Does the manner in which we treat our dead reflect how we view ourselves? I think it does.
I began thinking about this issue after reading a splendid article by my good friend Joseph Bottum, in which he opined in First Things that San Francisco’s banning of cemeteries within its limits was a political statement. From “Death and Politics:”
Still, even the most ardent modernist might feel some misgivings about a rejection of the dead as complete as San Francisco’s. And such misgivings reflect, however dimly, a deep political insightfor a city without cemeteries has failed at one of the first reasons for having cities at all. Somewhere in those banished graveyards was a metaphysical ground for politics, and buried in them was a truth that too much of modern political theory seems to have forgotten: The living give us crowds. The dead give us communities...
Think of this, too, in terms of the family. In all Western cultures, a person was once “gathered to his fathers.” But constant relocation and the urban distaste for cemeteries have made care of graves difficult. Why shouldn’t we expect family tradition to weaken at the same time as family graves begin to disappear?...The modern failure of funerals serves as both a cause and a symptom of the shattering of culture, first into the nuclear family, then into atomized individuals, and at last into nothingnesswith, for instance, the increasing use of “anonymous death,” a European innovation now beginning to appear in America, where the dead are abandoned without ceremony in deliberately unmarked graves, or their corpses are cremated with the ashes spread across large and indifferent spaces.
With the loss of graves and urn niches, Bottum is saying, we lose continuity, history, and a sense of being part of greater humanity.(SF does have one columbarium that it is nearly full and will be allowed to expand. But his point remains.)
I think it may also reflect an increasing loss in respect for the importance of being human. Because we believe that human life is important, we treat cadavers with respect, for example, covering them when in public view to preserve privacy—even though the dead person is quite beyond being aware of being exposed to view. We bury our loved ones, sometimes with great pomp and at great expense. Some churches disfavor cremation because of the belief that the body will be raised at the end of time, reflecting a view about human life being more then purely material.
But cremation too is usually carried out with great respect. People place the urns of loved ones in cemetery niches, in home shrines, or as another example, respectfully scattered at sea or in rose gardens. (Of course, some end up in closets.)
So, what—if anything—are we to make of a new process of body disposal that liquefies almost all of the body and deposits it in the sewer system. From the SF Chronicle story:
That, he says, is the biggest misconception about alkaline hydrolysis, a green alternative to cremation that involves liquefying human remains with potassium hydroxide and 300-degree heat. The environmental benefits of hydrolysis are hard to argue with: The process results in only a fraction of the carbon emissions of a traditional cremation.
But when Edwards began offering the service in January - he says he’s the first funeral home in the United States to do so - the media “distorted the facts,” alleging that the liquid created by hydrolysis (only the bone residue is saved for an urn) gets flushed. “I mean, for all intents and purposes, the liquid remains are released back into the water treatment facility,” Edwards concedes. “So yeah, that does mean they go down the drain. But it doesn’t mean somebody is standing behind a machine with a great big ... commode, and you’re flushing grandma down the drain.
Same diff. The question is whether the new process says anything about our evolving views regarding the importance—or lack thereof—of human life? Indeed, does it take the impersonalization and anti-metaphysical impetus that so concerned Bottum to the next level? I think it may.
Consider: All but bone residue becomes one with sewage in this process. That’s a pretty strong symbolic statement. In essence, the message seems to be that we are no greater than the sum of our chemistry. Or, it may be a statement that we are one with all that is, but not exceptional in that regard, no more valuable than the squirrel found dead in the park. The green issue, on the other hand, is at least a statement from the non grave about the deceased person’s values. Which gets us back to Bottum’s point about the politics of death.
So, is my discomfort about this new method merely an old fogey resisting modernity? Or, does chemically liquifying remains for impersonal disposal make an implicit statement about how we increasingly perceive ourselves as no more than fauna? I am still not sure. But read Bottum’s whole piece. It is worth pondering.