not a place where I feel any real emotions, there is a part of me that is comforted in knowing it is there. As I have written about many times before, a sense of Place is important. It’s why I write about my home state so often and why I need there to be a location where my father’s remains rest. This recognition has recently made me think about planning for my own remains. Not long ago I had a grand vision of being cremated and my ashes being sprinkled on one of my favorite streams. I have also joked that maybe I should just be left in the woods somewhere so the animals I have hunted can do what they will with my remains. The problem with this is that I would lose my Place.
My wife and I have discussed the subject at length and for us we have decided we want to have a grave for ourselves, somewhere we can be together and maybe future generations (and our daughters) can visit when they feel the need. We have chosen the cemetery, historic Cave Hill, where several of my distant ancestors are interred. As much as I love the farms and forests where I spend so much of my time, those all exist outside our county and Louisville is home. The choice now is how to lay our bodies to rest. Cremation remains the best option but I am pushing hard for a green burial. The problem will be convincing the cemetery and my wife.
On this Memorial Day it seems natural to think about life and death and everything connected to that. For me the spiritual informs the present and vice versa. When I put the resting place of my relatives and myself into that equation it seems what is most important is to maintain that connection with them and to consider a final resting place for myself that is consistent with my own beliefs.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.