Grief without the grave
There are approximately 3 million deaths in the United States each year. As of 2023, about 40% of those deaths are interred as “Traditional Earth Burials”. That leaves about 1.8 million deaths that are cremations, alkaline hydrolysis, green burials, or natural organic reduction forms of disposition.
In almost all of the three million deaths there is somebody left behind to grieve and who is now living with a loss. The intensity of that loss can vary widely, but there is no doubt that a loss has occured to the survivor. In my life, I’ve had the death of my father, my mother, and a brother and, if I’m honest with myself, because of my age and maturity level at each of those deaths, not to mention my differing relationship with each, each loss was different and with each loss I grieved differently.
One of the things over the years that has helped me has been the tradition of going to their graves on birthdays and Fathers’ Days, and Mothers’ Days. There is just a certain amount of comfort that I get by doing that. The author of this article in Psychology Today entitled Grief without a Grave: Green Burial and Accessibility, Donelle Dreese, PH.D., explains “Oftentimes, visiting a gravesite will become a comforting tradition during important times of the year, such as birthdays and holidays. The gravesite can become a psychological lifeline for those left behind.”
But what about those 1.8 million dispositions that don’t necessitate a burial or niche placement? Or, what about those new places of disposition where cremated remains or natural organic reduction remains or green funeral burials are brought to an out of the way forest or some other place?
Lee Webster, author of “Changing Landscapes: Exploring the Growth of Ethical, Compassionate, and Environmentally Sustainable Green Funeral Service” is quoted as saying this in the article, “I have concerns that remote burials are, if not intentional, at least ignorant of the fact that reducing access, whether financial or physical, is the opposite of what this movement represents.”
To me that is an interesting statement. Many death care client families are filling a need when they help personally in some of the tasks of green burials or natural organic reduction such as being there for a “laying in” ceremony. But then they place those remains in a far-a-way or difficult to reach area where a physical connection is difficult to re-create.
Author Dreese brings up that point with this quote, “In a natural burial ground, there are typically three areas where burials take place: in the meadow, in the ecotones, or in the woods. All three areas might pose some challenges for someone with mobility concerns.”
She also brings up this question, “Does not having access to the gravesite of a loved one during a burial service or afterward due to mobility challenges impact grief?”
I don’t think we have an answer to a question like that. . . and if we did, it would probably be a very personal answer and different for everyone we ask. And, in today’s world does the ability for remains to be close via Memory Glass, cremation jewelry, solidified remains such as Parting Stone, or cremation tattoos satisfy that longing for connecting to our deceased loved ones which for centuries we have received by visiting the cemetery?
There is no doubt that death care is changing. . . . .but I think we have to believe that grief and how remembrance plays a role in its relief is also changing and the population is expressing that in ever increasing ways. I think it is very important as we move forward that we try to understand the grieving processes of those we are serving. At the end of the day, it is moving these client families from grief to remembrance that we are asked to do.
More news from the world of Death Care:
- “It’s the story of us”: Celebrate Earth Day by preserving a Charlotte cemetery. Video story and print article. Spectrum 1 (NC)
- “Human composting” is the eco-friendly way to process your remains after death. Metro (United Kingdom)
- The funeral insurance “rort” that dupes you into paying for life. Video. Australian Public Broadcast (Australia)
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This is an interesting article. First and foremost make sure you preplan so your wishes are fulfilled. Cemeteries are going to have to somewhat reinvent themselves. Hosting events, tours etc will help them get back into the spotlight.
Dr. Dreese made some interesting points, but failed to note the long term effects of change. Personally, I’ve been a part of a group that cleans, repairs, and mows a historical cemetery in our rural section of the Carolina coastal plains. One section of the cemetery appears to be vacant, but it is actually filled with unmarked graves. Once they were marked with carved wooden markers, but as my grandfather (b. 1870) recalled: “someone cleaning the cemetery set fire to the dried broom straw in the 1890’s. All of the wooden grave markers were destroyed.”
Nothing is truly permanent. Old marble markers deteriorate from acidic rainfall and sometimes are no longer legible.
Being outside of funeral service after 50 years within, I now see fewer and fewer people visiting graves sites than in the past, and more completely avoiding them.
Likewise, my grandfather recalled Sunday afternoons where our local community carried picnic lunches to our main cemetery and musical concerts were held under an open sided, lattice, octagon building in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
I love the human connections of old, but our choices in death care are literally infinite in today’s world.
Good article Tom. Especially for many of us trying to do pre-planning!