02 October 2014

Six Feet Under

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
in our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity.
In our death, a resurrection; at the last a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

--Natalie Sleeth

Dear Friends,

After presiding at a grave side service a few weeks ago, the family of the 95 year old woman who had died did something I had not seen before.

They stayed by her grave until the casket had been lowered into the grave and the lid of the vault had been placed into position. It was not an easy task, taking the cemetery workers about 20 minutes and requiring special machinery to maneuver the 250+ pound metal casket into the vault and the 1,000+ pound vault cover into place.

Over the 13 years I’ve presided at graveside services I can’t remember another time when the family of the deceased person stayed to watch the casket lowered into the grave. In my experience, after the short graveside service, the family will linger a bit longer to shed more tears and share a few more stories before making their way back to their cars. It always struck me as odd to drive away from the cemetery with the casket still positioned above ground over the grave with artificial turf placed around it to mask the fact that it would be placed into a hole dug into the earth. I remember feeling guilty, like I had abandoned the deceased without ensuring that they actually made it to their final resting place.

The very first graveside I ever did was in Suffolk, England. After the funeral at the church, I rode in the funeral coach (aka the hearse) to a tiny village where there was a cemetery alongside a little Anglican church that was probably hundreds of years old. The simple wooden coffin was carried on pallbearers’ shoulders to the grave, a dark rectangular hole in the ground that smelled of damp, fresh earth. There was no artificial turf to mask the grave or hide the soil excavated. There was no concrete vault into which the coffin would be placed, no 1,000+ pound vault cover that needed to be positioned with special equipment. The pallbearers simply lowered the plain, wooden coffin into the grave using ordinary woven straps. 

And then, when I came to the line in the graveside service, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” without being told to, those around me each scooped up a handful of earth and solemnly cast it into the grave onto the coffin. And that was it. She was in her final resting place and eventually her body would be turned back into the dust from whence it had arisen.

When I die—which I expect to be many years from now, but who knows?—I hope my loved ones stay with my body until it is lowered into the ground or slipped into the crematory fire. 

If I am cremated, I don’t want my “cremains” (yes, that’s a real word) to sit in an urn on a mantel. Scatter my ashes in a wildly beautiful place, a serenely tranquil setting, or a place where I was bursting with the goodness and vitality of life. 

If I am buried, I don’t want to be sealed away from soil and water and worms in a vault or metal container. Place me in a wooden coffin in the same outfit I was wearing the day I entered the world and return me to the elements that gave rise to my flesh and bone in the first place. 

Please, no artificial turf or shallow platitudes. Cast earth into that deep, dusky grave as a sign of hope that we can indeed consign our loved ones to the earth (or fire) knowing that the story is not over, not even close, and that the love of God flowing through us in indestructible.

Peace be with you,


P.S. Burial or cremation? At one point in my life I thought I knew. Now I’m reconsidering.