A great way to get under the skin of a living culture, especially a little-known one, is to learn about their thoughts, beliefs and rituals around death. Conversationsaboutreincarnation, reunions with departed spirits, and the manner in which they send-off their loved ones might surprise you and lead to fascinating discoveries.While most rituals are rooted in ancient philosophies, modernscience and technology is helpingto develop sustainable optionsthat can turn our lifeless barks into useful nuggets.
Whisperings of death are all around us. Statements of grief and love take form in flower bouquets and roadside memorials where a person might have lost their life in an instance. The names of loved ones are inscribed on park benches. They live on in academic scholarships,wings ofhospitals, places of worship and most of all, in our memories. Their photographs are hung in our homes, shops and offices.While these may be familiar to us, in far-flung lands, other practices are thriving.
Wandering the lanes of the Old Quarter inHanoi, Vietnam, my friend and I came upon Hang Ma street with shops selling things made from paper.The stallswere festooned with rather unique paper replicas of houses, cars, motorcycles, washing machines, refrigerators, clothes, cell-phones, shoes, wallets, eye-glasses and wads of cash. These, it turns out,are bought by relatives of the deceased and burned onWandering Soul’s Day. People believe that on this day the gates to the afterlife are opened for spirits to come back to the earth, and their ancestors can accept and enjoy the offerings. From their vantage point, death is by no meansa final departure and the next world bears a strong resemblance to the present one.
Driving through the countryside in Kyrgyzstan, the captivatinglybeautiful hills reared up all around me and my guide Kuban. We stopped to explore curious clusters that looked like giant birdcages. Kubanexplained that these airy domeshoused tombs. Influenced by Islam and nomadic traditions, the Kyrgyz have uniquely adapted their grave coverings to look like yurts, with viewsof the open skiesthat are close to their hearts.While the Soviet occupation saw many mosques razed to the ground, the graves were left alone, and they continue to tell the story of the people held deep within their wombs.
High up in the folds of the Himalayas, several Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists still opt for sky burials. In accordance with their beliefs, after a person’s passing, while the spirit is in transition, the body is a mere empty vessel to be given back to nature. In an extreme act of compassion, the naked body,often chopped into pieces, is left out in the open as food forscavenging vultures and predators. When full, they sparesmall creatures such as the mice, marmots, weasels and hares.
The respected priests, the Lamas, encourage people to confront death openly, and to feel the impermanence of life. Many a ritual object in the monasteries is made from human bones. The harsh, treeless landscape has also had a role to play in eliciting this practice, with the lack of wood for pyres orcoffins and the earth being too hard to dig graves.
In Ladakhand the villages of the hinterland, if a baby dies before its teeth are cut, the dbon-po (astrologer) might recommend putting it in a small coffin and walling it up within the house to retain its g-yang, or good fortune and hoping its soul will re-enter the mother’s womb.
According to the ancient Zoroastrian faith, dead bodies must not defile the earth, water or air. Traditionally, they are cleansedin accordance with rituals and left in the ‘towers of silence’ to be consumed by vultures.The practice continues in a handful of places such as Yazd, Iran. In Mumbai and Hyderabad, the lack of vultures (many died from eating cow carcasses that contained the drug diclofenac) has made the community pivot to solar concentrators, where intense sunlight desiccates corpses as it passes through a fresnel lens.
In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town on the planet, it has been illegal to die since 1950. As the temperatures dip down to –43°C,there is constant permafrost in the ground. The archipelago belongs to Norwegians, who are mainly Christians, but they can’t bury their dead here, as the permafrost will preserve the bodies forever. Anyone expecting to die must fly to the mainland.
Over time, several polar explorers, whalers and scientists have lost their lives in Antarctica, where they might remain hidden forever, or make a macabre appearance as an iceberg calves and melts in the ocean.Similarly, as Everest melts, bodies of trekkers and Sherpaskeepemerging from the ice.
