Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cultural Differences...

...or why I feel less connected to American culture the older I get.

I realize this may be a squeamish subject for many Americans, but the subject once again has pointed out the difference in my outlook on life than that of the "average" American. Not that either one is better than the other--just different.

I’ve been listening to the news on the looting of the Chicago cemetery and the resale of the grave sites. It is a criminal act and, therefore, should be prosecuted. I feel for the victims of this destruction.

Nevertheless let me share the practices in my little corner of the Northern Black Forest from whence I come. The valleys are narrow and the sides of the mountains steep, so space is at a premium. The last time I was in Germany was at my mother’s funeral. I looked for my grandparents’ grave, but couldn’t find it. In its place were the grave stones of one of my uncles, my grandparents’ son with a space for his wife. I looked at the only sibling left and asked “what’s up?” She looked at me somewhat curiously and stated in a matter of fact manner that space is at a premium and grave sites can only be rented for 40 years at which time the bones and headstones are discarded and someone else is buried on the site. In other words “deal with it.” In fact, the 2004 rules and regulations for the cemetery of Bad Teinach state that individuals must be buried in a biodegradable manner. No burial vaults allowed. (I looked it up on the Internet, no kidding.)

This is basically a non-practicing Protestant area where you see the inside of the church perhaps three times in your life time--at baptism, at confirmation, and at your wedding (after the State has married you). At your funeral, the pastor of the local church comes to your grave site and holds the funeral services. Yet, why are we as practicing Christians so concerned with our remaining bones being desecrated?

If, after all, our soul (spirit, essentially that what makes us "us") leaves the body, then the body is merely a convenient shell, like the shell of a snail which eventually gets discarded. Wouldn’t it make more sense for non-believers to want to hold on to a space where they can visit their loved ones? Psalm 131 in one of the translations seems to state it best: “I don’t involve myself in matters too great for me.” Biblical scholars will most likely point out to me that I am misapplying these words, but nevertheless it has been a good guidepost for me.

I find the burial practices of my home village much more to my liking. You'll not find green carpet on the ground, no canopy, no chairs around the grave, just relatives and friends standing together around the grave and saying good bye to the skin and bones that once held the person's being. In my mother's case we threw pine boughs into the grave rather than dirt, but then we were surrounded by our beloved pine forests. So nothing could have been more apt. And as the final blessings were said, either by design or by accident, the sounds of an Alpenhorn came across the valley. A memory that will always be special for me.


  1. I read your post with interest as I had a similar conversation with someone last weekend.

    I think preserving the grave is a matter or respect for the person's life, perhaps with some historical significance.

    Yes, I agree that the soul is not in the grave, just the body. However, I would like the peace of mind while alive to know where my remains will be and stay there.

    The families in the Chicago area were frauded. The operators of the cemetary were reselling the plots for the money. That was not the understanding when those people were buried.

  2. Hi, Renate. My mother's ashes are in the San Francisco Bay, and my father's are on his favorite golf course. Our dog's ashes are in her favorite river in the Sierra Mountains. I can't imagine locking them up in a cemetery.

  3. As a physician, I have been present at many deaths and can say the body is just a shell left behind. However, many loved ones need to be able to visit the grave to "talk" with their mom, husband or whomever is buried there - they feel closer to them. I like Diane in Chico's comment about her loved one's ashes being in their favorite places. You could visit them someplace where both you and they have pleasant memories/stories, instead of a strange plot of land. Now I have to decide on the Texas Gulf of Mexico or the beautiful Texas Hill Country...
    sitting in the ER knitting while waiting for CT results...