Inspection- What Makes How We Treat the Dead “Christian?”
Most people play games or gossip. Me? I spend a lot of my web “fun” time visiting a debate site called Volconvo.com. I thought it would be interesting to pose the question that is the title of this edition of Inspection, and then publish some of the comments from the posters at Volconvo. Click here if you want to keep track of the thread, or register and join in the fun.
To rephrase: what makes the way we treat the dead even sane?
In 1968 I was 14, with a work permit, living in New York State. I was mowing a lawn for Doctor Stein who owned the home next to Helen Hayes: both properties on the Hudson River. Never met her, though I used to pester her poodles.
I was also working at a store owned my Mrs. Nolan, our neighbor across the street. At the Baptist Church, where my parents attended, the cemetery caretaker at Oak Hill Cemetery asked my parents if I might need a job once I was 15 in 1969: a job for the summer.
Of course I really didn’t have much of a say: it was decided by maternal decree… “Yes.”
Mom died that November. She was buried at that same cemetery. I worked there the next summer, and attended two funerals between November and after my first week at work in May. My boss at the cemetery; employed by the cemetery caretaker who went to the Baptist Church, took his own life rather gruesomely in front of his kids and wife and his kids.
Some say living on the premises in the crew manager’s house drove him mad.
For me, this started a long work history. From 69 to 74 I worked at cemeteries and restaurants. With my father retiring only two years latter, that’s how I made a living and supported myself through school: both public and my first two years of college
After digging a grave we would wait to fill it in. I saw my wife for the first time in that cemetery; only I didn’t know her then. Gravediggers usually waited in the distance; making lewd remarks about all the pretty ladies, or mocking the whole affair. No one ever accused gravediggers, or cemetery crews in general, of being a classy bunch. Of course, those who were supposed to be “classy” rarely quite fit the image as much as one would think; like the directors who would often be there after the service. I remember one funeral director used to steal flowers from other graves and put them on his wife’s. Some funeral directors we worked with attended many churches, varying where they went week to week if the time of the services was the same, trolling for potential customers. Another was caught naked with a parishioner at night in the cemetery: both married to someone else. Another was caught in that same cemetery by the cops one night, it’s going to sound like a joke… stoned.
I’m not claiming all could be accused with “scumbaggery,” but I have noticed that the more formal, or effete, the masks we wear in life, often the more is hidden beneath all that formality.
My mother had cancer for seven years: they filled her with so much formaldehyde a room filled with flowers smelled more like it had had a vile chemical bath. She loved flowers. I hate them. In any store where there are flowers when I pass by I swear I almost smell formaldehyde too. She: pasty, plastic, seven years of cancer had ravaged a body that was supposed to be a corpse 6 years before that.
How is any of this, “Christian?”
The hours spent in what they call, ironically, a “wake,” I feel were wasted. People came out of the woodwork: folks who never seemed to care before. What can you really say under circumstances where admitting what an ass someone could be is not usually not considered “proper,” and there’s this dead thing in the room that makes a mockery of the woman she was, or the man he was?
“I prefer the Klingon model of howling into the sky to warn the dead that a Klingon warrior is about to arrive, and then discarding the corpse as an empty shell.”
I suppose my family’s model for that was to actually tell the truth about the dead. I think we learned this approach after Mom’s funeral where phonies swarmed like locusts. I saw plenty of people who I knew usually mocked me, my brothers, my mother or father. Oh, not a majority, but quite a few. I don’t think any of us left caring for tradition very much, not that we did all that much before. By the time Dad died I don’t think we missed a flaw we might want to blather about, or a joke we could tell: either at his expense, or just to lighten the mood.
Dad would have loved it.
My father’s wife hated it.
“In all seriousness, I believe in a certain level of gravitas about the dead. I have no particular justification; it’s just how I feel. Cremation seems the best to me. It’s affordable, sanitary, and not garish as I feel Christian funerals are. Also, the act of spreading the ashes over a specified location seems a good commemoration and to offer completion.
That said, that scene in The Big Lebowski with the coffee can of ashes is hilarious.”
But, again… what makes more serious, more traditional, affairs any more “Christian” than cremation or those of us who at least want to lighten the mood? What makes any of this have any actual “gravitas?”