On a trek through Mantadia Rainforest in Madagascar, as we looked out for creatures such as lemurs, indris and sifakas, our guide Eric Michel chatted with us about life on the island, describing the famadihana or ‘turning of the bones’ tradition. “We (Malagasy) believe that our dead ancestors influence our fortunes and fertility from the afterlife. Every 5-7 years, when enough money has been saved, our family plans a famadihana where the entire village comes together. Alcohol is passed around freely, food is served, and the festivities start. Wemake an opening in the family tomb tolet out the bad smell, then begin pulling out one body after another. They’re re-wrapped in fresh fabric, even the crumbled ones. The band starts to play, people begin to dance, sing, and commune with the dead, rocking them, talking to them, filling them in on the latest news, introducing them to new family members, perhaps showing them a new bridge or house, and asking for specific blessings before placing them back. People are even more powerful once they die, so we must respect them.”
Also believing in an afterlife, the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert add bows and arrows, pots and fabrics tothe graves of their dead, whose bodies are anointed in ochre and fat and buried in foetal position, facing east. The spot is topped with a stone cairn to keep it from being dug up by any animals.
Death ritesare not always achingly solemn. In Barbados, a driver commemorates his grandmother, who passed four years ago, by hanging her smiling pictureonabadge on his rear-view mirror. In Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley, the sudden loud gunshots turned out to be part of a funeral procession with a touch of gangsta-verve. Guns and bullets are a luxury, swapped with precious cows and goats, and so firing them is a way of lavishing honour on the departed. In Spanta, Romania, people believe that death leads to a better life, and so it must be celebrated. The notion is reflected in the Cimitriul Vesel, the ‘merry cemetery’, dense with colourful paintings on tombs illustrating the dead person’s life that are often topped with light-hearted epitaphs.
Our death is our swansong, and the manner in which we go also reflects who we are. The religiousrites that are handed down to us over generations have a consolatory feel, but many of these were established millennia ago, when there were far fewer humans, rivers were pure and thick forests covered our planet.Thesetraditions now need to be revisited. Our awareness of environmental issues has been heightened. Let’s look outside our windows today and think afresh. By 2050, there will be 10 billion humans. Does cutting down trees for pyres and coffins, putting masses of carbon in the air and choking our waters with ashes sound right?
Shedding our reticence and donating our bodies to science and allowing our organs as hearts, livers, eyes to be used by others upon our passing is modern-day compassion.Preserving, not depleting our planet is the new mantra. Fresh ideas abound. The US-based company Eternal Reefs compresses human remains into a sphere that is attached to a reef in the ocean providing habitat for sea life. Resomation is a technique where alkaline hydrolysis breaks down and liquifies the body with no carbon emission. Capsula Mundi, an Italian company, makes organic pods into which bodies are placed and put in the earth. Seeds or saplings are planted just above, and they becomenourishment for the growing tree. A simple version of this practice requires a spot, a sack and a sapling. If we can allocate land and turn our bodies into forests, it could be our most considerate legacy for future generations. A human and a tree growing into each other. What better consolation.
For many years, Muslim funeral rituals have attracted attention from Christian counterparts mainly because of their simplicity.
Yesterday, two high profile octogenarians, who played key roles in Kenyan politics and civil service, were laid to rest.
One, ex-minister Simeon Nyachae, a Christian of a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) faith and Senator Yusuf Haji of the Muslim faith. The two funeral services sparked debate on social media with a section of Christians seeking answers on Muslim funeral rites.
Nyachae, who died on February 1 at the Nairobi Hospital aged 88, was laid to rest two weeks later at his Nyosia village in Kisii County. His remains had been preserved at the Lee Funeral Home for 14 days before being flown to Kisii on Sunday.
On the other hand, the late Garissa Senator, who died on Monday morning, was interred at the Lang’ata Muslim Cemetry, in Nairobi, miles away from home, less than 24 hours after his death. He was 80 years old.
The cost of giving a loved one a decent send off took centre stage on the social media debate, with many Kenyans agreeing that Muslim burials cost way less.
Mohammed Hersi, a hotelier and vocal commentator on social media, took to his Facebook page to explain what happens when a Muslim dies.
