Burial, Belief, and the Forgotten

Posted on May 6, 2013


It is only the mourners who believe in the sanctity of any particular grave… or person.

The Jamestown colony certainly had a rough start in those early years of 1607-1610 or so, and cannibalism was described in various chronicles of the time.  Recently, archaeologists discovered hard evidence that supports that history: the bones of a teenager showing marks of butchering, and thrown in a trash pit along with animal bones and other refuse.

Well, that got me to thinking: why the trash pit?  She was a human being, and in a small colony like Jamestown, everyone certainly knew everyone else, at least by sight.  I can understand cannibalism under the harsh circumstances, but why not inter her bones in a proper grave?

I’m guessing this was a psychologically necessary separation in the perpetrators’ minds.  They were desperate, probably did not want to dwell on exactly what they were doing, and the fact that they might have known the girl only made it worse.  Thus, once the decision was made to butcher and eat her corpse, there had to be a sort of mental shift to categorize her as “food” rather than “Jane,” and “food” she must stay, for the sanity of the survivors.   Had they interred her bones in a proper grave, that would amount to looking directly into the abyss of what they had done.  So – nope, no grave for Jane.

It’s aberrations like that, though, that reveal something about what we think we believe, and what we really believe.  In the Christian tradition, when a loved one dies, we inter them with care, with markers and epitaphs.  We launch them into their “eternal rest” to await Judgment Day.  We consecrate our graveyards in the expectation that they will remain undisturbed.

Yet we know that they will not remain undisturbed.

HamletRemember the gravedigger scene in Hamlet? The first gravedigger jokes as they work, “What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?… a grave-maker:  the houses that he makes last till doomsday.”  He proves himself wrong  as Hamlet approaches, and the gravedigger tosses a skull out onto the ground.  “…This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull, the king’s jester.”  “…Alas, poor Yorick!”

So much for eternal rest!  It was common practice in those days – days of crowded church graveyards that had served for centuries – to exhume and discard older bones to make way for the newly dead, to pronounce the mantras about awaiting Judgment Day, and to convince oneself somehow that the dearly departed weren’t going to have to give up their graves one day.  I doubt much thought was given to who was shoved out of the way the day before, or their eternal rest.

The farther removed we are from the corpse in the grave, the less our own religious beliefs seem to apply.  What does that say about our beliefs?  If belief is relative, if it only applies to the freshly interred with living relatives to watch over the grave, then did we ever really believe at all in the sanctity of the grave?

It’s a sad thing to see an abandoned graveyard, overgrown, unvisited, the stones toppled or broken, until the graves are forgotten entirely.  Even King Richard III ended up under a parking lot.  Then there are those who are intentionally relocated to make way for development as real estate becomes ever more scarce.  Of those who are moved, a mere century or two in the ground will render your ancestors fit for the archaeologist’s curiosity as well, sifting the soil for teeth, buttons, or coffin nails.

CemeteryThe cemetery containing my parents’ grave is large, parklike, and surrounded by dense development on all sides.  I have no illusions that one day, a hundred or so years after the last burial, the land will be seen as more important than the graves full of “ancient” strangers that no one knows, marked by eroding stones with meaningless names.  One day, the living will make that cemetery into something else more useful to them.

This is why I have made my decision: if my survivors really, really want a place to visit my dead self, then I’ll allow burial in a military cemetery (I’m not picky about which one).  If no one much cares, then my preference is cremation and scattering with no marker.

Poof.  Gone.  No grave to desecrate, no bones to move, and no one to forget.