In hoc signo
Recently I officiated at a short service of interment of ashes in a cemetery plot. The deceased had lived in one state, his children in two others, and they had all been a family together once in this metropolitan area. So there had been a memorial service in his current home town and then the body was cremated and the remains brought to be buried in the cemetery where various other relatives were also buried. A number of family members came to the interment - the wife, the children, the sisters, various cousins and all. It was, as these things usually are, a reunion of many who had not seen one another in years.
When we all arrived, the ashes had already been put in the ground and the spot had been covered up with that awful green plastic grass. It was all neat and clean with no trace of the burial visible. Just a tent with a few chairs under it and all on this vivid, ugly Astroturf with a couple of flower arrangements on top. No gash in the earth to receive the ashes, no lowering the body into the ground, no throwing clumps of earth into the hole. The people neither accompanied the body to its resting place nor did they take any action to bury it. There were no visuals to help us know that death is real (and that life is precious), that all of us go down to the dust, that a loved one is now truly gone from our sight; there were no actions to help anyone accept this or to engage in physical ritual to bring a sense of participation in the burial, in saying goodbye, in facing the reality of death. We just all drove up to this odd tableau in which it looked as if there must be some kind of secret or horrible thing we couldn't be trusted to see without being traumatized or something.
The funeral industry does all it can to help us pretend that death is not real; and by doing so it does much to keep us from experiencing the true human emotions of grief and mourning, of surrender and release, of experiencing in our bodies that death is real and that just as God sealed the tomb of Moses with God's own hand, so we lovingly seal the tombs of our loved ones as a final physical act toward them (no matter how we felt about them). The funeral industry does not understand the importance of our experiencing these things as part of life. Life and death are in fact messy and involve dirt and sweat and tears and most of all our physical involvement.
And so as the officiant at this interment, I asked the people to pray with me a litany of commendation so that they could actually participate somehow in the burial of their loved one instead of simply sitting idly by as others did everything for them. I read the prayers from the burial rite and asked them to say at the end of each petition: "we commend to you Lord our brother (N)." I also read the various prayers and readings that we do at these occasions, using the phrases people know and expect: ashes to ashes, dust to dust; all of us go down to the dust but even at the grave we make our song alleluia, alleluia, alleluia; I am Resurrection and I am Life; I know that my redeemer lives; accept this sheep of your own fold, lamb of your own flock, and sinner of your own redeeming. And as I read them, people began to sniffle or cry. But it was abstract. We are a people who respond both to words spoken and unspoken and to physical symbols. We live in a symbolic world. At church we have an altar or a cross and bread and wine in addition to creed and prayers and scripture. But at the cemetery there was no casket or urn to cry over, no gash in the earth, not even a spot of recently shoveled dirt. Just some Astroturf smoothing it all over, covering it all up, as if it weren't really actually even there.
After the short service, after the military folks folded the flag and the trumpeter played Taps, even though it was blazing hot and the group was supposed to head off to lunch somewhere, some of the people fanned out across the grass to visit the graves of the other family members nearby. They gathered around a couple of the plaques on the ground with their loved ones names on them, and I couldn't help but wonder if they were not determined to see something before they left that made them know that this event was truly a burial and not just a surreal gathering on the Astroturf.