On How We Bury the Dead

Recently, I lost my grandmother. She and I were close, and so I made it a point to be there for her whole funeral. All of it. Every hour of the viewing at the funeral home, every hour of the second viewing at her church, every minute of handshaking, of eulogizing, of crying, of relatives who insisted on patting me in the back and telling me that she was in a better place.

I even followed her out to the cemetery to watch her be buried. Through everything else, my family had been there, my father, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, her surviving brother and sister; but I was the only one who chose to go to the cemetery. A couple considered it, but only I drove behind the hearse the fifteen miles that separated my grandmother’s tiny church in her tiny rural village from the tiny cemetery on the outskirts of another tiny village where her ancestors going back generations had been buried.

My reasons for going were thickly knotted: I felt like it was important that she not be alone as she slipped into the earth. I felt like my own ideas about death and mourning dictated that I not part with her until the last moment. I hoped to have, after she was buried, a chance to be alone with her and say the private good byes I couldn’t give with others watching. I wanted some gesture, some further moment that would offer me a chance to feel like I had mourned her, not just stood around exchanging niceties with relatives whose names I didn’t know, feeling little despite the loss of a person who I loved greatly.

But I was also curious. I had never seen a person buried. I’d never heard anyone describe what it’s like to watch a person be buried. No one, so far as I know, travelled to the cemetery with the body when my grandfather proceeded my grandmother in death. And after my other grandfather’s military funeral ended, nobody hung around to see the actual casket be lowered into the actual ground. It all happened off screen. We went home and the next day we would come out to the cemetery and there would be our loved one under the dirt.

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It’s hard to say how much of what I saw is universal. My grandmother spent her entire life living in rural Pennsylvania. The village where she grew up had 250 people. The village where she made her home from 1955 to 2015 had perhaps a hundred. The cemetery where she was buried had no more than 150 modest graves in a neatly maintained lot of grass nestled between a recently fracked Marcellus shale natural gas well and a hay field. Perhaps in wealthier cemeteries the burial of the dead is a more baroque, ritualized act, but in the cemetery outside Dempseytown, Pennsylvania, the burying of the dead was just work.

The three men who buried my grandmother could have been men doing any job. They could have been drilling an oil well, they could have been fixing an old Buick, they could have been pouring molten aluminum into sand molds at the family business. They had driven there in pick-up trucks. One was an overweight man with a grimy sweatshirt and a facial scar. Another was young and wore a camouflage jacket and a camouflage hat with a fishhook stuck in the brim as if he had just come in from a combination turkey hunt and trout catch. The third, who seemed to be in charge, wore a matching gray work uniform with his name, Russ, emblazoned on his breast.

They acted like people at work. They joked with each other, joked with the attendants from the funeral home, talked about their work, about how they had three bodies to bury tomorrow, about some fellow gravedigger who wasn’t there that day, about how much of a pain in the ass it was to pass the CDL test for becoming a trucker. They mentioned again and again some boss they all had, some formless name they kept repeating, who owned their equipment and assigned them their tasks and who apparently dominated the local grave-digging and corpse-burying industry. For a long time it was as if I wasn’t there at all, as if my grandmother wasn’t freshly dead, as if I wasn’t dressed in a full suit, as if they were setting about work no more consequential to anyone than mowing a lawn or building a fence.

Death is the monumental event in our lives. We devote so much time thinking about it, preparing for it, making art about it, and then—once it actually happens—having these big productions to honor it or protest it or grieve over it. And yet once all that hand wringing and gnashing of teeth is over, once everyone has gone home, the inconsequence of death becomes apparent. Here are these men whose livelihoods are based around disposing of bodies. They have disposed of half a dozen this week, they will do three more tomorrow. They work for a man whose whole business is burying bodies. Even in the scattered villages of Northwestern Pennsylvania, dumping the dead into holes in the ground is a significant business, an industry. In the end, our life is not so much handed over to eternity or to the divine or to the maggots but to the human equivalent of a waste management company.

