While traveling in the United States this year, I have seen many cemeteries. Some were old, small, and looked unloved and almost abandoned. Some were large, filled with expensive looking stones, and obviously well-tended. Still others were at best non-descript, seemed to permit only artificial flowers, and looked sad if not embarrassing for the families with loved ones buried there.
Researchers estimate that there are approximately 100,000 cemeteries in the United States, ranging from a low of 30 in Hawaii to more than 12,000 in Tennessee. Size varies enormously, with small cemeteries containing just a few graves to large cemeteries having tens of thousands. As more Baby Boomers enter their seventies and die in growing numbers, the nation will need to dispose of another 76 million bodies.
I suspect that I somewhat unusual in knowing where the graves of more than five generations of my paternal ancestors are buried. More typically, I suspect, I do not know where even one generation of my maternal ancestors are buried.
Against that backdrop, I have found myself ruminating recently about cemeteries and funeral practices.
On the one hand, respecting the body is important. A human is her/his body. Post-death rituals enable some (most?) people to bring healthy closure to their relationship with the deceased. These rituals indirectly exert a positive influence against involuntary euthanasia.
Burying the body in a biodegradable casket returns the body to the earth, echoing the liturgical expression customary at funerals, “dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” Burial probably represents a smaller expenditure of scarce resources than does cremation, because of the energy required to power the incinerator.
On the other hand, some people expend excessive amounts on funerals. In 2010, the average cost of a funeral and burial in the United States, according to the national association of funeral home directors, was $7755. Many families could have spent that money in ways that would have greatly benefitted the living. For example, placing an expensive casket in a non-biodegradable vault – sometimes required by law – does nothing to benefit the deceased or bereaved.
Many contemporary funeral practices, such as the use of padded coffins and vaults, benefit only the funeral industry and reflect mistaken ideas about life after death. Whatever life may follow this one, that new life does not depend upon nor entail reusing this physical body. Nor does a deceased person feel physical pain. So padded, pillowed coffins are, at worse, an opportunity for profit by the funeral industry and, at best, a belated wish by loved ones that the deceased not feel any more pain.
What about the land used for cemeteries? In areas with ample fallow land, using some of it for cemeteries seems perfectly rationale. In areas without ample fallow land, especially in densely populated urban areas, tying up significant amounts of land for gravesites seems to reflect the wrong priorities. For example, parkland is arguably more important than cemetery land. Historically, urbanization led to a growing acceptance and reliance upon cremation.
In England, since cemeteries were often coterminous with churchyards, urbanization also led to “reusing” gravesites, burying the dead from the current century on top of the graves of those who died in previous centuries. Incidentally, locating columbariums in or adjacent to houses of worship continues the ancient practice of burying the dead in or near the church, believed to symbolize the portal to eternal life.
Ironically, given my knowledge of family graves, I never met my paternal grandfather and do not remember my paternal grandmother who died when I was five. I do remember both of my maternal grandparents who died after I had left home and married. What happened is that I spent my childhood in the town where my father’s family had lived for over two hundred years; my mother’s family lived more than a thousand miles away.
To some extent, cemeteries, columbariums, and other markers preserve the memory of deceased persons. But from the scarcity of visitors I observe at those sites, the effect is minimal. Perhaps the most remembered are persons interred with brass markers in English cathedrals and churches that actively promote the sale of rubbings of those markers. In those situations, people really pay attention to the marker and not to the deceased.
For better or worse, knowledge of most individuals rarely survives the death of those who knew the person (friends, children, perhaps grandchildren, and other family members). The very rare exceptions to that generalization are people about whom historians write, artists painted, or authors recorded stories.
Christianity emphasizes care for the living, not for the dead. Therefore, Christian burial practices will emphasize sanitary, respectful disposal of deceased bodies at a reasonable cost and in ways that make good use of land, energy, and other natural resources.