Are we, as individuals, important?
Do our individual lives matter?
The 1970s rock band Kansas answered decisively when they sang:
All we do
Crumbles to the ground …
Nothin’ last forever
but the earth and sky
It slips away …
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind …
Dust in the wind …
Dust in the wind …
Judaism teaches that each and every human being is created in the image of God, possessing intrinsic holiness. Our individual lives matter, as do our actions. We are not simply "dust in the wind." Our lives are not meaningless. Far from it, our souls are immortal and our good choices and positive actions affect eternity — and are never forgotten, even if our graves are seldom or never visited.
Modern society tends to blind us to our individual importance. The media focuses on celebrities. Normal people are usually ignored, and their importance is subtly downplayed.
We need to be reminded that our lives are important. That we will be remembered. That the world will take note, in some way, that we lived. That we died. That our lives had meaning. Throughout history, graves and tombstones provide a unique and powerful lesson that our lives mattered. In describing his desire for a burial and a tombstone, one commentator put it simply:
All I really wanted was a witness. To say I was. To say, daft as it still sounds, maybe I am.1
A burial plot provides this witness. The person, housing a spirit, a Neshamah, a soul lived, loved, tried his best — and returned to his Maker.
Many people who choose cremation also request that their ashes be scattered. Scattering ashes is appealing since it is cheaper (you don’t have to pay for a burial plot or a cremation niche) and the ashes can be scattered in a beautiful forest, or in the sea. But what does scattering do to memory? After the poetic thrill captured by the beauty of the place at scattering, one should ask: Where do these ashes really end up?
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 …"2
After ashes are scattered, there is no grave to visit. No names and dates. There is no special place declaring, "This individual lived." It is as if the physical world is stating, "This person didn’t really exist."
Individuals are important. When people’s remains are burned, ground up, and then scattered, the subtle societal message is "Your body left no mark on the world. You left no mark on the world. You were only dust in the wind."
When individuals are given a proper burial in a small but respectful marked burial plot, where only one individual is buried, we and the world declare: "This person lived. He mattered. He left his mark on the world. He existed. And in some way, he still does."
1 Lynch, The Undertaking, 199.
2 Schmidt, Dust to Dust, 27.