Burial

George & Marge

Grandpa George as a young man

My mother’s father recently died. He was a good, humble, loving, hardworking man. He was a lifelong church member, a descendant of folks who joined the church in  New York, lived through Kirtland, Missouri, Nauvoo, made the long walk over the plains, and settled in Weber County. He was a veteran who served in the air force. He and my grandma raised their four daughters in Ogden. In retirement, they moved back east and lived in Mendon, NY. They served faithfully for years in the Palmyra temple. They later moved to Nauvoo and served in the temple there. While they were living in Nauvoo, nine years ago, he had a stroke. He was paralyzed but worked hard and regained some mobility, though he was basically confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. After his first stroke, they moved back to Ogden. In recent years, he had more small strokes and early this summer he suffered a massive brain bleed that resulted days later in his death. In all his years after the stroke I never once heard him complain. And he died with dignity and without desperation. I love him.

Emma & George

Grandpa George last year with my youngest daughter. The last time we saw him alive, other than through skype.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I packed the three kids into the minivan and made the long drive out from Rochester, New York to Ogden, Utah to his funeral. This was the second time in about a year and a half that we had traveled to Utah for a grandparent’s funeral (my dad’s mom died last January. As we rolled across the plains and through the mountains into the setting sun, and then back into the rising sun a few days later, my thoughts were preoccupied by the idea of burial, and this post is an attempt to gather those thoughts.

In our western culture we traditionally bury our dead in the earth. Consistent with that tradition, church policy expresses a preference for burial over cremation.

But why burial? Do we bury to get rid of the body? To hide it from our view as it moulders?To dispose of it?  Perhaps, at least in part, but not everything that is buried is disposed of, though. People bury other things, as well, aside from bodies and garbage. People bury treasures. Time capsules. Things they want to be kept safe. Things they want to protect from theft or from rot. Maybe things they want to preserve for the future.

But the impulse to bury things to preserve them is not always a good one. Although he speaks in a parable, Jesus speaks harshly of a man who hides his Lord’s treasure in the earth to preserve it. The lesson seems to be (at least in part) that rather than think only of preserving wealth to ourselves, we should instead use it to do good, because it has no inherent value sitting there in earth. Its value, rather, lies in what it can do when it is put to use. The Lord’s penny invested with diligence is worth more than the penny that just bears minimal interest, and the penny that just sits in the earth is worth nothing.

And often, burying our treasures to preserve them to ourselves doesn’t even work. In this fallen world all things decay and fail, moth and rust corrupt the treasures that we bury, robbers dig them up, and those who hide up treasure to keep it to themselves will often find that it has become “slippery,” in the words of Samuel’s curse on the Nephite gold. There is only one escape from Samuel’s curse: he who is righteous and hides up his treasure “unto the Lord,” rather than unto himself, will find it again. He who seeks his treasure shall lose it, and he who consecrates his treasure to the Lord, divesting himself of it for Jesus’ sake, shall find it again.

People bury other things as well. We bury seeds in the earth, in the hope that they will spring forth with new life as living plants that will bear fruit that can nourish, preserving and strengthening life, herbs that can add savor to life, relieve pain, and heal. We don’t usually call it burying, we call it planting; but it is a similar act, just in a different context and with a different expectation.

I think burying the dead should have something in common with hiding up treasures unto the Lord, and with planting seeds. We bury the dead not as someone throwing broken dishes down a dried up well, but as Moroni, Mormon, or Ammaron carefully hiding up the sacred relics. We bury our dead because the body, our physical self, is not just a husk, but a sacred relic created in God’s image, and a treasure.

We Christians have a complicated relationship with our bodies. On the one hand we believe they are created in God’s image and are his handiwork. And we as Mormons are reminded even more than other Christians that physical flesh is divine. On the other hand, we are also constantly reminded that our flesh is errant, corrupt, sinful, and a natural enemy to God. I think reconciliation lies in the hope that our flesh, despite its evil nature, will be redeemed. If we can submit the will of our flesh to the will of the Spirit, as Jesus did, then our flesh can be redeemed from its sinful nature. Our physical self does not need to be despised and eradicated, but tamed and put to consecrated use. And if it is consecrated, through grace, it can also be redeemed and made holy. Thus our bodies, despite their weaknesses, can truly be our holy relics, our treasures, pennies entrusted to our care by a loving God.

