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Touching Death: Mourning Physically through Burial

Justin K Thomas/USN
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When my father died, 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.

In mid-September of this year my father passed away after a several year decline with dementia. 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.

But I wondered whether we could involve our whole selves in burying him: digging a hole, lowering a wooden casket into the bare earth, and asking our fellow mourners to return the earth to make Dad’s mound.  Digging the hole by hand turned out to be unrealistic; or in any case it is unrealistic in our part of the Shenandoah Valley where close under the topsoil lie ridges of shale. Yet in the end we were very satisfied with how our own bodies and hearts were able to be involved in our soul and mind’s mourning process.

Opening the Earth

I vividly remember going to my first wake as a very young child. My father and I flew to New York City where his uncle had died suddenly of a heart attack while shoveling snow.  Uncle Alfred was laid out in a grey suit engulfed in the scent of the surrounding roses. It was the first time I had seen a dead human body, and the smell of roses often brings back the image. But I have no recollection of the burial. None.

We call a phase of today’s funeral process “the burial,” but the reality is that for the most part it is experienced as graveside prayers, with the hole carefully masked with astroturf, and the tools of burial parked at an awkward distance, neither quite nearby, nor utterly hidden.  In my experience of these burials, nobody is actually buried.

Of the many wakes, funerals and burials I have attended, one that most stands out in my mind is that of my paternal grandmother. I have an image of her coffin suspended over a hole in the ground. I know it is a hole in the ground, though I did not see any soil, or digging or backfilling. And I trust that my grandmother’s body was lowered into that hole, though evidence I have none. That image of the suspended coffin is my last of the burial, followed by an image of the gravesite as visited months or years later.

Through the years I have seen perhaps a coffin or two lowered into the ground, eased by crank and ratchets operated by professionals. I had never had the privilege of witnessing the digging that opens the earth, nor the backfilling that closes it.
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. Often even if we want to, we find that we just can’t get our minds, or arms, around it.

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