On burying the dead

Tonight I will be at a wake, a family service, for a younger relative who has died only a few months after a diagnosis of inoperable cancer. Tomorrow I will attend the funeral proper, which promises to be a big event involving not only many friends and church members but also a large contingent of students from the school where he was teaching. Both commemorations, I am sure, will be dignified if very emotional occasions.

My nephew’s family are religious people, believing that “life is changed, not taken away” by death. He died at home and they have kept watch over his body there for several days. When they and others accompany it to the cemetery for burial tomorrow, they will have done all they can to express their esteem and gratitude for all that he was to them in the body, and their respect for the body itself. I have been impressed once again during these past few days by the dignity of a corpse, even one that has been ravaged by sickness, and understand why humans have always treated their dead with special reverence and solemnity.

Until now. Many funerals leave me feeling uneasy about current trends -- not only the multiplication of eulogies with their often excruciating mixture of tragedy and levity, spirituality and banality, but even more the treatment of the body itself. Too often the funeral ends before the end, with the coffin sinking through the floor of the mortuary chapel or being carried off in the hearse with only the funeral director for company, while the assembly departs for refreshments.

Admittedly, there is little more one can do when the service is held at the crematorium, although a funeral director tells me that Asian people tend to insist on seeing the coffin right “to the fire”. But it is the church services that terminate with the body being sent off to the crematorium alone that I struggle to understand. Don’t Christians believe that the body shares in the dignity of the human being “made in the image of God” and through Baptism was a temple of the Holy Spirit? Don’t we want to accompany the remains of our beloved to the last possible moment? To grasp the opportunity to think about the great mystery that we all have to pass through?

An article in the New York Times a couple of days ago expresses very well what we are missing in our “thinned-out ceremonies”. Theology professor Thomas G Long writes:

A corpse is a stark reminder that human beings are inescapably embodied creatures, and that a life is the sum of what has been performed and spoken by the body — a mixture of promises made and broken, deeds done and undone, joys evoked and pain inflicted. When we lift the heavy weight of the coffin and carry the dead over the tile floor of the crematory or across the muddy cemetery to the open grave, we bear public witness that this was a person with a whole and embodied life, one that, even in its ambiguity and brokenness, mattered and had substance. To carry the dead all the way to the place of farewell also acknowledges the reality that they are leaving us now, that they eventually will depart even from our frail communal memory as they travel on to whatever lies beyond.

Personally, I am for the muddy cemetery, like the one where half my family lies buried and which is a perfect reminder that the Lord God fashioned man from clay, to which we shall return. People today are always seeking “closure” of their personal tragedies. I fail to see, though, how one can close the chapter of bereavement by avoiding the dead body as systematically as we are encouraged to do now. Somehow, the “celebration of the life” of our “loved one” with biographies, anecdotes and a few anodyne references to the next life does not do it; not at all.

It is not only the body that lies in death that we avoid, however. Distaste for death affects our attitude to the living who are sick or frail. Think of all those who eke out their last years in nursing homes, rarely visited by relatives who cannot imagine what good it would do when mother, granddad or auntie “doesn’t even know who we are” and, really, is already “gone from us” in all that made them a person. This attitude is so wrong and heartless that it makes me want to weep. It makes others, however, want to hasten the end.

We should not be surprised that squeamishness about death goes hand in hand with the campaign to make it an easy and attractive consumer item. The paradox is only apparent; what both trends have in common is a refusal to accept the reality of the body -- not the one that we have controlled and shaped according to our own desires, but the one that we cannot control, only accept, with all its mysterious beauty and frailty.

“People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living,” says Professor Long. I couldn’t agree more.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.


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