I have nothing against gathering together to talk about the person who is gone; of all I’m bothered by, more than anything it’s the presence of the corpse I have a problem with. Second: the phoniness of it all. In fact I told my wife I want to be cremated and, “put in a work of art. Hold a party, get drunk; say all the nasty things everyone wanted to say about me all these years… then go on with your lives.”
Zoroastrianism, which was quite popular during the time of Christ, had believers taking corpses to the top of a hill and putting them in shallow, open graves: let the birds and other scavengers eat them. As bad as they were, my father always said the only good idea the Nazis had was to simply plow the bodies into the fields as fertilizer. I’ve often wondered, is that true? And, of course, would that actually make decent fertilizer? Good questions, but it’s an intriguing story, regardless.
“The point isn’t the rituals or the ceremony, it’s the social aspect. People come together for the express purpose of talking about the dead person. Talking is a necessary aspect of psychological mending. Hence, funerals have a mending effect on one’s psyche.
Personally, I eschew funerals.
For those who have found such things “mending,” I am jealous. Even my father’s ceremony, sans’ body, annoyed me at best because his wife wanted nothing but religious blather and ritual. I think she saw absolutely no use in the rest of us and what we had to say, or “sing” in my case… I had written a song about my father shortly before his accident and sang it to him at the hospital before he died, then at his service.
“…personally I find churchyards oddly soothing.”
If you mean those churchyards with graveyards attached to them… more a southern tradition I think… well, I find them soothing too, though I prefer stand alone cemeteries. When I’m on the road: on tour, that’s where I go to practice and write. I do admit the dead make a great audience… which doesn’t say much for the living.
But back to the ceremony and our patiently waiting body. What else can it do without divine intervention? And I must admit even divine intervention might have a few natural flaws, like in Christopher Moore’s book Lamb. When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead Lazarus refuses to come out at first: he’s embarrassed because he smells.
There are so many wretched excuses for these affairs. One of the reasons given may seem rational: “closure.” Yet I find closure never really happens. You learn to live with the passing of a loved one, how to integrate the changes into your life. You learn to reassess those who have passed on and the relationship you had with them, and hopefully pass that on to your other relationships in wiser ways.
“I don’t understand how you get closure by trying to make the body look alive or ‘at peace.’ I think you would have better closure by staring death in the face… to see the wreckage that was once a loved one, but now is clearly an empty shell.”
“While I think it is most moral to donate my body to science, I would otherwise wish for my loved ones themselves to deal with my body. Instead of putting on a pretty suit and paying vultures in the funeral industry thousands of dollars to transport, package, and dispose of my meat… I would want them to pick up a shovel and do it themselves. I have always found such simple physical tasks therapeutic. It seems like it would be a good way to bond and heal, while facing the honest reality of what death is.”
I did find digging, and burying, more folks than who will ever bury me, “therapeutic.” And it provided a sense of humor to the whole affair… even when doing a removal: where a plot in a poorly mapped part of an old cemetery gets resold by mistake and you have to go dig up what may be left of an old pine box… on a rare occasion as old as, or older than, 200 years. Sometimes they break apart providing food for worms and scavengers.
“Yummy, yummy, yummy, the bird’s got something gross in his tummy…”
(I’d apologize to the writers of that song for the parody, but it’s so wretched I think they’d rather just slink away…. proving every era has its horrid songs.)
If you get total closure simply from seeing something what was once a living person and that settles any angst one might have, what does that say about you? Nothing good, in my opinion. Relations are, pretty much by the definition of being human, complicated. There are always depths to which we didn’t go we probably should have: things we missed that might even have saved that person’s life or made their life better, and ours.
…the burial or scattering to be done privately by the deceased’s immediate family. In this sense I think it helps for loved ones to begin to find some closure.
Maybe a little? I know spreading my father’s ashes helped me. I used the time to put a little of him in all his favorite places: out in the lake, under the house, down by the mailbox, in what was left of the Duchess: a 40 foot Naptha launch we used to own. All that time I ranted things like, “You! You kept trying to teach us how to live a ‘logical life.’ You lived out in the middle of the woods, had diabetes you said you were taking care of when we called but… not! Refusing to even ask for help for anything? Pissing people off with your gruff attitudes and assuming you could lecture people…”
Thank God son is never like father…
To a stranger passing by I must have looked like a living cliche’: a Jewish mother in male drag tossing what looked a salt and pepper mix into th lake.