In Muslim, Hersi said, the burial of a loved one should take place as quickly as possible after death and preferably within 24 hours.
Where the cause of death is uncertain this may and should be determined prior to burial.
The person who has died is washed as quickly as possible after death and wrapped in a simple white shroud For men, up to three pieces of cloth may be used for this purpose, for women, five.
In many countries, a coffin is not used, but in the UK, where this is often forbidden, a coffin is permitted.
Hersi revealed that the Muslim rarely transport a body.
“You get buried where you passed away…For us your burial is where death (maut) will find you, ” he wrote.
The Muslim burials timings are mainly dictated by prayers times.
The Muslim community prays five times a day: Fajr at 5am, Dhuhur at 1pm, Asr 4pm, Maghrib 6.30pm and Isha 8pm.
“Most of the burial prayers would coincide with the 1pm or 4pm prayers for various reasons ranging eg to allow immediate family like children to arrive etc, ” he said.
“We try and avoid evening or nighttime burial unless it is a case of an accident and departed ought to be laid to rest as quickly as possible.”
Preparation of the body
The body is prepared either at home or even at some mosque.
Ghusl is the full-body ritual purification mandatory before the performance of ritual and janaza prayer.
The remains are wrapped in a simple plain cloth (the Kafan) which costs less than Sh500. After that, instead of a coffin, the deceased is transported to the mosque in a Janaza that is returned after use and reused by another family.
“Our mosque in South C does that very well and a few masjid in Mombasa, ” he added.
When a Muslim passes on in town, it becomes the responsibility of fellow muslims to give the departed brother or sister a decent burial.
The body is then carried away in a Janaza and is placed at the back of the mosque awaiting the normal prayers to happen.
Immediately after the normal prayers, an announcement is made informing worshippers of the presence of a body of a departed brother or sister and requested to join the family in burying their kin.
“It is considered a blessing to take part in such even if you were not known to the departed. We then bring the body to the front of the congregation, ” he added.
Before the body leaves for its final resting place, the family led by the eldest son and the Imam ask if there is anyone who owed the departed anything or if the departed owed anyone anything.
The son or immediately male family member are expected to take responsibility for the debt.
“We then all stand behind the Janaza and final prayers are led by the imam. Sometimes we have more than one body so they are all laid out in a line, ” he said.
The service takes less than 10 minutes and thereafter the body is picked by young men, who mostly are not even known to the deceased, and taken to the final resting place.
Once at the graveyard immediate family members preferably sons and brothers to the deceased will go inside the grave which is always ready.
The body is removed from the Janaza and placed inside a grave that has a mould of mud which acts as a pillow where the head of the deceased is placed. Additionally, the body faces the right side towards Mecca (the Muslim community faces Mecca when praying).
Wooden planks are used to enclose where the body is placed and if there is no wood, concrete slabs can be used.
Once done the family members step out, the grave is filled with soil.
Unlike in Christian funeral rituals, Muslims don’t observe protocols as everyone is considered equal regardless of their status.
“Once done a quick sermon is given hardly 5 to 10 minutes and we are done. We make no speeches and there are no protocols at the mosque or at the burial site based on your worldly position, ” he said.
“At the mosque and burial site we are all equal.”
In Muslim funeral rites, women are not allowed at the gravesite. If they attend, they can only watch from a distance.
Basil Eldadah assumed his father’s funeral would be simple. Years before, Basil’s father had taken steps to make the process easy on the family, purchasing plots and making arrangements. But in 2012, when his father died, Eldadah and his family discovered how complicated and impersonal the American funeral industry could be.
First, Eldadah learned that what his father had purchased was only the plot itself. Digging the grave, installing the concrete grave liner, and filling in the gravesite were not included. But the larger issue was that the cemetery required the use of a vault or burial liner: a concrete box that encases the coffin, keeping dirt from collapsing the casket. Eldadah’s family is Muslim, and it’s customary in Muslim traditions for a body to be placed directly in the soil. He described Muslim burial as “a process that reminds us of the humility of being from dust and returning to dust.” But most American cemeteries require concrete vaults or grave liners to prevent dirt settling at the gravesite—it makes the cemeteries easier to mow and eliminates the spooky depressions overtop graves—despite the fact that it is counter to the religious traditions of Muslims and some Jewish denominations. For Eldadah’s father, the best the family could do was to add some dirt to the inside of the vault.