The first thing the human waste managers did with my grandmother was lock her inside a giant metal box the size of a refrigerator. This surprised me. I had always imagined that when they bury the dead, they just took the coffin from the church or funeral home and carried it off into the cemetery and buried it as is. Why not? It’s expensive, it’s sealed, what other container would a person need to carry them into the afterlife? But that’s not how it works, it seems.

My initial guess was that these boxes—called vaults—were required to keep whatever chemicals the undertakers pumped into my grandmother’s body from leaking out into the drinking water (a funny thought, considering the hydraulically fracked natural gas well 500 yards away). But, apparently, the real reason is aesthetic. Coffins, because they’re made largely or partially of wood, rot quickly in the ground and collapse under the weight of the earth above them, crushing your corpse. People find this offensive. They want their bodies to be immortal, like their souls, and so they have themselves encaged in steel to keep them safe from the ravages of weather and weight and tectonic shifts for thousands of years.

These vaults, however, are so ridiculously heavy as to be immovable. A coffin can be lifted relatively easily be a handful of people, but these vaults are massive bulwarks of steel designed to prevent your loved one from being slowly crushed by the weight of the earth piled on top of her. To maneuver this block of metal, the gravediggers had a special contraption. A sky blue homunculus created by fusing together a crane, a trailer, a fishing boat, and a grasshopper, it lifted my grandmother’s steel-forged sarcophagus off the ground and maneuvered her, under Russ’s direction, inch by careful inch through the aging tombstones and into position over the rainwater-flooded pit that was to be grandmother’s tomb.

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This machine and its pilot fascinated me. As human beings go, Russ was as close to an embodiment of the Platonic ideal of a gnome as I’ve ever encountered. His body was short and squat, his head bald, his beard long and white. On his face he wore glasses with small, rounded lenses. When he talked, he had this perpetual giggle that punctuated his every sentence. The other workers were just hired hands, but Russ felt born into the cemetery, like he had emerged from one of the graves fully formed in order to bury bodies. He never swore. He never offered me awkward condolences. He just set about his work quietly, blissfully, carefully.

And like his life existed solely for burying the dead, so did his contraption. As near as I could tell, it had no other purpose than putting coffins into vaults and then vaults into graves. It was new too. From the chatter of the gravediggers it seemed like my grandmother was one of the first they had buried with it. Again and again they commented on how much better it was than the old machine, how much easier, how much quicker. They thanked their unseen boss for being so generous as to buy it. They teased Russ for being so gentle with it as he maneuvered it through the cemetery.

“Careful, Russ,” I remember one of his coworkers shouting as he maneuvered his contraption between the graves, “Don’t want to chip that beautiful paint job!”

“The day I get the first scratch on this thing is a day I cry,” he said back.

“Of course you will. Your obsessive compulsive disorder is so bad you might just hang yourself too!”

The trouble, though, with Russ and his machine is that there’s so little humanity left in the burying of corpses. So little laying of hands. Listening to them talk about the machine, which seemed to be new, you got the impression that if they could they would replace the whole process with a conveyer belt. Standing there, I envisioned a future where the labor of death, like the manufacture of cars, is carried out by robotic arms while the aggrieved family stands behind a wall of glass and watches and dabs handkerchiefs against their eyes. Quick. Distant. Sterile.

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As impressive as Russ’ contraption was, there was one part of the burying process it couldn’t assist with—the shoveling. The gravediggers had prepared the dirt well, piling it onto a plywood square and protecting it from the rain with a tarp. When they pulled the tarp off, voles went scampering left and right, making me laugh. The youngest gravedigger, perhaps embarrassed, tried to use his shovel to bash at the voles’ skulls. He even hit one, it’s little body giving a tiny squeak as the blow fell.

“Sorry,” he said after they had all disappeared into the ground or behind tombstones. “They’re ruining this whole cemetery.”

