When we die, we become the grass and the antelope eat us
-Mufasa in The Lion King
This weekend was my great aunt Anita's (aka Auntie Nini) funeral. Her death was a sad occasion, especially since she was the last surviving member of my grandmother's generation. On the happier side she was much beloved and lived a very long and productive life. Her funeral was lovely and well-attended. I utterly loved the eulogy my cousin Karen gave her, not just because she paid a lovely tribute, but because she stood there in a Catholic church and referred to her partner Jackie without apology. Way to stick it to the stupid old men!
When we drove to the grave site my mother informed me Anita would be buried in the communal mausoleum rather than in a burial plot. She explained that this was because Anita's husband, my grandmother's brother Frank, did not want to be buried in the ground when he died. (I missed Frank's funeral as I was away at school when he died and no one thought to inform me about it for a week.) On the other hand, I remembered my grandmother telling me years ago that my great-grandmother had not wanted to be in a mausoleum because she wanted to be out in the sunshine and open air.
I'm not fond of communal mausoleums because they seem very impersonal to me. The body is filed away like a document and there is little customization in the grave. You want to visit a grave, so you go and stand in front of the wall, but the relative of of the person above or below also wants the same floor space. To me a burial plot is a bit more personal and gives a little more space for the loved ones to hang out. You can choose a gravestone and people can actually plant flowers in the ground. I think private mausoleums are cool too. Those too can be customized inside and out, and when I peek inside them, appear to almost be little chapels. You build a mansion for bodies.
My preferences for the burial of the dead are from the perspective of the living, but how much do the dead care? Why do we care so much where our bodies are buried if we believe we won't be using them anymore? It's funny how attached we are to the idea of comfort for our bodies when our bodies will not be capable of sensation.
The common belief among Americans is that when we die, our consciousness separates itself from the body and that is what is sent to the next life. This is actually inconsistent with Christian theology, which preaches the resurrection of the body at Judgment Day. At a funeral, the body is blessed and prayed over, with the assumption that it is being sent to Heaven (or at least to judgment which we hope will result in Heaven). If you believe the New Testament, it could be a while before the body makes it there.
I take a much more practical view of life after death. I believe our bodies rot and become fertilizer for the grass and trees and flowers and so we all live on in the great circle of life, such as it is. For those who take a more fanciful view, I'm both fascinated and confused by how we look at what happens to us when we die.
Turn on the Syfy Channel these days and you'll understand just how much Americans like to believe in ghosts. When our bodies die, do our consciousnesses just linger? Energy can not be created or destroyed and your consciousness is a form of energy after all. A house becomes haunted because of the thoughts we leave behind. Maybe a choice of burial has to do with the idea that if our consciousness will linger while our bodies await resurrection, there might be a reason for ghosts to exist. Where would your consciousness most want to be? Would you want it in the home your body inhabited, or would you want it to be in your only true home, your body? If we believed that houses are haunted or that souls go to Heaven, why do cemetaries seem so scary at night? Who do we believe is there?
In Neil Gaiman's* The Graveyard Book there is a lively community of ghosts in the graveyard. They all live their lives as if they were still living, but just making adaptions for being ghosts. If this was to be your life after death, I suppose where you are buried might make a difference. Then again, if you can leave your corporeal body and wander the graveyard, does it matter if the body is in a wall or under the ground or on a shelf in a little house?
What about the practice of placing photos and beloved objects in the casket? This seems almost akin toe Egyptian pyramids Will your ghost enjoy them (even if your ghost can leave the casket), or will you carry them with you when you are resurrected?
If you spend a lifetime inhabiting a body, I suppose it's only natural to still have concern for it once it's dead. We are all as attached to our bodies as we are to the "souls" that we hope are destined for other realms one day.
I think Iris DeMent sums it up better than anyone though.
*Neil Gaiman: a truly great author who understands how to write orginal and engaging fantasy. Do you hear that J.K. Rowling?