>Later, as the grief began to lift, Eldadah questioned whether there was a more reverent, natural approach to burial. As an active member of his local Muslim community and as a researcher who studies aging, he knew that his experience wasn’t unique. “My father’s funeral really kind of planted the seed in my mind,” he told me. He eventually learned that there is a name for what he wanted: a green burial ground.
Green burial doesn’t have an official definition but generally refers to a range of cemetery practices that limit fossil fuel usage and the amount of human-made materials put into the ground. More broadly, the green burial movement wants to help people approach death with a more natural, and less commercial, outlook.
Green cemeteries substitute exotic hardwood caskets with renewable wood coffins or burial shrouds, and they don’t line graves with concrete. They shun mown lawns for native grasses and trees. Some green cemeteries mark graves with native stone or plant memorial trees; others don’t mark graves at all. They reject embalming as unnatural, unnecessary, and toxic. (Embalming chemicals contribute to high rates of cancer in mortuary workers.) Green cemeteries look more like nature preserves or parks than the orderly cemeteries we’re accustomed to.
The nonprofit Green Burial Council certifies cemeteries as green—it’s kind of like LEED building certification—and keeps tabs on the environmental impact of conventional burial. It says that each year American burials put more than 4 million gallons of embalming fluid, 20 million board feet of hardwood, 81,000 tons of metal, and 1.6 million tons of concrete into the ground. Cremation, promoted by the death care industry as the greener alternative, uses the equivalent of around 20 gallons of gasoline per cremation and vaporizes heavy metals (from dental fillings and surgical implants) into the atmosphere. While cremation conserves physical space, green burial conserves energy.
Burial wasn’t always so complicated. Embalming only gained traction among wealthy Americans during the Civil War, which essentially started the modern funeral industry. (Abraham Lincoln was embalmed for his funeral train, and reembalmed at many stops, but onlookers thought he looked nasty.) Concrete grave liners came later, allowing for today’s flat, uniform suburban cemeteries.
Generally speaking, laws governing burial are complicated and vague. In most states you can bury a loved one on your own property, but local zoning ordinances often contradict the state laws. While no states legally require embalming or grave liners, the funeral industry has made them so standard that in some places, they’re essentially requirements. Neither practice has any public health benefit, but embalming stretches the possible time between death and funeral. Embalming is popular only in the U.S. and Canada; in the rest of the world, it’s actually quite rare. Funeral homes have normalized embalming because it saves on refrigerator space and because they can sell larger funeral packages.
After his father’s funeral, Eldadah let his idea percolate until he found the right partner, one who’d also been surprised by the cost of a funeral. In 2019, Eldadah’s friend Haroon Mokhtarzada, a successful tech entrepreneur, received a call asking him to help fund the burial of a local community member. He was glad to help, but the cost rattled him.
“I was thinking it was going to be a couple hundred bucks and it was several thousand dollars,” he said. “And I came to learn that the average burial in Maryland is $10,500.” The national average, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, is about $9,000. (This chart shows how complicated itemized funeral expenses can be.) Mokhtarzada said, of the funeral’s cost, “There’s something that bothered me about that to my core.”
He asked, “Why does a hole in the ground cost $10,000?” The same use of embalming fluid, concrete, and hardwood that make death so polluting also make it expensive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, funeral costs jumped 225 percent since 1986; GoFundMe hosted 125,000 memorial campaigns in 2020. Funeral poverty is an underreported crisis in America.
Eldadah had contacted Mokhtarzada previously about the project, but he was too busy to get involved. Seven years later, backed with his money and startup expertise, Mokhtarzada emailed Eldadah and said, “We’re going to make this thing happen.” Together, they set to work making metro D.C.’s first nonprofit green cemetery. If it works, it will be the most urban green cemetery in the U.S.
