Chicago Diarist: On Burying the Dead

(Note: I wrote this in July 2010)

On the first day of my first quarter of Divinity School, I was dispatched to preside at a burial. My pastor couldn’t get down to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery that day, so I made the trip–in a borrowed clergy shirt, borrowed black pants, borrowed car, carrying a borrowed liturgical manual and borrowed authority. I remember it as a warm, Indian-summer day, a very long way out from the city, and I barely caught up with the mourners in time to say a few apt or inapt words over his ashes and see them installed in the columbarium wall. There were not many there, but most were strangers. The daughter of the deceased, whom I knew from church, was pursed with grief (though being anxious by nature, I imagined at the time it was anger at my unneeded presence). The man, once a soldier, now ash, was laid to rest alongside comrades he never knew.

On the last day of my last quarter of Divinity School, my phone battery was almost dead when I retrieved a panicked voice message from a young woman I had met during my quarter of clinical pastoral education the summer before. When I finally got hold of her in turn, she asked if I would do a funeral. I didn’t think I could, because I had a meeting for my job, but I would try to find someone. “Who is it for?” I asked. “My baby,” the young woman sobbed. I was on my way as soon as I could be. Heading for the cemetery on Roosevelt Road, I stopped first at Forest Home Cemetary, a sprawling, Dickensian sward just west of the city. Nobody was there. I pushed west to Chapel Hill Gardens. Nothing. They probably don’t bury any poor city kids out here anyway, I thought. On my way back in, I ran into Oakridge, which I had never seen before. The staff told me I had just missed them.

In between those two burials I spent a summer as a hospice chaplain–dropping in on the empty funeral home chapel of the bereaved mother’s own mother–and wrote a thesis about death. My cousins and I walked Grandma Dueholm across 225th Street from Bone Lake Lutheran Church to its kirkegaard.

It didn’t stop there. During my year at Bethel-Imani, there were a lot of funerals. I assisted with at least four, from a baby girl to an elderly woman and a couple in between. I came back for two more after my internship was done. Last August I committed Grandma Wagner to the earth of Chilton, Wisconsin.

All of this could be evidence of morbidity on my part, though I would stress that death is in fact a big freaking deal and that to believe otherwise requires a pretty dim view of human consciousness. More to the point, however, a lot of death-work is a consequence of being around people who die and having the kind of job that makes everyone turn to you when it happens. So I have tried to keep an eye on the on-going discussion of what should be done with the dead. Thomas Lynch wrote a perceptive and moving article about the theological and ritual poverty of contemporary American funeral practice, something pastors (and people who expect to die) ought to read. I look forward to reading Thomas Long’s Accompany Them With Singing as soon as I can.

Inevitably some of this lament is centered on the practice of cremation. For most Protestant Christians, this practice is not in itself objectionable, but it is done in such a way that it suggests irreverence toward the human body and its disposition. The dead are wheeled out of a hospital room, disposed of, and next glimpsed as a smiling picture from the prime of life at a celebration and memorial that holds only an awkward place for the actual event of decease. You could call this a sign of cultural maturity–that we aren’t irrationally attached to a de-animated heap of cells–but to me it speaks more to an unappeasable anxiety. We leap from sad or fretful or awkward anticipation all the way to loving retrospect, with little time taken for the brute fact of departure and the pious gestures toward the body that dare us to hope rather than merely remember.

The problem with the main alternative–burial–is that for many of us, it’s hard to know where it should happen. At the end of Gilead, narrator and protagonist John Ames, near his death, imagines his own committal:

This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love–I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.

When who you are and where you are knot together too tightly to be separated, this is not such a hard question. All my grandparents are buried within a day’s walk of where they were born. If you can fill a church sanctuary or a funeral home anywhere with church ladies making open-faced sandwiches, boon companions, the guy who ran the service station, and people who hated your guts but wouldn’t want to not show up, you have a place to get buried. But if most of you reading this were to die today, where would you be fittingly put down to smolder away the time? I have a lot of fondness for Hudson, Wisconsin, but there wouldn’t be much point in being buried a day’s walk from there in any direction. Madison is a great place, but it hasn’t been home for a while. Deep Springs has some appeal, but it’s just kind of wrong–it’s a place meant to be a way station, not a destination. Chicago’s boneyards are full, and please don’t put me down in the suburbs. I could rest with the Dueholms in Bone Lake, but I never lived there and I’d hate to be an interloper in death.

So maybe melding with some Danish riverbed or getting dumped off the steeple of a venerable carcass of a church would be all right. In a sense it doesn’t matter. Part of me likes the idea of some long-distant, hungover, atheist Dueholm seeing my name somewhere and wondering what she has to do with me and with that place. But then there are supervolcanoes and methane bubbles and meteors and stuff, so there’s no point in gaming the system. What matters is for someone to give it some thought, and for the community to be visibly present as we are returned to the elements from which God called us into existence–the community in which we walked on this earthly pilgrimage, the community of grace by which we lived until the end.

So if I shuffle off tomorrow, have a big old churchy funeral with lots of hymns–gospel ones, celebratory ones, a chorale or two–and Isaiah 25 and Romans 7 and “I am the resurrection and the life” and holy communion. See if Augustana has some room in their columbarium and sing me down to 55th street. Get drunk across the street at Jimmy’s and leave me there to be covered with the sounds of the organ and the jagged talk of the University students and the rapid-fire delivery of the confidence men and the firehouse sirens and the bar-time outspill. And if I don’t, ask me again in ten years. But whenever and wherever it happens, I hope some people come along for the ride. I’ll come along for yours.

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