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Ecumenism of the Grave

December 2nd, 2019 | 9 min read

By J Arthur Bloom

“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” — 1 Corinthians 15:19

Walt Whitman was one of the first in America to articulate the modern sensibility with respect to death. He wrote in 1860, before the Civil War, that he “found that every place was a burial-place,” and that everywhere is “as full of the dead as of the living / and fuller, O vastly fuller, of the dead than of the living.”

Whereas in ages past this fact might have given him a due awareness of the need for filial piety, or at least a sense of the “democracy of the dead,” that the dead have some sort of claim over the living, Whitman instead says he is “willing to disregard burial-places, and dispense with them.” The last two lines of the poem are as follows:

And if the corpse of any one I love, or if my own corpse, be duly render’d to powder, and pour’d in the sea, I shall be satisfied;

Or if it be distributed to the winds, I shall be satisfied.

Today this has become the fate of most Americans. Cremations outpaced burials for the second year in a row in 2016. We accept this principle in a public way in the disposal of the indigent dead in many cities, who are cremated as a matter of policy. They are render’d to powder and dispensed with. Are we satisfied?

Whitman’s poem was published in the Saturday Evening Post, when the first modern American cremation was 16 years in the future. Whitman may have been a sort of avatar of America coming into being, but this poem anticipates, more than anything else, not the hope but the horror of the modern world. One wonders whether, a year later, he could have written the same thing. Would he have been able to tell some dead soldier’s bereaved family, denied the chance to bury their kin, to “disregard burial-places”? It doesn’t seem like they had much of a choice.

Whitman’s poem preemptively describes what Drew Gilpin Faust writes about in This Republic of Suffering, how the fact of mass, relatively anonymous death in the Civil War was profoundly traumatic to the survivors. America as a whole has had a distant relationship with the dead over its history. Reams of history have been written about how we are a mobile and future-oriented people. The one thing we have in common is that we are alienated from the remains of our ancestors. We have no family shrines, and for most of us, we do not have family cemeteries either.

The trend toward cremation also tracks with secularism generally (red states bury, blue states burn). Today if you die on the streets of Washington, DC, and nobody comes to pick you up, you will be turned over to a private contractor for cremation. It’s a cost-saving device, however there seems to have been mismanagement in the handling of the contract. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that their graves were not being marked. It is a growing problem: there were 83 unclaimed dead in 2012, and 125 in 2015.

What I propose to correct this unacceptable situation is a volunteer charity: the Washington Gravediggers’ Guild. This charity could, with some lobbying, secure the contract from the city and give the indigent dead a decent burial. A single-religious organization probably couldn’t get the contract, but perhaps an interfaith one could. If anything Islam and Judaism have stronger prohibitions or taboos on cremation than Christians do.

The Christian tradition is clear that burying the dead is a holy work: one of the seven “corporal works of mercy,” alongside visiting the sick and imprisoned, giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty, and the rest. It has, I would argue, both spiritual and civic benefits for we who remain above the ground, as well. Religious people of all stripes are struggling to figure out how to live under an increasingly aggressive liberal order. That order once viewed religious organizations as an important part of the social fabric, but the new kind of liberalism forecloses their right to participate in serving public goods. The attacks on Catholic adoption or the Little Sisters of the Poor, for example, are examples of this.

Conservative Muslims and Jews understand that the problems we face in this regard are very similar, which is why I am sure they would be willing to help. One of the appealing aspects of this work is that more liberal adherents, at least in Christianity and Judaism, have done away with the taboo on cremation. People who have strong preferences against cremation are those who are generally more strict in their observance of all three religions. This is an issue that unites more orthodox believers of all three Abrahamic faiths.

An interfaith Gravediggers’ Guild—in our nation’s capitol—would also be a way to insist that religious people should be allowed to serve public purposes. Burying the dead together with religious people of other faiths also makes clear that this insistence on inclusion in the public square is not hostile to the idea of tolerance and mutual understanding, in fact it reinforces it. The unclaimed dead belong to no one, therefore they belong to all of us, and people who bury their dead together do not hurt one another.

If there is an important civic principle, of stability or long-term thinking, embodied in caring for the dead, or things like family shrines or family graveyards, then it seems to me that this is something America is somewhat lacking in. One suspects that the trend toward cremation is related to a general fear of death or a desire not to think about it.

As the United States reaches middle age and starts to get a little grey around the temples, it is only natural for death to occupy a greater share of his thoughts. What if, instead of fearing death and fleeing from it, we resolved to bury the dead together? What if this is the thing that we became known for, as Americans? As America grows more diverse and complicated, we share less in common, but my hope is that this is a principle we can resolve to share: If you die here, alone, someone will bury you properly, in a real box, and pray over your body.

As a spiritual matter, most religions teach that it is spiritually beneficial to think on death. The injunction in the Rule of St. Benedict is to “keep death ever before your eyes.” People begin to do this naturally as they age, but digging holes is a young man’s job. I think young men of whatever religion would benefit from the sobering experience of burying a body. The patron of this kind of thing, from a Christian perspective, is St. Joseph of Arimathea, the gravedigger of God. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus, so that he could bury him. We would make our request to the City Council in a similar spirit. According to the Gospel of Luke, Joseph was “looking for the Kingdom of God,” and the act for which he is best known, embalming the body of Christ, is related to that hope.

This Joseph is also closely associated with the Holy Grail in Arthurian myth. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which ends with a search for the Grail, the hero is reproached by a hermit for bearing arms on Good Friday, a day when, of course, we commemorate the death of Our Lord. The hermit expresses his hope that “death find thee a faithful husband,” and if he is experiencing grief over his wife, “such sorrow is good to bear.” We have a similar duty to the unclaimed dead of our cities, and we should not be afraid of bearing it.

There are two other ways in which I think a Gravediggers Guild could improve the way we dispose of the indigent dead. In DC there are a lot more unclaimed bodies than unidentified ones, though unlike other cities it does not release a list of the unclaimed dead every year. Thanks in part to the efforts of Washington’s medical examiner there are relatively few whose identities are not known. But the next of kin may have other reasons for not picking the body up.

The relatively high proportion of homeless indicates that one of the reasons is the expense of burying them. The problem of public cremation is more related to expense and labor than any kind of genuine preference. Moreover, this means that some of the homeless people who die are not truly unknown, and working with the homeless charities in DC to make sure any acquaintances of the deceased have the opportunity to pay their respects is an important thing this organization could do.

A second problem a Gravediggers Guild might be well positioned to solve is that currently, it would be very hard for a relative to go looking for a loved one who ended up in the public cremation pipeline. Many of the deceased are reportedly buried in unmarked graves. A volunteer organization could keep better records and potentially other identifying information about the person, should anyone try to find them later. If the decedent is a homeless person, the organization could record any friends’ accounts of their lives; where they hung out, what their personality was like, and so on, anything that might help build a picture of their life in the future.

There are many other issues to be overcome if this modest proposal were to become a reality.

Consensus will have to be built, volunteers assembled, land acquired, councilmen lobbied, a licensed mortician brought on, and several other things long before the first shovel hits dirt. The point of writing this is only to begin to discuss possibilities. My hope is that, following the example of Pope Francis in his visit to the Muslim world, we may find a way to undertake this act of mercy together while respecting our respective traditions. If you are not troubled by the incineration of DC’s unclaimed dead, then this proposal is not for you. If you are troubled by it, then perhaps there is something we can do, together. I think St. Joseph of Arimathea would say that we must ask.

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