Whoever you are and from wherever you come
(for I know that you will come)
I am Cyrus,
and I won for the Persians their empire.
Do not, therefore, begrudge me
This little earth that covers my body.
Epitaph of Cyrus the Great
(d. 529 BCE)
Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals. William Gladstone, British Prime Minister, 1809–1898
And Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba … And Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her. And Abraham stood up from before his dead, and spoke to the children of Heth, saying, "I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead …" Genesis 23:2–4.
Anyone dealing with a dead body must know that he is dealing with a sacred object: The body of a person is not simply a container for holiness, that served the holy soul, rather it itself became sacred … similar to a Torah scroll. During the life of a person, while his soul … is in it, [the body] is called a living Torah scroll (it is important a person not forget this, and be careful with his Torah scroll and those of his friends), and so, one who witnesses the moment of death of a person it is as if he is watching a Torah scroll burn …Rabbi Tucazinsky, Gesher HaChaim, 1:65.
The bodies of our newly dead are not debris, nor remnant … They are, rather, changelings, incubates, hatchlings of a new reality that bear our names and dates, our image and likenesses, as surely in the eyes and ears of our children and grandchildren as did word of our birth in the ears of our parents and their parents. It is wise to treat such new things tenderly, carefully, with honor. Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), 22.
There is a certain irony in the scattering of ashes, given that at one time (in the mid-1800s) only the ashes of cremated criminals were scattered in order to show the severity of their criminal punishment. Scattering ashes … began with "impious miscreants … In order to destroy the memory of the past …" Schmidt, Dust to Dust, 27.
Americans are starting to accept, if not embrace, this fundamental fact of biology: that the natural end of all life is decomposition and decay. Instead of fighting it at almost all cost as we have for the better part of the last century — with toxic chemicals, bulletproof metal caskets, and the concrete bunker that is the burial vault, all of which will only delay, not halt, the inevitable — we’re finally seeing the wisdom of allowing Mother Nature to run her natural course Mark Harris, Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial (New York: Scribner, 2007), 186.
Upon my buried body lay
Lightly, gently, earth.
Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, The Maid’s Tragedy, ed. T. W. Craik (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999), II:i.
[After] the moment of death … we should get … out of the way, with our bodies decently planted in the earth to nourish other forms of life — weeds, flowers, shrubs, trees, which support other forms of life, which support the ongoing human pageant — the lives of our children. That seems good enough to me. Edward Abbey in Bob Butz, Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Natural Burial (Traverse City, MI: Spirituality & Health Books, 2009), 5.
The cemetery is an open space among the ruins,
Covered in winter with violets and daisies.
It might make one in love with death, to think that one
should be buried in so sweet a place.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais (Nabu Press, 2010), 57.