Virginia Stem Owens

Dust or Ashes?

At the National Museum of Funeral History.

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Today, the increasingly popular option of cremation is slowly taking hold in black communities as well as white. It is easy enough to see why we are abandoning burial. Cremation costs approximately a quarter of the outlay for a burial. Also, survivors get to do what they like with the "cremains." A friend of mine bought a handmade honey pot (a la Winnie the Pooh) for her husband's ashes. She intends for her own to be added to the same pot upon her death. Another friend had her father's ashes deposited in the columbarium along the back wall of our church. Her husband's were scattered at sea in the Caribbean

Some people stick with burial as a way to assert their individuality. The museum is proud of its collection of "fantasy coffins" carved in Ghana to represent the life of the deceased—for example a canoe for a fisherman, or a chicken for a nurturing tribal mother. Westerners have discovered this service and have ordered coffins carved as a Mercedes Benz and a KLM airliner.

I buried both my parents ten years ago. In the town's swank new funeral home, their bodies, laid out in satinlined coffins and pumped full of formaldehyde, looked not at all "natural," even if those who came to the "viewing" assured me they did. My father was shrunken in the Air Force uniform he hadn't worn in thirty years. My mother, gaunt from decades of Parkinson's, looked severe in a swept-back hairdo she had never worn in life. But I was following the directions of their prepaid funeral plans.

My family's earlier generations had been laid out in the town's old funeral parlor, hemmed in now by fast food restaurants and a dry cleaners. The new, upscale mortuary was more elegant than any home either I or my parents had inhabited in life. Marble floors, enormous bouquets on mahogany etageres, reception rooms furnished with gold-framed mirrors the size of my front porch, and chairs and loveseats vaguely reminiscent of Louis XIV. In the ladies' restroom, the basins held little river rocks to deflect the noise of a running tap that might intrude on the mourner's meditative mood.

In the funeral museum, the early American funeral furniture I saw would have been more in keeping with my parents' lives. But the plain wood coffins on display there, often made at home, were not an available choice at the state-of-the-art mortuary. And while I might long for the romantic vision of a country churchyard, the reality is that there are not enough burial plots left to hold all the suburbanites, much less the residents of high-rise buildings. Thus, most of us will be incinerated.

As I wandered among the museum displays, questions about our culture's funeral practices niggled at me. How do we decide on our bodily disposal? My parents' generation still flinched at the thought of cremation, partly because of family tradition and partly because of vague theological reluctance, a fiery end being associated with hell.

Cultures seem to divide along the lines of earth burial and cremation. Some, such as Muslims, have firm strictures against cremation, others, like Hindus, against burial. The Christian tradition is more ambivalent. Up through the Middle Ages, cremation was disallowed as it was considered a rebuff to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Nevertheless, the sheer quantity of battle dead and plague victims sometimes necessitated burning. The Enlightenment brought a broader acceptance of cremation, and in the 19th century the first crematoria were built in England, Germany, and the United States.

Protestant denominations, by and large, had no official position on the manner of bodily disposal, although they generally held that God's creative ability would not be limited by resurrecting bodies from ashes any more than from dust if, indeed, he needs either one to work with.

In 1963, Pope Paul VI lifted the Roman Catholic ban on cremation, though the body itself had to be present for any funeral mass, and subsequent burial of the ashes is mandated. The Eastern Orthodox churches, however, have never sanctioned the practice of cremation.

I was relieved my parents had made their own burial plans, even if their choices weren't mine. My first choice would be a plains Indian scaffold from which I would offer up my own "alms to the birds," specifically the buzzards that do a good job of cleaning up our Texas roadways. But, alas, that is not an option legally open to me.

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