More on death, dying and the sacred body


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- Million Dollar Baby

- Shadowlands


Poetry for reflection


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- Fear of Dying

- Growing Older

What Do We Do with Mom's Body?

An essay about death, burial and cremation

Written By Jon M. Sweeney

Jon SweeneyMy mother is no closer to death than the rest of us, but since she is about to turn sixty, she thinks about it a lot more often.

We were on vacation in Italy recently—my mother and father, my only brother and sister-in-law, and my wife and me. We had left the kids with the other grandparents for a special trip. Somewhere between Portofino and Parma we stopped for the night and found one of those ubiquitous, charming sidestreet cafes for dinner. As I sprinkled romano on my spaghetti alla vongole, Mom said, "I would like you to cremate me when I’m gone."

"Really?" my wife, Danelle, replied. I think Danelle was the only other person not chewing.

"Yes, I think so," Mom said, "Dad and I have discussed it and we think cremation is best."

* * *

Since I was a child, my mother has always wanted to discuss serious issues. We were never a family for much frivolous talk. For instance, long before it was fashionable, mom said to my brother and me (we were probably eight and ten): "Do you guys want to talk about sex?"

"Uhhh, not really."

"It’s okay, we should talk about it," she said. And, so we did. Again and again, or so it seemed. Mom has always believed in talking things through.

So, it was no great surprise when she started a conversation about how we should dispose of her body when she stops breathing. It was typical dinner conversation.

* * *

"What do you think?" she said, looking at me.

"I don’t like it," I said.

"Really? What about you?" she said, turning to my older brother.

"I don’t agree with cremation," he said.

"Well, well. Isn’t that interesting," Mom replied, shooting a quick glance at my father sitting next to her.

My brother is a professor of church history at a Midwestern seminary and it often seems that he knows just about everything there is to know about the history of Christian thought. As it turned out, his objections to the idea of cremating my mother were based on an analysis of the opinions of the early church fathers and Christian tradition. He mentioned a few examples of what our theological forefathers thought of the idea. His arguments made good sense.

My opinions were much less rational. "I just don’t like it," I began. "It would seem wrong to incinerate your body when you die."

Mom said, "But, I will be gone. You know that, of course. What was me will be departed."

"Yes and no," I said, still unsure of what I was saying. "Even if you accept that the body and the soul are completely distinct, and when the body stops functioning the soul lives on somewhere else, it is still wrong to obliterate the body of a person. Yours are the cheeks I have kissed, the hands I have held. There is a connection of some kind between our love and our bodies. Isn't that also the reason why organ donation is so precious, not just because someone else might be able to see with your eyes, but because your eyes are a remarkable gift to give, even after you have stopped using them?"

Mother was surprised that we would object. As it turned out, my parents had been discussing this issue with many of their longtime friends—spiritual/political conservatives, all of them—and they had all come to this decision together. One of their older friends, in fact, had recently passed away after a long illness and had delighted (literally) in planning his own cremation.

My parents' parents, who were young adults during the Great Depression, would never have considered cremation as an option. Much like my brother's opinion, my grandparents would have objected to cremation on traditional grounds. You just didn't do it if you were a Christian in America. Cremation was something done by atheists and Hindus, they thought.

Times have changed. My own conservative parents don't want anyone visiting their gravesites. And they desperately don't want open casket funerals.

"Dust to dust, that is what seems right," Mom said at dinner.

My parents are of a generation that has already watched its parents die. They didn't like the nursing home dirtiness of it, and they quietly vowed to try and take care so that—when their own time came—not only would they not bother their children as slow-dying financial burdens, but they would clean up the mess they left. A tidy urn.

Our passing conversation has stayed with me over the last year or so. And so, I composed the following letter to my mother and father.

Dear Mom and Dad,
These are the reasons why I don’t want to cremate you when you die. These are the reasons why I want to bury you in a simple way.

First, bodies are sacred.
We agree that life is fleeting—and I know that the older you become the more sensitive you become to this—but it is exactly because life is fleeting that our bodies are sacred. What you do with yours is much of what you leave here when you die. Our actions are sacred—or, have the potential to be sacred—as much as our meditations and prayers are so. Too often, I think, we assume that what we do ‘in our heads’ is more valuable than what we do in our bodies. What you do with your body is what you know to be true.