So when we die, we can bury our loved ones’ bodies not as garbage, but hide them up as treasure. We know that burying the body will not actually preserve it, because in this fallen world all things decline and fail. Moth and rust will corrupt even precious metals, and we know our organic bodies, once dead, are even more subject to corruption and decomposition. But still, we hide these relics up unto the Lord–the only way to escape Samuel’s curse–because we trust him to take these broken, errant physical remains and redeem them, make them his, and make them by his grace to be something better than the mortal selves they once were; trusting that unlike our mortal life, which slips away from us each second that we live as mortals, our resurrected life will be redeemed from the fall and will no longer be “slippery.”

We hide our dead bodies up unto the Lord in the hope that they will spring forth in the

Casket

Grandpa George’s casket, ready for burial.

resurrection as living branches of the true vine, bearing the infinite potential of eternal life within themselves like a seed. And like seeds, our physical selves must first die before they can be reborn in new life.

Dedicating a grave has something in common with Moroni begging the Lord to keep the relics safe in the hope that they would one day far into the future be brought out of the earth and put to consecrated use. It also has something in common with a farmer begging the Lord to prosper his planted seeds, in the hope that one day in the not too distant future they will spring forth and will grow until they bear fruit. We don’t just bury our dead; we hide them up unto the Lord; we plant them in the hope of the resurrection.

 

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Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    Beautiful. Thank you! These thoughts help me reflect on my family’s own recent burying of a loved one.

  2. Beautiful piece, this.

    I’ve always wondered at the resistance some have shown to cremation. It always struck me as the cleanest, cheapest, most space-efficient option, and it seems to me that it could be given just as much symbolic meaning as burial, what with the purifying fire, rising smoke, and all that (although, there aren’t any attractive mental images of a crematorium). However, as I’ve gotten older and visited my wife’s ancestors in their cemeteries, I’ve definitely felt a peace and reverence as I’ve thought of them slumbering beneath the earth. It feels they’re just resting there, a pause between what has passed and what will occur, and it’s a beautiful feeling to visit them there.

  3. This post itself, especially its concluding paragraph, is a treasure. Thank you.

  4. Thank you, Jason and Ardis.

    Martin, I think resistance to cremation is not unique to LDS, but was a common thing in Christianity in general over the past few centuries, probably because it was seen as a pagan tradition. The Catholic explanation I have heard is that there was a concern that it did not show proper reverence for the body, and might even be seen as a denial of the resurrection. I’ve never heard an official LDS explanation, but I imagine it would be similar. But in that case of Catholics, they have come to accept that cremation can be done with proper reverence and with a recognition of the resurrection, so it is no longer a prohibition, just a caution that if a body is cremated, it should be done with proper reverence. The LDS policy is similar: cremation is not prohibited, but is not normally encouraged.

    I think most funerary traditions can, with some creativity, be interpreted in ways that honor the body are compatible with a belief in the resurrection. My thoughts here, giving a unique Mormon take on burial, are attempt to find meaning in burial, but are not a rejection of ways that other traditions could also be meaningful.

  5. Naismith says:

    Appreciated the personal sharing and beautiful writing on the nature of our bodies.

    However, I am not sure that it is accurate to say that “church policy” expresses a preference for burial over cremation.

    What the handbook actually says is, “The Church does not normally encourage cremation.”

    I dunno, I find a huge gap between those two, and I question whether such a preference is elevated to the level of “policy.”

    More importantly, one can be both cremated AND buried. That is what my non-LDS family does. They have a tomb marker in a cemetery and the ashes are placed in a nice marble (or whatever) cube that is buried in the plot during a typical graveside service. But taking up much less room and costing much less.

    Within a few decades, a buried body would end up in the same state, so I don’t see much difference.

    Burial grosses me out. All those worms and whatever running through my body. It does not seem respectful. Cremation seems cleaner.

    It seems like first-world arrogance to insist on taking up so much ground space for the burial of a full body. And it is very expensive to ship any distance.

    And I hope that any of my organs can be of use to someone else as my last act of service. Some faith traditions who have super-strong feelings about keeping the body together for the resurrection discourage organ donation for that reason.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Wonderful. Think links to the holy relics and agriculture resonate.

    re: Cremation. The church used to formally discourage it out of the Christian traditional opposition. We have taken the more neutral stance for some time now.

