It happened while I was watching a favorite TV series the other night. A young man was given his estranged father’s ashes to scatter as a memorial to him. He chose Eagle Lake, a special place in Alberta where his family had experienced “better days.”
I noted the reverence with which he handled that urn, and I instantly identified with him; I felt the sacredness of the moment.
It is marvelous to me that no matter the culture, no matter the religious or non-religious environment of a given place, the remains of a human being are considered sacred. [Of course, I am exempting in this statement the brutal, insensitive, and insulting treatment of the dead exhibited by persons bent on vengeful and angry retribution. I speak here of the norms of societies, not the aberrancies.]
I remember vividly how I felt when I saw my own father’s ash-filled cherry wood box in Tucson, Arizona. And when the time came for his memorial in Georgia (13 months after his death), I clearly recall how I felt picking up the cardboard box that contained that wooden box, mailed all the way from Arizona. My uncle was with me on that occasion; I remember we spoke of the unique feeling I was having, holding my Dad’s ashes. We may even have done so in somewhat subdued tones.
Because there is a sacredness about human remains. There just is.
When mother passed away several years later I brought her ashes home in a rectangular black hard plastic container. The ashes themselves were in a heavy clear plastic bag inside the container. And my wife said, “Don’t bring those in the house.” She was frightened, uncomfortable, ill-at-ease around them.
So, they stayed in the garage; the dark garage. And frankly . . . I felt guilty about that.
Because, you see – there is a sacredness built into my psyche about those remains.
When the date came for my mother’s memorial, my brother and I went into the garage together, and together we removed the plastic bag from the container, then maneuvered the bag of ashes into the narrow neck of the urn my uncle had purchased for the memorial.
The urn was carefully carried to the car (along with all the legal paperwork that goes with human remains – you see, even the law of the land affirms the sacredness of human remains), then placed on a stand at the memorial site. For the interment it was placed in a small urn vault, then carefully lowered into the ground. Respectfully.
And that is as it should be.
Life is sacred.
When life is valued properly there is respect; honor is fitting. It almost dwarfs the character of the individual who has died. And that amazes me.
It is as if life itself is so sacred its value cannot
be bound by the mortal container it enlivens.
I know that in our society some of the norms of the past have changed. People seldom get all dressed up when going out to dinner, or to special events, etc. And many of the social formalities of the past have been replaced by a casualness that frankly . . . I often prefer.
But . . . I do not want to change norms about the sanctity of life. Or respect for the dead. That is sacred ground.
When I was a boy I was taught that you should not step on a grave in a cemetery. Oh sure, there are myths and all sorts of other reasons given for such a custom. But . . . to this day I try to observe that custom. And I don’t think that is so bad.
We need to honor the remains of our loved ones who have departed. Abraham Lincoln pronounced sacredness on the ground at Gettysburg in honor of those who died there. And then he gave a charge to the living.
And I wish to give a charge as well. We must always honor the memory of the dead, and in addition we must make it our goal to treat the living with that same sanctity, that same value, that same devotion.