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Home burials: a shrinking chapter of our history

Home burial as a sacred rite became embattled when people massed themselves into city-states, and when nations collectivized armies eager to wage wars away from home.

Greenvale Cemetery, Dakota County, Minnesota
Greenvale Cemetery, Dakota County, Minnesota

Whenever I was a bad enough boy to make my Old Country mother almost cry, she would threaten me with this: “Don’t come to my funeral.” Funerals were big deals.

The pandemic has brought acute confusion home to many of us. We are dimly aware that hundreds of thousands have died, but for most of us the number seems facelessly abstract. Many who have endured an individual loss have done so without hospital visits or traditional burial rites. If this new way of dying seems odd, it also seems that we’re already used to it.

What I find calming — call it also one way to think of church — are those little societies of gravestones huddled next to a country church.  The dead seem at home there, OK enough. They are interred where they also sometimes went to church, and the silence suggests that their community of the dead, even the troublemakers, have a place to stay. Here, emanating from the small group of silent stones, the rule seems to be that there comes a time to put bickering to rest and to let everyone in. A tombstone here or there decorated with a flag or military symbol makes even a distant war seem more like a community affair.

Emilio DeGrazia
Photo by Jon Swanson
Emilio DeGrazia
It usually is not, as the uniformed battalions of Fort Snelling tombstones make clear. The ancient Greeks established some precedents for banning distanced and anonymous burials. Most “classic” Greek warriors were unheroic peasants who eked out their livings in small villages before being required by “heroes” to devote years to the slaughter, pillage and rape of the citizens in distant places like Troy. Meanwhile, most continued to believe it was unnatural, even blasphemous, to be buried away from home. Local deities and the women left behind required proper burial to be a hometown event. These ancients, with their local gods and hometown rites, believed that their dead still had presence in their families and communities, a resting place that was also a home. Anyone not buried in a local space in accord with proper rites was doomed to become a miserable wandering ghost, lost to the world even in death, and able to haunt those who permitted their exile to occur.

Home burial as a sacred rite became embattled when people massed themselves into city-states, and when nations collectivized armies eager to wage wars away from home. Village boys drafted into these armies often never came back, many ditched into mass graves, their bodies burned or left to rot. Over the centuries, as armies and weaponry became more lethal, a strategic rule evolved: Export wars to someone else’s turf, with long-distance bombing preferred. Win away from home, then return for the parades and enjoyment of the spoils. And as populations and war technologies have increased and multiplied, so have mass graves full of invaders, defenders and innocents alike.

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As Americans we try desperately to be proud of our wars, and we are proud of a mobility we like to equate with freedom. Though our Civil War left behind thousands of women and children and whole generations of virtually homeless African Americans, the foreign wars that are our major and most expensive exports do not live happily ever after. Climate change is making migrants of millions. Here in the U.S. our jobs also require many of us to live away from home. There many of our hours, exhausted in cars and planes, are spent on the road. Our children grow up and many move away, some never returning to stay. Columbus, Ohio; Columbus, Wisconsin; and Columbus, Georgia, all seem All-American enough to be everybody’s hometown, until the urge comes on to be someplace else. As our children leave us, we also leave them.

So when we die a funeral’s seldom a home burial. It’s a hit and run affair.  If mobility — often equated with profitable innovation and senseless change – defines our sense of freedom, it does so at the expense of the redemptive potential of familiarity, family and community. Being on the move makes it easy to make strangers of those who live nearby, easy to let the media outline our sense of them as types, and easier to make disagreeable enemies of them. If home is where the heart is, home burials in real spaces that feature birthplaces, hometowns, and neighborhoods as communities seem to be a minor and shrinking chapter of our history.

Emilio DeGrazia, of Winona, has written several small press books of fiction, creative prose and poetry. His latest book is “What Trees Know,” a collection of poetry published by Nodin Press of Minneapolis.

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