Wednesday, June 2, 2010

This Land is My Land

I have been lucky (so far) and have not lost any friends or relatives, so I have not had the experience of dealing with death. I wonder if my attitude toward it will change in any way when a close friend or beloved pet dies. It's certainly possible, although I'd like to think that my feelings are grounded enough that once the emotions have run their course I will come through with the same basic philosophy toward our inevitable end.

I do not really intend to discuss much of that philosophy here, but I do want to give the idea of burial a piece of my mind! My first thought was that it is a phenomenal waste of space: a plot of land that is given to the exclusive use of storing a dead body (and, in the case of modern burials, preventing the body from actually decomposing properly). The deceased clearly has no further use for a body, much less land and resources. I can't imagine that graveyards take a significant portion of usable land, so this is certainly not a pressing or urgent concern. And it seems entirely possible that even as our population of gravestones inevitably balloons exponentially we might still find places to inter their bodies. At any rate, it seems like an obvious waste of money and land intended to hedge off superstitious concerns. One of my least favorite tropes in movies and television is the scene where survivors take precious time to bury a dead companion. Of course the plot will give them all the time they need, but I still find this to be highly frustrating. "Just leave them there!" I want to scream at the screen. "They are dead. They'll be fine."

At the start of this post, I was merely out to denounce burial plots. Now upon reflection, I have to add to the list of graveyard offenses. I think that perpetually mourning our predecessors is unhealthy and leads to a twisted idea of death. I suppose that graveyards could serve as visual reminders that life is fleeting, but I don't think that is what happens. We see gravestones and we mourn. As I said at the top, I am sure that when the time comes, I will mourn. I will miss my deceased friends. But if they are buried in the ground, I doubt if I will ever visit. It just can't be healthy to treat the dead as though they were still alive. Although cremation is a perfectly reasonable solution, (and likely the route I would opt for if my intention to donate my body to science falls through) actually keeping the ashes seems absurd to me.

Death is a major component of life and these various methods of memorial seem (to me) attempts to muffle or mask that fact. I spent quite a while today trying to find a way to frame this subject (choosing in the end to go with the direct approach) and as I was thinking about it, I came across a beautiful article on CNN about the creation of sand mandalas by Buddhist monks. I've never heard of this before but it is pretty amazing and it provides an excellent counterpoint to what I have been talking about. The monks spend six days (a lifetime) creating a beautiful and exquisite work of art. Then at the end, the sand is swept together and ceremonially poured into an ocean or river or similar symbolic body of water. Nothing is left but the memory.

A quick postscript: I most certainly do not intend to disrespect anyone's grief or cherished memories of deceased loved ones. As I have said many times already, my opinion is not informed by experience. If you have a different opinion, I would love to hear it. 

That CNN article would not embed (I recommend you click the link here or above and watch the video), but I found another video that I can embed. Enjoy!


Ed said...

I am an organ donor on my driver's license and also carry an organ donation card in my wallet because I have heard that without the card Dr's may delay harvesting organs even if the license says to. Whatever is left of me after, I hope will be buried somewhere like Ramsey Creek in SC where the bodies are interred in hand dug holes, with minimal or no coffin, no embalming and a significant part of the burial space expense goes to purchasing, restoring and maintaining the wild ecosystem.

Here is another link to green burial options.

"But if they are buried in the ground, I doubt if I will ever visit. It just can't be healthy to treat the dead as though they were still alive."

I think for most people visiting a grave site doesn't have anything to do with
treating the dead as though they were still alive. Instead it is a way to become quiet, to reflect, to set aside a specific place and time to remember and honor a memory or a relationship. All too often we rush through or days caught up in trivial concerns. To set aside time specifically for remembrance is an important thing And for many people, if they did not have a cemetery to go to it might be easy to forget to set aside the time.

Alternatively, or perhaps in addition to a cemetery, one can do what Matt Miller's family did when he died. They made a map with locations on it that showed places Matt loved and suggested ways to remember him there.

Sometimes in cites the cemeteries are one of the few bits of quiet and green available. People give you space in cemeteries, no one looks at you twice if you sit down for an hour or two. It is rare to have this type of respect accorded elsewhere.

I have spent a little time in cemeteries and while I don't wish to be buried in one, I am glad they are there. Not only are they direct, physical ties to the past, full of history- (slave graveyards, civil war, colonial etc) they also remind us of what it means to be human. Walking through a graveyard one sees markers for every stage of life, children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, even infants. Looking at a marker for a child or infant, it is easy to imagine the grief of the parents, to remember the inevitability of suffering.

Cemeteries can be deeply special places, seeing reminder after reminder that so many individuals lived, breathed and died- helps us remember the fleeting nature of the moment and the great mystery of our lives.

I think you are right on in your mention of sand mandalas. Impermanence is inevitable. Tibetans also practice(d) sky burial.

(note there are some graphic pictures on this page)

Giving something back, like you wish to do by donating your body to science or offering it to the birds like the Tibetans do, and honoring the life and death of a loved one is an important thing no matter how we decide to do it. Tibetan monks often meditated in the charnel grounds where sky burials took place.

Remembering to set aside time to reflect is important however we do it, be it with a ceremony, a visit to a grave stone on a special day, or simply sitting in a quiet place. We need to honor that part of ourselves that lives, breathes, loves and mourns. Cemeteries can help some of us do this.

nathaniel wallace said...

Thank you for your comments, Ed. Although I remain loosely convinced of the views in my post, I recognize that death, grief and burials mean different things to different people.

I will relax my position on the subject and do not intend to provoke any kind of argument about the proper way to mourn or honor a fellow human being. Or, more specifically, a fellow being, as I value the lives of my dogs far higher than many humans.

Thank you again for your insightful commentary and thank you for reading!