I always enjoy a walk through a graveyard. Monuments fascinate me. Last summer I found this nearly abandoned cemetery. I use mostly my own photographs on this blog, so many of the old monuments were interesting and I have used their images here. In the back of the cemetery, I found these lonely markers. Some were stones, but most of them were these little tag markers. Today, I want to pay tribute to these short little lives that left behind them broken hearts. I have known parents who grieve short lives, and I think most of us who have never known that grief often wonder when the grief will end and do not know what to say. Today, let us remember that the lives the little ones left behind grieved sometimes in secret and carried these lives in their hearts the rest of their lives.
To begin our quest, we need to begin in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when people were looking to the past to create the future of their nations. One need only take a walk through Washington DC to see what I am saying is true. DC is filled with classical temples. At the turn of the eighteenth century, Napoleon conquered Egypt where he not only took treasure, but also had a group of men who mapped the Valley of the Kings and the discovered of the Temple of Luxor. If any of you have been to Paris, you have seen the Obelisk, which originally stood at the entrance of the Temple of Luxor. These Napoleon experts published their finding and images made there way throughout the western world, and mark the first wave of Egyptian craze. Other men would follow in their footsteps and archeology would be born. The deep-seated desire to look back at our roots would cause nations to seek out their cultural roots. Museums also were born from this desire. People began to collect things from their cultural past and display them. What began as small curios cabinets became treasure houses for nations. We need only look to such museums as The Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. I could go on to discuss the impact of this craze on the cultures that were giving up their treasure, but that is a subject for another time and the reason I do not work in museums.
In this soup of nationalism and love of Egypt, we began embalming our dead. I am not surprised that in the US Civil war, we romanticized embalming as a way of emulating the great Egyptian Kings and Queens. At first, embalming could only be done for the very rich. (A regular soldier’s monthly pay was $13 and embalming for him would be $25, where an officer would have to pay $50 whose pay was about $100+ depending on rank.) Probably the image that most imprinted our national psyche was the death of the beloved Abraham Lincoln. His body was embalmed and traveled many miles on the railway making stops for people to pay their last respects to the fallen leader. I believe our society began its journey idealizing embalming and vaults in this climate of love for things ancient and Egyptian, and our admiration of Lincoln.
In 1922, Howard Carter and George Herbert found King Tutankhamen’s tomb. The find of a nearly intact tomb sparked an even greater Egyptian Craze. In the US, the construction of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Buildings, most dramatically demonstrate our love for all things Egyptian. The Chrysler Burling with its stylized papyrus leaves and a year later the streamlined form of an Egyptian temple in the Empire State Building. The Egyptian craze gives birth to art deco.
The 1920s also marks the when most Americans began to be embalmed and funeral homes became the place of private homes were visitations took place. We were becoming an urbanized society and no longer had front parlors to receive visitors wanting to pay their respects and offer condolences. It’s so easy to see our society who was looking backward to move forward, who wanted to emulate kings and queens of the past and our own fallen leader. Now, in the midst of the Egyptian craze, we wanted to be just like the King and Queens of old.
So here we are today, with acres of cemetery plots filled with kings and queens under the earth, in some cases above the earth like the Pharaohs of old. Do we really think we are ancient kings and queen and that our bodies should be preserved forever? Then again, that is so American. We stand against such class differences. If it’s good enough for the king, it’s good enough for Aunt Suzie. I understand that. I am an American after all. What I wonder about is do we want to continue our conventional funeral practices as normative? Do we really want to keep the bodies of our loved ones preserved forever? Look at the mummies of Egypt in the nineteenth century. They were not treated well, especially if they really weren’t really a king or queen. Some were turned to medicine, made into paint, dug up and unwrapped for scientific study or entertainment. I am sure I do not want to end up in a museum. I am also sure I do not want to end up as paint or medicine. Why do we want to keep our loved ones bodies sealed up under the earth so that in several hundred years or so their tombs might be open again by people who may or may not share our same sensibilities? For me, I want to return to the earth from which I came. I have no desire to have my body treated in death in any extravagant manner. Please, place me in a shroud, and return me to the earth. If my body helps preserve land, and especially a forest, that would be even better. I do not want to be a queen sealed in a tomb under the earth. Please treat my body in death as a simple human being that I am in life. I am not a queen. I am just a woman trying to do her best in this world.
I was trained and worked in a cemetery run by one of the largest death care corporations. We had a brief training on vaults. Much of our training was brief because the purpose of a family service councilor is to sell. We were told that vaults maintain the integrity of the grave, help keep the ground level for the cemetery and lined vaults kept out the elements (or nature) from reaching the casket. We sold all kinds of vaults from the simple to the high-end precious metal lined vaults. To be quite fair, we were never trained to push the high-end vaults. Our training also made it clear that vaults were not a legal requirement, but a requirement of the cemetery.
