RETHINKING BURIAL
Spirituality & Health|July/August 2021
Shroud-maker SUSAN CROSS offers an alternative way to tend to the dead.
SUSAN CROSS

WE HIRE PROFESSIONALS to handle our dead. They embalm the body. They put the body in an expensive sealed coffin and place that sealed coffin in a sealed cement vault. But why?

Almost 30 years ago, I found my mother’s traditional Catholic funeral to be jarring and deeply unsettling. But why?

Becoming a funeral shroud-maker was a response. It was a response to the modern American funeral industry and its exceptionally consumptive, earth- and human-unfriendly practices.

My mother’s death and her traditional funeral unsettled me and made me consider all my “whys.” Too late for her, but hopefully not for others I love, including myself. The symbology was off, the weird ultra-calm professionalism of the undertakers (no keening here, please), the massive, expensive coffin, the generic service from the priest, the sanitation of the gravesite—none of it matched my simple, earthy mother.

She venerated the Virgin Mary, not Christ. She considered herself “shanty Irish,” meaning poor. She was a farm wife and a gardener. She made do and pinched pennies all her life. A lavish funeral seemed anomalous. She had her doubts about Catholicism late in life, and none of us knew this priest. He obviously didn’t know my mother. It all felt cattywampus. So, the research began.

WHY COFFINS AND VAULTS?

The European Catholic Church decreed that Catholics must not be buried in such a way that their bodies touched the earth. Coffins, and later vaults, were required. Those with wealth could afford caskets, funerary indulgences, and to be buried, first under church floors (most expensive), and later in approved and specially blessed graveyards.

The idea of different treatment for those who had wealth ran in parallel to the desire to remove ourselves from earthy processes. Sex, birth, death, and decomposition were perceived as unclean and unholy. This aligns with the denial of the feminine part of the cycle of life—darkness, limits, death, rebirth through decomposition, and the fertility gained by a return to the earth.

Each year the American funeral industry buries in traditional cemeteries millions of board feet of lumber, hundreds of thousands of tons of steel, and a million tons of concrete. A good estimate for how much land is used in the US for cemeteries is approximately 140,000 acres. That is the size of Zion National Park in Utah, or about 218 square miles. Most urban areas are running out of space rapidly.

WHY EMBALMING?

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