Talking about death in its practical, unavoidable form is never easy, but arguably, the act of facing the reality of death is one of the things that truly unites all creation. The Rev. Dr. Ben Stewart – Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies at LSTC – gives us enlightening snippets of his most recent research on burial practices, and invites the reader to contemplate the ways that death is not so much the end of life, but rather simple confirmation of our connectedness to all that is. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I’ve been intrigued by a Western Apache saying: wisdom sits in places.
It could provoke questions relevant to this forum. Is it helpful to picture wisdom as a single “place,” a common truth we seek? Or is wisdom infinitely situated and diverse? Can we know things profoundly together without sacrificing our equally profound diversity?
Many of us have come to know wisdom both as common ground and as a wildly diverse set of perspectives. Recently, I’ve come to appreciate this dual nature of wisdom through an encounter with mortality.
But first, consider wisdom itself.
I love academic campuses for the way the architecture itself seems to yearn toward wisdom. This yearning takes shape in the labyrinth of book stacks in the library, in the desks turned to thresh out wisdom in the classroom, and in the labor of papers being written — wisdom in gestation. Seeking words of wisdom is our daily work. So we build spaces to help us write words of wisdom, to exchange them, and even to stack them floor to ceiling.
But then the Western Apache say, wisdom sits in places. The saying refers to practices by which wisdom is understood to rest partly in the wider landscape, requiring pilgrimages to specific places where particular bodies of wisdom cohere. In this approach to wisdom, verbal wisdom-stories are told in juxtaposition to distinct physical places on the landscape. According to this way of knowing, spaces for wisdom aren’t carved out just anywhere to be filled with words. They are sought out on the wider landscape as partners in the conversation. (These practices are beautifully described by local voices in Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache.)
This Western Apache approach has been on my mind as I participated in a recent conference on the spirituality of natural burial.
I’ve been thinking about how the grave itself is a place of wisdom, and how it reflects both unity and diversity of wisdom. Here are three ways I’ve been reflecting on such wisdom at the grave.
Human mortality on a diverse interspecies landscape
Rather than limiting questions about mortality to the human horizon, the wisdom tradition of scripture broadens human attention to include the diversity of all mortal creatures (9 million species? 1 trillion species?). For example, after a panoramic celebration of biological diversity — from storks to wild donkeys to humans to sea monsters — Psalm 104 describes death and life rippling through every species:
All creatures look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it to them; they gather it; you open your hand, and they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth. (Ps 104.27-30)
This scriptural wisdom tradition situates human life and death within the widest horizons of biological diversity. When a funeral in the natural burial movement today carries a human body to a flourishing, biologically diverse setting for burial, it embodies (resurrects?) this scriptural wisdom tradition.* At the natural grave, the scriptural word of wisdom becomes flesh — mortal flesh — and returns to earth in its splendid diversity.
Fundamental common mortality
Of course, the wisdom tradition also emphasizes the other side of this equation: all of us diverse species (millions of us? billions? a trillion?) share… a common mortality.
All flesh is like grass. (1 Pet 1.24)
The fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath… all go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. (Eccl 3.19-20)
This wisdom portrays our mortality as common ground across the species. It is a foundation for solidarity between us. And there is ethical wisdom here for human society, too. This tradition invokes our common creaturely mortality to critique those who would try to rise above others through power or riches:
For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. (James 1.11)
Dorothee Soelle writes of the ethical implications of equality in death:
“I often ask myself whether death is not the very inventor of equality and whether human beings are permitted any equality at all without the consciousness of death’s power. As [death] is repressed in the world of the rich, so too the consciousness of human equality disappears. We all know, and are reminded daily, that there are simply ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ Perhaps the religion of the winners must exclude and repress death as far as possible from their consciousness. Can equality in the negative sense be so neatly distinguished from equality in the positive, revolutionary sense of human rights for all?” (Dorothee Soelle, The Mystery of Death)
All flesh is like grass, our wisdom texts say. It may be that this ancient grave-wisdom proposes a revolutionary equality for our ecological and economic relationships today.
