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Touching Death: Mourning Physically through Burial

Justin K Thomas/USN

John Cuddeback - Front Porch Republic - published on 11/29/13

Our loved one’s body is in fact going back to the elements from which it was formed. Any realistic facing of death must reckon with this fact. But if current post-mortem practices are any indication, we are not taking a realistic view of death. We are bent on not seeing, and even more not touching the element that most directly speaks of death.

So earth is covered with astroturf, and thus often neither seen nor touched. Let alone moved. The natural tendency of the earth to collapse into the coffin is stayed by a concrete vault into which the coffin is settled. And beyond the occasional handfuls of dirt sent into the vault at the burial, we are not invited to close the earth over our loved one. But perhaps closure is important to closure.

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.

The common emphasis on ‘celebrating the life’ of the deceased can in practice both invalidate the need and remove the occasions for mourning. We are coached and coaxed to look on the bright side, and then when it is all over we find ourselves ill-prepared to face life without the deceased. We know we need to mourn, but we deprive ourselves of many of the best contexts for mourning. Such as an open-holed, dirt-moving burial.

Some years after my grandmother’s burial I found myself wondering: why did we leave Grandmother hovering over the ground? I could not shake the feeling that we had failed to bring to completion what we had begun. Something was missing, and for years I wondered if and how the next burial could be different.

It was perhaps the echo of this question combined with a yearning to comprehend, to get our hands around our father’s death, that moved us siblings to do something different with Dad. Perhaps really to face the separation of body and soul, we needed not to separate body from soul in our mourning. Following our hearts, we were surprised by burial, and given the gift to grasp death in a new way.

The Shenandoah Valley is blessed with people who are still connected to the earth in enough ways that help was at hand for those wanting to bury a loved one in his own soil and by as much of their own labors as possible. Our inability to dig through shale by hand could have been very discouraging. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for it brought into the picture our old friend Bill Mantz. Bill had been secretly wishing, though he didn’t want to put himself forward, to dig the hole for Dad with his backhoe. “John, I’m gonna think of your dad smiling as I dig that hole.” My son Nicholas and I joined Bill at the site and were ready with shovel in hand in case we were needed for anything. As the bucket scraped away the earth, and then shale, I had occasion to begin to reckon with burial. How deep do we need to go? Just what dimensions does it need to be for Dad’s casket? Through sights, sounds, touches, and movements I was coming face to face with the reality of the last goodbye.

Closing Up and Closure

After the funeral Mass we arrived with the hearse at the cemetery. We had made clear to the funeral director at Maddox Funeral Home that we wanted to lower Dad into the ground ourselves. We were grateful that they did not think this odd, or at least were too discrete to let on.  In fact, they indicated this was a very doable task, and were calm, effective coaches.

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