It was my first wake. My father and I had flown out to New York City, when his uncle 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.
The Hole Carefully Masked
We call a phase of today’s funeral process “the burial,” but 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.
I have an image of my paternal grandmother’s 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 in earth or sea, we feel we have somehow done what needed to be done for the body.
But have we done what needed to be done for us?
For Those Left Behind
What kind of burial is good for those left behind? We need 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 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.
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.
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 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.
John Cuddeback is professor of philosophy at Christendom College. He is the author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness and has written for Nova et Vetera, The Thomist, and The Review of Metaphysics. He lives with his wife and six children on a farm where they raise heritage breed pigs. He writes the website Bacon From Acorns. “A Body Deserves to Be Buried” is adapted from his “Touching Death,” published on Front Porch Republic.