Mmm… fish food. Come and get it! Wonder if the bullhead in Twitchell Lake, our second home, tasted like ash after that?
In the end, I think we treat the dead the way we do because that’s how the tradition has developed, helped along by industry that prefers to sell folks items like what I buried once as part of the gravedigger crew: a sold silver casket with gold handles. Never looked inside, but I’m sure “beyond ‘plush.'” None of this seems necessarily Christian, or necessarily respectful… unless you really believe tradition for tradition’s sake is all that’s required for either, or taking our riches with us is a Christ-like thing to do.
“Funerals are a matter of social cohesion and showing friendship and respect for the family, and for the family itself organizing them is something to do with the earlier days before proper mourning can start. Ritual is vital to living as civilized human beings. Since none of my own family can stand them, I always go as our family representative, feeling a duty to keep civilization going where at all possible.”
“…there is something to your argument, depending on what the ‘matter of social cohesion’ is. Families in the past used to attend beheadings, the Roman “games” complete with hungry wild beasts… so in comparison a funeral is a mild inconvenience. Yet I can’t help but be bothered by the presence of something that once was who you are (maybe) grieving for: in plastoid form.”
Let me add, “If people attend because they’re expected to, but actually don’t care that much, or even disliked the deceased, isn’t that a bit ‘disrespectful?'”
But what about the Christian element to it all? So far, in this ongoing thread, I’ve yet to find a clear answer. Elsewhere I’ve heard some argue that we do all we do to the deceased so the dead can rise…. as if he who created us won’t want to bother recreating any of us. Too lazy? Forgetful? Deity Alzheimer’s? Is some internal celestial deity power switch set on power save?
“In my opinion our funeral rites are traditions that no longer are practical or necessary. A lot of land is wasted for cemeteries. A dead body is nothing to get sentimental over. It’s a bag of meat and bone. The life is gone from it; the person who once resided within is no longer. I just can’t sympathize with our superstitious treatment of dead bodies.”
“As to what makes our treatment of the dead Christian; it depends on which sect of Christianity we’re discussing. Christian dogma isn’t consistent across all denominations when it comes to how to treat the dead.”
In another Christopher Moore book: The Stupidest Angel an evil local developer who is playing Santa gets raised from the dead by the angel Raziel. Unfortunately, like all his assignments, Raziel botches it and the whole cemetery is half raised from the dead, ending in the zombies having pizza thrown at them by the locals who are trapped in a church. One zombie protests when they throw pizza at her because she’s on a low cholesterol diet.
So maybe there’s something to this cremation thing? That way with God doing it all we can avoid zombification, or us having to toss Domino’s at them. Of course that may be a better use for Domino’s than actually eating it. And lethal. I do believe that some divine celestial Geppetto would certainly do a better job recreating us than some fool angel. And a hell of a lot better than any mortician.
I’m sure some people will strain for any excuse to claim God, Jesus or the Holy Gazoo, agrees we must be drop dead… chuckle… serious and not veer from tradition. Why? Mostly because they fear change, and would rather not think for themselves when it comes to how rational our traditions are. Or maybe they make money off that tradition.
But how we bury our dead really seems to have nothing to do with Christianity. It certainly has something to do with feeding money into the pockets of the vultures waiting in the wings at life’s end. I have no “problem” with those who insist on following tradition: that’s their decision. But my father speaks to me from the ashes as I toss out one final point…
“Can’t we at least think this out logically first?”
I’ll let “Loser” have the last word…
“For the most part, funerals are a place where people can go to pretend that they cared about someone. These same people that flock to funerals (to be seen by others) are the same ones that never visited the ‘living’. While they were alive, a visit would have meant something to that person. Once dead, your visit is only self-serving. Jesus understood human nature. This prompted Him to say:”
Luke 9:60 Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.
“If you weren’t there for them while they were still alive, there is little that you can do for them in death.”
“I was by my mother’s side all the time that she was sick and dying. When she finally died, I left her carcass to the vultures to fight over.”
“I know who really loved her…”
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
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