  7. I don’t know whether there has or has not ever been a strongly-worded condemnation of cremation from Church leaders, but I do think it’s fair to say that — in the past, at least — Church leaders have preferred burial. Some clips from a file I keep:

    First Presidency, 1916 — “The Church has never expressed itself officially on the questions of cremation, perhaps for the reason that the idea of deviating from the time honored custom of burying our dead in the earth has never appealed to any of its general authorities, and we may add that we hardly think it ever will. At the same time, if any of our Swiss and German saints favor cremation, they of course are at perfect liberty to resort to burning the body instead of burying it in other earth, but none of our missionaries should encourage this practice.”

    First Presidency, 1932 — “The Church has never encouraged cremation as a proper method of disposing of the remains of the dead. We believe it proper to consign them to mother earth; that has always been the custom. We suppose that perhaps in the ultimate results it makes little difference what disposition is made of the bodies of those who die, but we advise Latter-day Saints to adhere to the policy which has thus far been pursued and that the bodies of those who die be buried in the earth.”

    John A. Widtsoe, 1942 — “The Church has made no statement as far as I know concerning the subject, but again, it is generally understood that the Church favors the burial of the body in the ground. Whether a person is buried in the ground or burned or cremated after death, can not, of course, make any difference as far as resurrection is concerned. Burial in the temple robes is the established practice of the Church; and, if I knew that my body were to be cremated I think I should prefer to have it cremated in the temple robes.”

  8. Burial is becoming a privelege if the affluent, impossible in much of the world. Does the Church want to assist paying for burials?

  9. I very much love and appreciate the sentiment of the post. My biggest concern in the elevation of burial as “the best option” or “the LDS preferred option” is that it leaves out so many other things as “second best”.

    Just over a month ago now, my dad died. He was a convert to the Church, basically getting a second chance at life in his late 30’s. Rather than burial, he decided to donate his body to the U of U medical center, to help the students learn. They have a memorial stone up there for people who do this, so a marker will at least be kept. When the University is done with the body, they will cremate what’s left and mail it to me, after which I’ll get it to wherever my mother is at the time.

    He will never wear his temple clothes again.

    I am an organ donor. This body may have its issues, but at least some parts could be of use to someone. I don’t expect my body will need to be used as a basis for a new body, nor do I believe any memorial to me will need to be adorned with it to be meaningful and/or informative. Ultimately, it’s all returning to the dust from whence it came.

    So while this post is a wonderful, beautiful thought, my concern is for those who will take it as another reason to not “settle” for something different. Honor the person who occupied that body, use it in whatever form as part of your memories, just remember that it’s only a shell, discarded while the owner is waiting for the new model they have on backorder.

  10. Just to be clear, this is not an argument for burial over other traditions, it is an attempt to find some meaning in burial, not because our is better than other traditions, but because that is the tradition that I know and that my family is a part of. Other traditions can be just a meaningful, I’m sure.

    As for cremation and church policy, I thought a preference for burial was a fair way to summarize the policy to not normally encourage cremation; it’s only a preference, not a mandate, and it’s only a policy (like the policy to that kitchens in church buildings are for warming food, not preparing it, for example) not a doctrine or a commandment. But if I overstated it, I’m happy to be corrected. The particulars of church policy on that point are so not the point of the post.

  11. When I was in Kenya I noticed the lack of cemetaries. I was told by one pastor “in Kenya we are buried in the land where we were born. No markers. We here always walk among the living and the dead”
    For some reason I liked that thought, all the land had a sacred feel after that.

  12. RockiesGma says:

    I have also pondered burial. I’ve come to see that whether the body is buried into a grave, or cremated and the ashes scattered at sea, say, we all are born into mortality of dust and we all return to dust. For even ashes scattered at sea are consumed/buried by inhabitants therein, and when they perish, they return to dust as well. If ashes remain in an urn, they are buried in the urn. When the earth burns at the end, how deep will the burning reach from the elements melting with a fervent heat? I tremble at the thought of such a fate for this beautiful planet, and I rejoice that it, like us, will be renewed to a much more glorious state. I love the imagery of this post with the connections to sacred relics, consecration, and living and dying unto the Lord. By whatever means we take care of bodies as loved ones lay this mortal by, they eventually return to the earth of which they came. How wondrous that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness there of; the world, and they that dwell therein. It all seems right, good, and holy to me. Thank you for this very beautifully written post, jkc. My heart goes out to you during this difficult time for your family.