Diverse paths to return to the earth
The many paths by which we return our beloved dead to the earth also display the diverse wisdom of human religions and cultures. Flocks of scavenger birds participate in the rites of Tibetan sky burial, nourishing the birds and carrying the remains of the deceased away in what is understood as a final act of self-emptying and altruism on the part of the deceased.
Jewish burial often accents the earth to earth tradition. Thus, many Jewish traditions ensure that the beloved dead rest in the grave on the earth rather than on a concrete vault, and bury in a shroud. If a coffin is used, it is normally made of wood, with holes sometimes drilled in the bottom to welcome the return to earth.
At the natural burial conference, Dr. Linda Thomas called attention to the dignity bestowed to the dead in African American traditions. Especially in the context of the daily struggle to preserve dignity, freedom, and life itself against a culture of white supremacy, the rituals of death assert the beauty and value of black lives and black bodies. Dr. Thomas shared an image from the funeral of Philando Castile, whose life was cut down dismissively and unnaturally by police violence. The beauty and dignity of the funeral expresses the wisdom of communal and divine valuation of Mr. Castile’s life, and embodies an implicit protest against the degradations of structurally racist dominant cultures.
From early in our history, many Christians have carved graves to face the sunrise, a sign of hope for a greater dawn of justice. Across the world, stones that stand above graves have kept vigil for the sunrise every morning for centuries, testifying to the hope expressed in the canticle classically sung both at morning prayer and at funerals: in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1.78-79)
Carried to the sky, returning to the earth, processed with stately dignity that the state denies, still seeking the dawn of a new day: these and many other practices at the grave embody the spectacularly diverse forms of wisdom by which we live and die.
Remembering wisdom at the grave
Wisdom sits in places.
With the help of a recent conference, I’ve found wisdom at the place of the grave. It’s wisdom that is common ground, speaking to our unity. All of us go down to the dust, the tradition sings. And the wisdom of the grave is also pluriform, wisdom of many perspectives, honoring the blessed diversity of cultures, creaturely life, and individuals.
This raises questions about the vanishing place of the body and the earth in North American funeral rites. Increasingly, memorial services are conducted without a body and do not return any body to the earth. Ash Wednesday charges us to remember the wisdom of our mortality, remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Ironically, this is what the modern “memorial” service forgets. If wisdom sits in places, and the place of the grave speaks the wisdom both of our shared identity and our spectacular diversity, then we have special reason to attend one another’s funerals, to accompany each other with dignity and honor in our diverse bodies and cultures, all the way home to the earth.
* The natural burial movement — sometimes known as the green burial or green funeral movement — has three main distinctions. Bodies are cared for without chemically toxic embalming. Vessels that hold the bodies are natural and biodegradable. And bodies or cremated remains are returned to the earth in ways that care for the integrity of the land or even preserve the land as wildlife habitat. You can learn more through the Green Burial Council, or through books by Suzanne Kelly, Hannah Rumble and Douglas Davies, and Mark Harris. I write about it briefly in this little book on worship and ecology and offer a practical and theological overview in this article.
Benjamin Stewart, PhD, is the Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship and Director of Advanced Studies at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where he has taught since 2009.
A frequent conference speaker and a Lutheran pastor, Ben previously served as pastor to a small, Appalachian community in Ohio, and as village pastor to Holden Village retreat center in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of Washington. In addition to articles in a number of journals including Worship, Liturgy, and The Christian Century, Ben is author of A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (2011). He is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy and serves as convener of its Ecology and Liturgy Seminar. He is currently writing an ecotheology of natural burial practices. Ben and his wife Beth live in Western Springs, near Bemis Woods and the Salt Creek, and are parents of two sons, Justin, in high school, and Forrest, in college.