Let us look at this video demonstrating how tough the vault is.
My first comment about this video is about their scientific process. We have no idea how long this vault remained buried before it was dug up again. We have no idea if heavy equipment rode over this spot. Finally, the casket is empty. We have no idea about the state of an occupied coffin buried for an unspecified amount of time. I realize that they are selling vaults not coffins, but to be sure coffins and vaults are used together. When I was a family service counselor, I became close to the grounds workers at the cemetery. One member of the team who had been a grave digger for many, many years, told me that whenever he has been present at a disinterment, the vaults have always been cracked or otherwise breached. Sometimes the breach was dramatic, other times, not so much. Once interred, there is very little way of knowing the quality of the structure of a vault. Some vaults are sturdier than others. I do not mean to imply that vaults are designed to break or that all vaults do not stand up to the pressure. What I am saying is no one really knows how tough any vault can be until you dig it up after use.
Here is another video:
This one plays at the heartstrings. As you know, I am all in favour of personalization of death rituals. I find it odd that personalized vault that will spend most of its time underground, and that the only people who will be seeing it again will be those who would dig up the grave. We are told in this video that a lined vault secures the casket and contents from water and insects. It makes me wonder what it is we think we are doing when we bury our loved ones. Do we really want to keep their bodies preserved for generations in hopes that one day an archeologist will dig them back up again? I think perhaps vaults are a hold over from the anti-theft devices developed for higher end burials in the 18th and 19th centuries when corpses were sometime dug up for scientists to study anatomy. It’s not a pretty thought, but there you have it. It’s not a huge leap from protecting bodies from body snatcher to protecting bodies from anything and everything.
There are solutions for vaults in graves. I suggest that vaults are not a necessity at all, providing steps are taken to prevent sunken graves. In green burial the grave is filled mounded with dirt on the graven so that once the settling of the grave takes place, the grave is not sunken. A shrouded body creates less concern for grave settling than those using a biodegradable coffin because there is much less matter be broken down. In green certified burials, care is given to maintain the ground. Green Burial does not mean haphazard burials without forethought. To the contrary, certified green burial grounds undergo extensive planning and go through a strict process for certification. Thought is given to preserving and restoring the land and in that maintaining the integrity of graves and the land in general.
My first experience with choosing a burial vault was when my mother-in-law died. I accompanied my husband to the funeral home we used for my father-in-law. Like most folks, we use the funeral home we used before, and did not shop around. My mother-in-law had chosen this for Tata (what I always called my father-in-law), so it made sense we would follow her lead. I do not recommend people do this, but this is what we did. I remember sitting there with my grief-struck husband as the funeral director went over the details with us. She had Tata’s file, and read down the list of what we did for him. We did the same. She asked about the vault. I now know that in the funeral business, the vault is one of the most contested items because the cemetery and funeral home both would like to have that as a sale. At the burial, I recall this gold painted vault lid by the side of the grave and I could not help thinking just how garish and silly it looked in the middle of the burial service. Here we were, burying my dear Mama, and why did we have a gold box in to which we would put her body? What purpose did it really serve? Why was it gold?
Flash forward four years. I have worked as a cemetarian and co-founded the Midwest Green Burial Society. I have read and written quite a bit on the topic of funerals and burials. My family and I were on our way to visit graves at the cemetery and we were discussing someone’s preference for burial and how they did not want a vault. My first born, now so at ease around the topic of death and burial, pipes up, “Mom, what’s a vault?”
“It’s a cement box people put the coffin in at burial.”
“I know, but what does it mean?”
“Well, can you name different kinds of vaults?”
Because we are a family of word lovers, we begin listing all the kinds of vaults: pole vaulting, vaulting in gymnastics, vaulted ceilings and vaults we use for jewelry and money. We put secrets into vaults to keep them safe; we keep important documents in vaults. The light bulb goes off. We put caskets into vaults, because we put our precious things into caskets. Once again the conventional the death care industry uses words to make us forget what we are doing and tries to put a pretty face on our grief.
I am the last person to say that the body of a loved one is not precious. For many of us this is true because we know the people we love through their body. They have a certain look. They move a certain way. We love their voice. We have dinner with them, we play games, and we hold their hands. Their hands hold us; they make things. I remember after my grandmother died how terrible it was for me that she had been cremated because I could not bear the fact that her hands were no more. Her hands had held me from my birth and had mended my bears and made my clothes. I could not bear that they were gone. (I realize that in burial, our bodies deteriorate and go back to the earth. This does not bother me.)
