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A Living & Dead Question for NPR Berlin Listeners

Thomas Lynch

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Ask any gathering—students at university, clergy or hospice workers, medical or mortuary sorts—ask how many have ever been to a graveside or watched a burial and ninety-five out of every hundred raise a hand.  The hillside and headstones, the opened grave and black-clad mourners are fixtures in our commemorative consciousness.  If not in real life, then on T.V., we’ve seen enough burials to know the drill.

Ask next how many have been to a crematory and witnessed a body committed to the fire and roughly the reverse is true: less than 5% have actually, in the parlance of the experienced, “been there, done that.”

Fifty years ago, when the cremation rate in the United States was still in the low single digits, this would have made perfect sense.  But today, when the national rate is approaching 40% and is predicted to be over 50% half way through the coming decade, it represents a kind of disconnect – an estrangement between the living and the dead.

When I invite, as is also our policy, any and all of those families who opt for cremation to come with us to the crematory, “for their own purposes,” or to designate one among them to come along, “just to see everything is done properly,” it is often as if I’d invited them to a root canal or public stoning, to wit: a necessary but noxious procedure, the least said about which the better, thank you.  

How is it that so many people claim a preference for cremation but so few have any interest in knowing much about it?

As a nation we have thoroughly embraced the notion of cremation as an exercise in simplicity and cost efficiency.  But we remain thoroughly distanced from the fire itself and all its metaphors and meaning, its religious and ritual significance as a way of disposing of our dead.

For Christians, in particular – who account for most of the nation’s increase in cremations — this disconnect is even more telling.  In the place of funerals – the full bodied, full gospel, faith-fit-for-the-long-haul and heavy lifting of grief events our elders were accustomed to — what has evolved especially among white, suburban Protestants, is a downsized, “personalized,” user-friendly, Hallmarky soiree: the ubiquitous, customized, emotively neutral and religiously ambiguous memorial service, to which everyone is invited but the one who has died.

The dead have been more or less disappeared, cremated as a matter of pure function and the living gather elsewhere at their convenience to “celebrate the life” in a kind of obsequy-lite, where therapy is dispensed, closure proclaimed, biography enshrined and spirits are, it is supposed, uplifted.

If not disappeared entirely, the presence of the dead at such services is minimized, inurned, denatured, virtualized, made manageable and unrecognizable by cremation.   The “idea” of the deceased is feted for a great golf swing or good humor, a beautiful garden or well-hosted parties, while “the thing itself” – the corpse, has been dispensed with in private, dispatched without witness or rubric.

Even when the cremation follows a wake or visitation and a public service in the church or elsewhere, we rarely process to the crematory, not least because the retort is often housed in an “industrial” rather than memorial park.  This disinclination to go the distance with the dead we burn has something to do with our conflicted notions about fire which Western sensibilities and Western religious traditions still often associate with punishment and wastefulness.

This disconnect, this estrangement from the rudiments of death and disposition of the dead strikes me as perilous to the species.

Writer and funeral director Thomas Lynch (www.thomaslynch.com) is featured in The Really Big Questions’ final episode on death, with host Lynn Neary, this Saturday evening at 19.00 and Monday at 8:00 on NPR FM Berlin, 104.1.

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