There are 82 cemeteries in America certified as green by the Green Burial Council (you can read about the certification standards here), but the movement has struggled to take hold near major cities due to the price of land. Pete McQuillin, who operates Penn Forest Natural Burial Ground near Pittsburgh, told me that it took him three years to find a property close to the city. In the nine years since Penn Forest opened, it has interred only 205 bodies. (Because people usually want to be buried next to their deceased loved ones, cemeteries are notoriously tough to get started.) But the number of burials is growing steadily every year, as does the execution of Penn Forest’s broader mission: It strives to be a multiuse park, hosting guided nature hikes, community roundtables on death, and a DIY coffin-making class.
Mokhtarzada and Eldadah have similar goals for their site, a woody, 40-acre plot in Silver Spring, Maryland, tucked between a concrete factory and a church. (The price? Almost $2 million.) When I first talked to them in July, they were excited to explain the project’s overarching goals. “We’ve started to envision a community-gathering place,” Mokhtarzada said. “Not just a creepy place where you only go to pay your respects and then you leave. But some place where people would want to spend quality time … a space where not only do the living serve the dead by providing simple, natural, and dignified burials, but also where the dead can fuel life.”
By December, they were feeling the weight of bureaucracy. In between fielding questions from their new neighbors about water quality and funeral traffic, the two men had poured $200,000 into the project before breaking ground. There were nonprofit lawyers, land-use lawyers, engineers, architects, permitting fees. And they were still struggling to come up with a name. Like burial, starting a cemetery was more complicated than anticipated.
While Mokhtarzada’s startup experience was helpful, he learned that the cemetery business is unique. “In a startup mode,” he said, “you just figure out as much as you need to figure out, you don’t figure out what this thing’s going to be in five and 10 years. But what I’ve found that was different in this creative process is we had to think decades into the future. We had to think in three dimensions in decades.”
To help with that part, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada hired architect Jack Goodnoe, who has designed some of America’s best-known green burial grounds. Goodnoe started designing conventional cemeteries in the 1980s and began working with green cemetery movement when the movement began in the late ’90s. While Goodnoe supports greening the death industry, he also thinks that green and conventional cemeteries need to learn from each other. The green burial movement has been led by charismatic industry outsiders—academics, environmentalists, spiritual types—with big ideas offset by a lack of knowledge about cemetery management. Goodnoe recommends that “when someone wants to start a green cemetery, they partner with a traditional cemetery that can bring all the legal, grief, record-keeping elements that they’ve learned from decades in the industry.”
Eldadah and Mokhtarzada don’t plan to work with a traditional cemetery, but they have implemented some conventional cemetery practices at Goodnoe’s recommendation. For example, some green cemeteries let people choose their own burial site anywhere on the property, which Goodnoe worries could lead to record-keeping issues for future cemetery managers. At their site, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada have taken Goodnoe’s advice of burying in one area at a time and evenly spacing gravesites like a conventional cemetery might.
They hope to open for burials in 2021 and have already generated some interest among the local Muslim community. But in order to fulfill their inclusive mission, Eldadah and Mokhtarzada will have to expand beyond green burial’s usual demographic. Hannah Rumble, an anthropologist who studies burial in the U.K., told me that green burial has been “quite a middle-class aesthetic and cultural practice,” and hasn’t yet become popular among the working-class people who could most benefit from lower burial prices (often less than half the price of conventional burial) and less upkeep responsibility. But traditions change slowly, she says, and as the last rite of passage, burial traditions are usually some of the last to change.
On a more spiritual level, Rumble has observed the way that green burial has influenced the grieving process of people she’s interviewed. She says, “The bereaved like to go over time to watch the trees grow, to watch the site developed to maturity, to watch the plants bed in. It’s interesting how their own emotional journey with grief has changed and how they see it reflected in the development of the natural burial ground. … And so now their visits are more about just going and enjoying the bird songs, seeing how the site’s developed, seeing what initiatives are going on. It becomes a kind of community, a community of practice.”
