The modern way of death is cruel

They are an embarassment, the dead, in our modern society.  Our masters prefer that the remains of the unimportant should vanish, it seems.  Only the rich and powerful get graves today.

When the girl we loved dies, there is a funeral still.  But the graves of yester-year are no more, at least for us.  Instead the body is burned, like so much waste, to be disposed of as expeditiously as possible.

In some cases ashes are delivered to the relatives, and their fate is unknown to anyone else.  In others the ashes are supposed to be scattered at the crematorium; although a quick calculation of the number of dead against the size of the area in question reveals that most must be simply thrown in the council landfill. 

In either case, the beloved simply vanishes.  There will, most likely, be no plaque, no grave, nothing.

What happens, then, to those to only learn of the death in after years?  They come to grieve, and find nowhere to grieve.  They cannot lay flowers on the grave, for there is not one. 

They can, it is true, leave flowers at the crematorium where the funeral took place.  Although I find notices like this: “In order to keep the wall of flowers fresh, flowers will be removed every Monday”.  But the remains are not there; and so the mourner wonders where he should grieve, where the wreath should be sent, where the card can be placed.

Little by little the traditional way of handling a death, and of mourning them, has been adapted to the production line efficiency where the departed loved ones are simply a commodity.

In Iceland they still have proper cemetaries.  Not here, it seems.

It is a cruel, cruel business, this modern way of death.


14 thoughts on “The modern way of death is cruel

  1. “They are an embarassment, the dead, in our modern society.”

    This line might have been written by Auden (“About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters”).

  2. I was thinking something along these lines last time I was in Embra – what would it look like if I were to try to find the grave of a friend from university who was cremated.

    It’s all very well for St Monica not to worry what would happen to her body after death, but it is friendly for those not yet dead to be able to sit by the graves of those who are, cremated or not (for being cremated does not mean one cannot have a grave).

  3. Agreed. If you only learn that someone is dead long afterwards, at least there is somewhere you can go to say “goodbye”. Without this, it is very hard indeed to get closure.

    Indeed “disappearing” people was a Nazi technique for intimidation and torture during WW2, in which people were abducted, but the relatives were not given any information; not even where the grave was (which was, in truth, always the information required).

  4. Yes, my great-uncle died in the Pawlak prison in, um, 1940 something, in May – his family found out in October, despite having been at the prison most days since his arrest, looking for news, bringing parcels …

  5. Roger.

    Somewhat belatedly, I just wanted to express our appreciation for this post. Our own beloved brother-in-law, succumbing to his MS at the age of 36, was summarily ‘disposed of’ via cremation, and his ashes scattered we know not where, with his family not even invited to attend that final act. It leaves us with no place to grieve, no point of focus, and a sense that a precious life (and body) was simply thrown away.

    I know that it may not be entirely helpful to press the lessons, but my wife and I were struck when visiting the Jewish cemetery in Prague, how carefully, and with what love, the deceased were washed and dressed and prepared for burial – not by some external agency, but by the community of faith. And then they were planted, with great appreciation, and sent on their way – in contrast to the arms length, disconnected casualness that you have highlighted.

  6. Thank you for saying something that needed to be said. I so much agree with you that the way relatives keep their loved ones’ ashes for themselves, leaving nowhere for others to go to grieve, is cruel and selfish. I wish this subject were discussed more widely. Naturally no one wants to convey their feelings to the bereaved once the taking home of the ashes is a fait accompli, so it never seems to occur to the relatives that what they are doing is childish and selfish. It is also very immature and materialistic for people to imagine that the ashes are still the person they loved, and that keeping the ashes means keeping the person close. That person has departed for another realm, and has taken on another form. The ashes are just the physical shell of the person, which no longer holds their self and being. We are not Ancient Romans, worshipping our ancestors and imagining that they live in our houses – I hope!

  7. Thank you for taking the time to write. I agree; the relatives never realise the impact of what they are doing. Mind you, I suspect the crematorium officials are briefed to spring the problem on the grieving relatives, and get them to take them away (they can hardly bring them back once they realise that they have been bounced into a decision).

    I suspect that there are a whole load of problems caused by this. I have known people to keep the ashes in urns in the garden, and then suffer psychological problems at being constantly confronted with “mother”.

    It is a bad business. We need to bury the dead, grieve, erect memorials, and do as men have done as long as anyone can remember or any history or archaeology record.

  8. What people need is some closure, when the ashes have vanished etc.

    A possible way is to start thinking about how the funeral was probably done. There is a way one might take part, even at a much later stage. Most likely there was a funeral service at the crematorium, and flowers from the mourners were left there? The ashes were then returned to the family and scattered somewhere that matters to them, and no-one else present, no flowers etc. Any non-family mourners would have brought flowers and placed them at the crematorium.

    Perhaps the thing to do, then, belatedly, is do just that, albeit alone and late. Make that journey. Go up to the crematorium and lay some flowers for them, with a card, on the “wall of flowers” (some have a “garden of remembrance”), just as one would have done if one had been able to attend the funeral. It’s a good idea to take a photograph of the flowers and card, which can be printed off later and kept as a permanent momento of them. And I think it’s best to stand there and say what one would have said, if anyone had asked us to give our bit at the funeral. Grieve then, as people do at funerals. One can say “goodbye” to them that way. This way one can show respect formally. Dress smartly as well.

    If someone can go with you who knew your friend, well and good, for it will be a bitter journey, and the company will help objectify outside of oneself what is being done. But if not, not.

    I offer this as a suggestion; do what one would have done, had one known.

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