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.