This sentiment is ultimately how the green burial movement overlaps their ecological and spiritual goals. Conventional cemeteries, with their permanent headstones and concrete grave liners, encourage us to think that even in death, we’ll last forever. What natural burial offers is the reminder that death and grief are like all natural processes: They change and evolve, grow and decay. Like Rumble says, “I think what’s really powerful about that ecological metaphor is it’s fairly timeless. And it’s one that, irrespective of your faith, people can relate to.”
Braving bitter cold and gusting winds, nearly a dozen people said prayers in their native Dakota language as they watched a bonfire blaze through a deceased man’s clothing, sending a thin trail of smoke drifting over the snow-covered hills on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The traditional burning of garments represented a final rite of passage for the spirit of Francis Jay Country Jr., a 66-year-old tribal elder and musician whose life was cut short this month by the coronavirus. The bonfire also culminated two days of elaborate ceremonies in which a tribal chief, dressed in an eagle feather headdress, led family members in songs, drumming and prayers facing the four directions.
For Mary White-Country, now a widow, the rituals brought much-needed comfort that her husband’s spirit was no longer suffering and had begun its journey. “Today, I have cried all my tears,” she said after the ceremony. “There is closure because my husband was sent off in a respectful manner, in a way that honored his traditions.”
But the burial customs and ceremonies that many Indigenous communities have cherished for generations are under pressure from an unforeseen enemy — COVID-19.
The coronavirus is killing American Indians at staggeringly high rates, inflicting incalculable trauma and exposing historic gaps in the predominantly white-owned funeral services industry. Only a handful of morticians in the region have specialized training in the diverse Indigenous customs that follow a tribal member’s death and know how to navigate the complex process for arranging burials on reservations. Overwhelmed by an upsurge of bodies, these funeral directors are being forced to turn away many Native families, depriving them of a traditional ceremony and emotional closure.
Nationwide, American Indians are perishing from COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of white people, but the disparities are even greater across the Upper Midwest. Over 10 months of the pandemic, Native Americans in Minnesota have died at four times the rate of white Minnesotans, and they are being hospitalized at nearly 3.5 times the rate of whites after adjusting for age, according to state Department of Health data.
Few have borne closer witness to this deadly toll in Indian Country than Robert Gill of Buffalo, Minn., a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe and among the only Native American morticians in the country.
A gentle hero to many tribal members, Gill has made it his life’s mission to restore Native burial customs and to “decolonize,” as he calls it, the process of honoring and burying those who die on Indian reservations. Since the arrival of the coronavirus, death has become an all-encompassing specter of Gill’s daily life, consuming his days and even his nights. He travels hundreds of miles each week to remote tribal communities as far west as the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana and as far north as the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation near the Canadian border.
Before the pandemic, Gill was being asked to arrange three to four burial ceremonies a month for Native families. Now the 50-year-old mortician is receiving that many funeral requests every week.
Even with a punishing work schedule, he sometimes struggles with guilt over his inability to meet the surging demand for traditional burial services. He knows that many tribal families are being left with no choice but to turn to white-owned funeral homes with morticians who do not understand their language and customs. Without ceremonies rooted in their culture, Gill argues, tribal members are disconnected from their history and unable to mourn properly.
“Where is our humanity?” Gill asked, as he prepared to load a casket into his waiting hearse. “An expression of a life that was lived brings closure for a family. And if they can’t have that, then it’s not dignified.”
A dark legacy
The dearth of funeral options, some tribal leaders argue, is a legacy of America’s dark history of racial subjugation of American Indians and their religious practices. Until 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, spiritual ceremonies like the sweat lodge and drum dances were still technically illegal. The prohibitions enabled Christian churches to establish deep footholds on reservations and further restrict Indigenous customs — including their ceremonies for honoring the deceased.
“As a kid, they called us ‘devil worshipers,’ and we were taught to be ashamed of our own culture and traditions,” said Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe and elder of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “Even our funeral ceremonies were outlawed.”
