Tuesday, June 12, 2012

But you have to die to get it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, funerals

There is a lovely and useful web site for recording details about the location and facts for a deceased loved one, findagrave.com. A few years ago, I created a memorial to my mother there. It is the only one she will ever have, because my parents joined the Neptune Society. After the coroner was finished with her remains, she was cremated and the ashes dropped into the ocean off Los Angeles. My father is still living, but has prepaid for similar treatment. Assuming he passes before I do, I'll create a virtual memorial to him also. Future family genealogists will at least have their virtual records and can leave virtual flowers.

My wife's parents have also been cremated, but their ashes are kept under memorial stones in a Japanese graveyard. Those who do not wish to have (or cannot afford) the half-square-meter plot required have their names carved into a wooden pole, and Japanese cemeteries have large urns filled with these poles. I don't know what is done with the ashes. Unless you are a member of the emperor's family, cremation is required for all Japanese. There just isn't room to bury everyone in a two square meter plot, as is done throughout the West.

I've visited the graves of quite a number of my ancestors, as part of my genealogical hobby. Most are buried in the "Western traditional" way, although some have large stones—one family plot in Missouri has a huge plotstone with the family name in foot-tall letters—while others have just a brass plate attached to an underground block, to facilitate mowing.

In America, at least, there is a strong tradition of embalming and burying the remains, and families usually like to be buried together. My father remembers the event in 1933 when the embalmed body of his grandmother arrived on a train from California, to be buried beside her husband. In 1965 his maiden aunt's body was brought and she is actually buried between her parents, if the stones are in the right places.

Compared to funerary practices around the world, we Americans are a pretty boring lot. In Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre – How we Dignify the Dead, author Sarah Murray describes a variety of practices she witnessed while traveling around the world after her father's death. Her atheist father decreed that no ceremony be held, and his "organic matter" be cremated and discarded…but then requested that the ashes be discarded in a particular churchyard in Dorset, where his best friends were buried.

The book's title is really an understatement. The "magnificent" practices include those in Bali, where people are buried temporarily until an auspicious day, such as the death of an important person, then everyone is exhumed and sent off with a huge communal celebration in which the bodies, plus specially built and decorated towers, oversize animal shaped coffins (bulls are favored), and an amazing array of gifts are all burned in a huge pyre. In southern Mexico on the "day of the dead" (el dia del muerte), the dead are celebrated yearly with candy or paper skeletons and skulls and a great clean-up day at the cemeteries.

More macabre practices include the stacking and restacking of bones in various catacombs and ossuaries. The most spectacular is a chapel in the Czech Republic in which bones have been arranged into chandeliers, wall sconces, and a fantastic variety of decorative displays, and there are still four huge pyramids of bones (so far) unused. Such collections resulted from the large surplus of bodies caused by the Black Death of the late Middle Ages.

The author's round-the-world tour was a cause for reflection on her part, as she thought through what her own attitude ought to be toward what comes after her own demise, hopefully in the far future. She had a spectacular coffin made for her in Ghana, a wildly decorated replica of the Empire State Building (the artist replicated the look of her favorite painting across its facade). Having seen bodies in a remarkable variety of stages of decay, she decided against in-the-ground burial, so the coffin will go unused. She settled on an alternative to cremation called resomation, and the last chapter of the book details the variety of ways and places she wishes the ashes to be disposed of.

Reading, I realized my wife and I need to rewrite our wills. They still provide for a family to raise our son, but now he's 24 and doesn't need any more raising! But how will we choose to have our remains dealt with? Do we want to leave a physical memorial somewhere, whether it holds our corrupted remains or ashes? I don't like the idea of embalming, but that necessitates speed (or a long spell in the coroner's freezer). No longer do most Christians feel the body has to somehow be kept together for resurrection. We expect God to take care of such details, considering how many of His people were burned at the stake during various periods of persecution.

I also realized that, as diverse as the world's cultures are, they are perhaps the most variable when it comes to dealing with our dead. As long as the death rate remains one hundred percent, this will be true.

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