One of the many poignant stories from the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster is the story of the death of a New York City Fire Department Chaplain, a Franciscan. In the midst of the terror, while performing Last Rites to the dying, he was struck by flying debris and killed. When his body was discovered, the fire fighters draped his body in a sheet and carried it to the nearby church where he lived. They placed him on the altar and gathered around to pray. His body was meaningful because what he did in it was also full of meaning.

Mom, when you take the hand of the old woman at the soup kitchen, and Dad, when you sing out strong your love for God, you are showing your bodies to be sacred places. Can you see, then, why your physical body remains meaningful to me after you are done with it—why I would like to at least show it respect as one might a holy book (by burying it)? You created a lot of meaning in there.

Medieval Christians were fanatical on this point. Holy relics of the saints were big business. Pilgrims would travel for months on foot to reach a cathedral or some other holy place where they could see, or even touch, one of the bones of the martyrs, or a drop of the Virgin Mary’s blood, or some other piece of physical remembrance of someone’s body. A few years ago, I saw an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York of marble icons from a monastery in Egypt. I was struck when the tape-recorded guide pointed out the portions of the marble that appeared to have been rubbed off by hundreds of years of caressing and kissing the images. What devotion! I thought.

I don’t want to keep your bones around so that I can touch and kiss them, but I can understand—and even admire—the emotion and passion behind these actions.

I like to have icons around our house. I also like to have pictures of your parents and grandparents around. I keep many books around, too—books that, in many cases, I read years ago and may not read in detail again. But I like to be around people like Kierkegaard, Teresa of Avila, Dostoevsky, and Flannery O’Connor. Who wouldn’t? The people behind our images are reminders of who we want to be. After you are gone, I want to be around you when I can. I want to be reminded—not of who you were—but of who you are—because our lives here are fleeting, and like a work of art, we live on in ways that we do not know or even understand.

Second, I want to plant your bodies like seeds.
There is a cemetery a couple of miles from our house that the kids find fascinating. It is on Bunker Hill Road, just off the old King’s Highway, which dates to the mid-eighteenth century. This old graveyard is one of the few places I know where you can stand for fifteen minutes and hear only natural sounds. Cars hardly ever drive by on the dirt road and there are no houses within several thousand yards. I think that the kids like the graveyard because they enjoy thinking through what death is all about. They read the gravestones carefully and think aloud about who the people might be who are buried there. We talk about the families that are buried there as if we knew them—the Howards and the Sewalls, for instance—and the relationships between the great-grandparents, the grandparents, the children, and the great-grandchildren.The bodies that are tucked in their coffins and placed snuggly in the ground there, are planted as memories and foundations for what might come in the future.

The New Testament, of course, says that the Lord will return and our bodies will be resurrected to meet him in the air. Christians have interpreted this passage literally for millenia. Medieval and Renaissance artists depicted realistic pictures of body parts emerging from the mouths of beasts, raising from the ground and the waters, and reassembling in the air on the way to the clouds. I have no such visions. But after you die, I will see your body as a planting, like a new tree, to create new life—in the natural world and also in our human and Sweeney family.

Third, I would like to let God be God.
Even if we separate the soul from the body at death, your body remains the sacred vessel (not a ‘prison,’ as some mystics have said) for your soul here on earth. It was composed out of the earth, as we know from Genesis, and to the earth it should return. Cremation takes into our hands what the earth can easily and fruitfully accomplish on its own, in its time.

An elegant woman in her 80s recently came to a talk that I gave. The subject of the talk was embodied prayer, and she was moved to introduce herself to me afterwards.

"I want to tell you a brief story," she said. "I have a very good friend who died last year. She is about my age and we have been friends for decades. I know each of her nine children, and then their children. Most of her family still lives within easy driving distance of her home.

"The day that she died, her children gathered together in her home. They were not just sad, grieving. They washed her body." At this, the woman telling me the story began to cry.

"Her nine children encircled her body and washed it, lovingly. They told stories about their mother and they laughed and they cried. Then, someone called the funeral home and the hearse came to pick her up. The children, some of them in their sixties, carried their mother to the car and as it drove away to the funeral home, they stood in the street and waved."

Somewhere, William Blake said that dying was simply like passing from one room to the next. Blake died on his deathbed, singing, his biographers say. I believe that death is like that, too. And when it happens to you, I think you will soon find yourself in song.

Please don’t worry about the mess you leave behind. I would like to be bothered with tending to it.

Copyright ©2003 by Jon Sweeney