Rest in Peace. It’s a common expression. We see it in cemeteries; we say it in ceremonies. And at least part of what it means to us is to rest in place. We have an idea that our dearly departed need to have a place in which they ﬁnd their repose.
For generations, the resting place was close to the living space. Families had burial plots on a corner of the family farm. Small villages had a cemetery that provided a place for the close-knit community. Churches have long been a preferred spot for burial, as they were a center of communal life. The departed were never too far away from those who were carrying on. The long line of time stretched out before them all with visual reminders of where they were in place.
A sense of place is essential. We each live in a place that has its own conditions and circumstances. Summers in the south are muggy, buggy, and frequently rained upon by afternoon thunderstorms. Winters in the north are colder, and frigid temperatures mean most activities are going to be taking place inside. Much of the American West is dry and hot most of the year. Every area has its own aspects of place that shape how one lives there.
Lots of Scots-Irish folks settled here in southern Appalachia because the mountains reminded them of the green highlands of home. The mists and rains and rocks and rills of these hills made an echo that resonated in their souls. Our ancestors encountered all these diﬀerent places with their special attributes and settled down for one reason or another. They settled down, and by and large they stayed. Over the course of years and lifetimes, the places they chose had their eﬀects.
Places become part of who people are. The seasons seep into their blood and the special elements shape their behaviors. A person becomes who they are by connection with a place and the other people who share it. And so it was, in life and in death, the place was shared.
But what do we do now with those who are no longer here sharing this life? Where do we deal with the disposition of ashes? What do we do with the placement of a person’s remains? How has our mobile culture aﬀected our longing and need for a place? Are cemeteries a wise use of space in the realities of our world today?
Many folks are tied to a burial plot in a spot that has connection to the family or a church or a place that gives meaning and shape to their earthly lives. Many are those who talk about “the family plot” that might contain numerous burial spaces, secured years earlier by well-heeled and well-meaning members of the family. For some folks this seems to work.
My father was in real estate, and he always said that he didn’t believe it was good for the dead to take up any of God’s good green earth that could be put to better use. “They aren’t making any more land,” he said on more occasions than I can recount. As far as I know his ashes were to be scattered in a lovely cove near the mountains in which we lived and he made his living. Truth be told, I do not know if that actually happened—I was not responsible for that task. So if he found a ‘resting place,’ it is a mystery to me. I’m trusting that he did not take up more space after he left this life.
My mom did not have a place picked out. I have already written on the question of ‘when’ to take care of this matter, but we are also faced with the ‘where’ of it all. We will have to plot out where this is going to be.
Mom’s parents are buried in a cemetery in Gordonsville, Virginia, close to where they spent the last years of their life together. She loved them both dearly, and it would be easy to see placing her there, perhaps between them. But mom never lived in that part of Virginia. It would be an expense to place her ashes there, and it would not be a place that her remaining immediate family would be visiting on a regular basis. In some sense, it would remove her from the actual places where she lived and the life that she loved.
We have considered perhaps the option of burying her ashes and planting a ﬂower or a tree in that spot, although we do not know precisely where that place would be. But that only reminds us that such living things, while beautiful and part of what she loved, are also passing from this world. Flowers fade and trees fall. A living memorial would be appropriate, but it also presents some puzzles, the lack of permanence being one of them. [More to come on that in a future reﬂection.]
We have thought about scattering her ashes along the Appalachian Trail. She had a long-time dream of walking the trail from Georgia to Maine. She loved being outdoors, and she loved the mountains. In reality though, her hiking did not take her to the AT to the best of my recollections. She was deﬁnitely a dreamer and it might work well with that part of her personality. But does it make sense to place her cremains in a place that was a dream rather than a part of her experience? How many of her descendants would ever have occasion to visit the trail and be mindful of her life?
The blessing of cremains is that they are pretty portable and can be placed or scattered in a variety of places. In fact, they do not all have to end up in one single place. (That is something that I have kept in mind regarding myself for years; I’ll try to leave instructions so that this question is answered in advance.) Her life was not all lived in one place—in fact, her family moved a good bit throughout her life. Portability was part of her heritage.
Perhaps the most unusual “scattering” of ashes I know of was my wife’s ﬁrst cousin. He was very much a free spirit and always traveled when and where his heart led him. When he died, his cremains were placed in 500 small vials; at his service those in attendance were each given vials with the instructions to take Wayne to places that were special. So while he may not have been there during his lifetime, Wayne’s cremains are on the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, a Hawaiian volcano, Notre-Dame Cathedral, and a host of other places. We know that he is scattered in West Virginia—some of his cremains were blown out of a cannon his father had made for Civil War reenactments! Truly he is a man of the world now.
The standard size for a burial plot is 2.5 feet by 8 feet—a mere 20 square feet of ground. For many folks this might be enough to be able to “rest in peace.” But it doesn’t seem enough for someone who traveled all over, and dreamed even farther than that. Such a tiny space seems conﬁning. We are still plotting the place where mom’s cremains will be placed, but it feels like it will have to be large enough for her spirit to be free, and a reminder that ‘place,’ no matter how special or enduring, is more than just a few square feet or a few near miles of earth.