Then he drove his shovel into the mound and lifted out a pile of dirt that included the vole and dumped it into my grandmother’s grave where, if it wasn’t already dead, the vole surely drowned in the muddy rain water.

For a while, I just watched them shovel. They filled in the spaces around my grandmother’s vault to make, they said, a seal. They tossed it on top. They climbed down into the grave and stood on her vault so as to get better shoveling leverage.

It bothered me to stand there while they worked. It was my grandmother they were burying, this woman I had spent so much time with, this woman I loved, and I was doing nothing to help. When the overweight gravedigger stopped after a few minutes to take a break, I stepped around the edge of the grave and asked him if I could take his place.

“You can if you want,” he said.

“I would like to. It would mean a lot to me.”

“Here,” he said handing me his shovel. “We try to let people do whatever they want.”

The minute I lifted my first lump of dirt and tossed into my grandmother’s grave, I knew that this had been one of best ideas I’ve ever had. For days I had been standing around waiting. Waiting for people to walk up to me at the funeral home, waiting for people get done offering me condolences at the funeral home, waiting for Russ and his contraption to putz their way across the cemetery, but now I was doing something. I was laying hands.

Between the three of us, it took forty-five minutes of shoveling to bury her. Yet standing over her grave, mud caked on my red leather shoes, my dress shirt wet with sweat, I felt for the first time during the whole death process that I was doing something to say goodbye. Through hearing the news, through commiserating with my family, through the funeral home, through the church service, I had been passively adrift like a stick in a wide, placid river. Now I had actually done something that felt satisfactory, like a real thing and not just the appearance of a thing.

I think my favorite moment in all of the Bible is the moment in Exodus when Moses dies. After living his life as God’s semi-competent servant, after leading the Israelites out of bondage, after receiving the 10 Commandments, after annoying God and getting cursed to wander the desert aimlessly but faithfully for decades, Moses is finally allowed to see from a hill the land that God has promised to his people. After 40 years of searching, there it is, Canaan, beautiful and bountiful. Then he dies, and God himself comes down and buries Moses—the Bible says this specifically—with his own hands. It is, if I am not mistaken, the only moment in all of the Bible’s thousands of pages when God does something physical, when he takes on a corporal form and does work what we as human beings would know as work. Not just thinking, not just magically creating from the void, but the moving of earth with hands as a way to mourn for the death of someone he loved.

Even though it never occurred to me at the time, there was a way that my helping to physically bury my grandmother replicated that moment. My grandmother was dead and I loved her enough to, in some small part, do the work myself. Not outsource it. Not leave it for others. Enough to step forward and participate, to muddy my hands and my shoes and my clothes with the actual work involved in death.

If the death process is to be satisfying, it needs to involve action, with the family, the loved ones, the friends, doing things. Not just standing around, not just shaking hands and offering condolences, but moving, shoveling, carrying. There was a time when being a pallbearer at someone’s death was an honor, but now it’s a chore. When they went to move my grandmother out of her church and into the hearse, they just asked, Well, who wants to be a pallbearer? When they’re weren’t enough grandchildren available, they drafted the husband of one of my grandmother’s nieces to take up the last spot for the sacred task of lifting my grandmother’s coffin from a cart, carrying it down six steps, and then shoving it into the back of a hearse. It took all of a minute. It wasn’t even heavy.

Who has ever felt satisfied by a modern funeral? Who has ever come away from one thinking like they’d accomplished anything to assuage their grief? No one. Is that because assuaging our grief is impossible? No. If that were the case, if funeral rites offered us nothing, than we never would have started them. And yet as far back as the Neanderthals, human beings have been burying their dead with flowers and attractive rocks. Funerals are old. They aren’t a thing that we started doing and continued to do for hundreds of thousands of years in increasingly elaborate ways because they offered us nothing, because we felt they were a waste, because they were just expected of us. Something has been lost. Somehow we’ve ruined it. Somehow we’ve lost track of what it is we’re actually trying to do when we bury the dead.