In death many of us do wish to treat the body with great reverence, but is this the best way? Is it the best way to put the body in two containers (coffin and vault) and bury them? What are we trying to do? Are we trying to keep the earth from taking back these bodies? Why do we want to preserve bodies in the first place? In the end, nothing can fully stop the power of nature. Sure, bodies can be preserved for many, many years. Yes, these vaults help to maintain the lawns of cemeteries, but do we really want to continue burying our dead in such elaborate and unnatural ways? Are we so afraid of our own death that boxes made of concrete and precious metals make us feel as if our loved ones are not really gone? Are we so afraid of death that we try to keep back the natural process of death as long as we can to the point that we pour billions of dollars a year to preserve this industry? Are we so afraid to look at death, that we follow along with what we are told, and don’t look into the facts and our rights at death? I don’t know. I wonder when we will wake up and notice what the industry has done to our perceptions of the end of life. I don’t think we need vaults to keep our precious loved ones in after death. I think we need to bury them with love and dignity (and not the trademark kind) in simple places. Love is so much larger than any coffin or vault.
Next week we look at the industry's marketing of vaults.
June is a difficult month for me. June used to be a beautiful month with my sister and father sharing a birthday, (we always called it The Birthdays), and Father’s Day. June also held the date of my grandparents wedding anniversary. I remember fondly June 26, 1976 when we celebrated their 50th and my sister wore grandma’s wedding dress. June is not so easy now. My father died June 29, 2008 after his second fall, numerable brain surgeries, and a multitude of other surgeries. He loved to live life. He had the best laugh and sense of humor. He fought for every one of his last breaths the day he died. Then, that Sunday when the skies were both sunny and dark with rain, he was gone from this world.
So, June comes every year. Instead of small remembrances of Dad through out the year, I have a month. (Well, there’s Christmas, but that’s a different story.) I have his birthday. My sister was my father’s thirtieth birthday present and they always celebrated together the day. We always had two cakes. My heart breaks twice on that day: first, because I miss my daddy and second, because I know that my sister feels a grief on that day that I can only imagine. His birthday was always right near father’s day. We celebrate the day for my husband, but in the back of my mind I remember the loss of my father, father-in-law and grandfathers on that day. Then the end of the month is his anniversary of my father’s death. June is like a ratta-tat- tat of a machine gun with all the days of remembrance.
Grief is a sneak thief. It comes up when you are not looking, and if you are not aware of what’s going on, you could lose days wondering why you are feeling the way you are feeling. You might think that someone who is so aware of death and grief could have grief sneak up and not even understand what is going on. You would be wrong. I have lost people and have known grief before. This year, I was feeling a sense of sadness, and was unable to pinpoint it. I felt like I was stuck in molasses and could not work as much as I wanted. What could it be? Then last week, I had a migraine. I don’t get migraines often. Usually I get them when I am feeling a great stress. What stress was I feeling? Two days later, and two days of low light and low sound and I realized that I was grieving, but did not want to acknowledge it. My body was telling me something that I did not want to look at because the loss is so great. Once I acknowledged the grief, I felt better and I was able to move toward remembering Dad on his day.
I knew his date was approaching, when a dear friend of mine asked if we were going to have a memorial at church. I told him that I did not think I had the will to do that. That should have been a big clue to me that I was avoiding something, but no. It took the migraine. Once I realized what was going on, I decided to make the wheat and ask to do a short memorial for Dad. For me, the prayer service allowed me to grieve and acknowledge my father. My sister took a different approach. She and her husband were doing the coffee hour following Sunday liturgy, so they decided to have patriotic cupcakes as a memorial. Her mother-in-law was born in June and the anniversary of her death is in July, so it made sense to have a memorial together. Both Dad and her mother-in-law loved the Fourth of July, so patriotic cupcakes made all the sense in the world. This just shows that in all things my sister and I approach things in the same way, but come up with different expressions. I love having such a creative sister.
Once I was accepting of my grief, wanted to do more than just the church service. I remembered one thing Dad wanted at his funeral, but we were unable to do. He wanted a hymn sing the night before his funeral. Well, maybe if he had written down what hymns, we might have been able to do that. As it was, we were working with one conversation he had with me in passing and another conversation he had with a priest friend of his. Needless to say, we did our best. This year, I asked Mom if she wanted to go to the grave and sing some of Dad’s favourite hymns. We went with wine to anoint the grave and leaves from Dad’s pink tree. It was the best thing and made me wonder if we could arrange for a small hymn sing next year with some of his friends in the area. One hymn we sang I had sung all my life, as it was one of his favourite Christmas hymns, but standing by the grave, and singing the words, I heard them in such a different way; I no longer wondered why Dad loved this hymn.
If we do not acknowledge grief, it can sometimes take time away from living life. I am grateful that I realized what was happening to me, and take steps to fully understand the importance of my feelings. I miss my father everyday. I miss our conversations and how he always found the light side of every moment. I thought that my little remembrances were enough, but my body knew better. With so many anniversaries in such a short amount of time, it sometimes becomes hard to look at grief straight in the face, but having done so I am grateful I have ways to remember my father and grieve his loss.