As I left the cemetery, I noticed there was a pile of garbage resting on its outer edge, a dump full of all the things people had placed on the graves of their loved ones. Wreathes, flower pots, plastic plants, lanterns, hearts, statues of Christ that become so worn by time and weather that they barely maintained their human shapes. Once they had outlived their usefulness, the cemetery staff had gathered them up and thrown them in the woods.

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After the machine burial, this didn’t even seem out of place to me. Of course the cemetery has a garbage dump, I thought. Because the cemetery isn’t some sacred space immune to our consumptive society. It is just an extension of it. When everything is pre-packaged pre-garbage, why wouldn’t the trappings of the dead also be garbage? The dead themselves are garbage. We love these people, cherish them in life, and yet when they reach the end we throw them away into nursing homes and hospice homes and funeral homes and cemeteries. We are so deep in a culture where everything is disposable, where everything is used up and then thrown way without ceremony, that we’ve forgotten how to do anything else. We don’t know how to send off the dead any more than we know how to send off our old couch. We value them so little we want no part of the effort required to bury them.

Some engineer somewhere built Russ’ contraption as a way to make disposing of the dead easier. People organized the first funeral parlors to make the process of presenting the dead easier. We have prewritten condolence cards to make comforting the bereaved easier. We bring in priests and ministers to offer paint-by-numbers funeral orations so as to make summing up the life of the dead easier.

All of this is understandable. Losing a loved one is miserable, and the last thing people want to do when they’re upset, grieving, confronting mortality, is do a bunch of work. Surely it is a mercy to be freed, amidst that grief, from the burden of arranging our own flowers, figuring out how to position a coffin in their living room, making sandwiches for everyone to munch on during a wake, and trying to encapsulate a life barely separate from your own in an 800-word essay that you can deliver without breaking down so completely into tears that you hold-up the post-funeral luncheon.

And yet, I cannot help but feel that making public mourning more effortless misses the point of publically mourning. Why do we travel home from all points around the globe? Why do we organize these productions that involve, at least in passing, hundreds of people? Why not, as my father kept repeatedly suggesting we do to him, just throw our dead in a lake and be done with it? Because we want to affirm one last time how much we loved the dead, how important they were to our lives. That’s useless for the dead, who know nothing, but it allows us solace. We build the Taj Mahal because it makes us feel better. It offers us a project, a gesture, an act that can become a vessel for how we feel.

But the modern funeral, at least as I have witnessed it, isn’t a vessel for anything. It’s a thing just to be gotten through, like a dull episode of a television show. “Get some sleep,” my father said when I arrived home after my six-hour drive. “It’s going to be a long couple days.” “Only three more hours,” my cousin whispered to me while we stood in the receiving line at the funeral home. How can a thing you just want to be over with offer you any solace? How can it satisfy our grief? We talk of attending funerals and visiting funeral home as “paying our respect,” but what kind of respect is paid when we stand around and do nothing? When the culture and industry of death insist that we do nothing?

When I think of all the funeral rights that actually impress me – the funerals of kings and heroes, the Tibetan sky burials where the dead are shredded by vultures, the placing of the old on ice flows or the burning of bodies in Viking longboats and on towering pyres – they’re all these aesthetic acts. They’re all attempts to turn the death process into something that pierces through the gloom of grief. Into something that approaches art. If we are to save the funerary process from meaninglessness, from becoming nothing more than the end-of-life equivalent of sending out Hallmark cards, we have to re-envision the funeral as something that we, the people who loved the deceased, actually create. It’s hard to prescribe a specific way of doing so, to decide whether to hold a parade or build a pyramid or leave it to the birds, because every life, every love, every mourning is unique. But after what I felt in that tiny cemetery beneath a hayfield, I have to say burying our dead with our own hands is a good place to start.