For Gill, the doors to becoming a professional seemed all but sealed as a child growing up along the wooded shores of Buffalo Lake on the Lake Traverse reservation. Gill suspects that, were it not for his unrelenting mother, he never would have graduated from the reservation’s public high school in Sisseton, S.D., which still calls its sports teams “the Redmen.”
When he was in second grade, Gill’s mother became alarmed when her son kept coming home from school with headaches. Gill, then just 9, told her that white teachers were beating him with rulers and regularly pulling on his ears and hair. His mother, Patricia Gill-Eagle, then learned of another boy who was beaten so badly with a broomstick that welts formed on his back. Fed up, Gill’s mother and 10 other parents removed their children from the local elementary school in Sisseton and opened their own tribal school.
“The public school made my son feel little, like he couldn’t make it in the world,” said Gill-Eagle, a retired nurse who is still active in the tribal school system. “He didn’t learn to be a proud Native until we pulled him out
After attending a nursing program, Gill spent nine years working as an ambulance driver and emergency medical technician (EMT) on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations in the Dakotas, where he says the poor treatment of deceased Natives became impossible to ignore. It sometimes took hours for a mortician to arrive and remove a body after someone died; and the bodies could be decomposed beyond recognition, he said. The non-Native morticians who arrived at the death scenes would sometimes talk or joke about a recently deceased person as if grieving relatives were “invisible or not in the room,” Gill recalled.
“I witnessed a deep lack of respect,” Gill said. “It opened my eyes and made me realize that we have customs and traditions that allow us to care for the deceased, but we weren’t being allowed to practice them.”
Determined to bring more dignity to the burial process, he enrolled in the Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago, where he graduated in 2012. He is believed to be the only licensed mortician of Dakota heritage in the country.
Long-distance house calls
Today Gill is virtually alone in the funeral business for his willingness to make long-distance house visits — sometimes driving entire days, through sleet and snow, to meet with tribal families in their homes. Each visit carries the risk that he will contract the virus still raging through Indian Country. Gill is the only one of five morticians who work at Chilson Funeral Chapel in central Minnesota who has not been sickened by COVID-19.
“You’ve got to have nerves of steel to do this work in a pandemic,” Gill said.
Beyond the ceremonies, he spends long hours in the embalming room preparing bodies for public viewing. Too often, Gill said, he heard tribal members complain of how their loved ones “looked like clowns” after non-Native morticians failed to recognize their darker skin hues and used bright-colored makeup (purples and reds) meant for white skin, he said. Gill carries a cosmetics kit on the road and often touches up a body before a ceremony.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why do my people not have their own funeral homes?” he said. “We buried our own for hundreds of years.”
On a frigid day in mid-January, Gill traveled 200 miles through an unforgiving blizzard to a hamlet on the far reaches of the Lake Traverse Reservation to meet with relatives of Ronald Allen Goodsell, a 69-year-old former construction worker who died just days earlier from COVID-19. The evening light was still pouring through the windows of the family’s kitchen when Gill and his broad, 6-foot-3-inch frame appeared in the doorway with a suitcase full of documents.
He was greeted by three generations of Goodsell family members — including siblings, cousins and grandchildren — who came and went through the crowded kitchen as Gill talked them through the traditional burial process. The family had decided to give Goodsell an Indian name, “Tatanka Ob Mani” (Walks with Buffalo), which involved a separate naming ceremony. Then came a long discussion over the limited choice of caskets. Goodsell’s widow wanted a coffin decorated in the Native colors of the four directions (black, red, yellow and white). But such a casket, the family learned, simply did not exist.
The family would have to settle on a generic brown coffin that lacked any exterior symbols of the deceased’s Dakota heritage.
“It’s unfortunate, but there are no Native funeral casket-making companies anywhere in this country,” Gill calmly explained to the Goodsells.
“We’re always having to deal with these ‘wasichu’ (whites) for everything and they just don’t understand us,” responded Nola Ragan, the widow’s sister.
Before departing, the family handed Gill a small collection of Goodsell’s clothes — including a traditional, white-ribbon shirt made by the deceased’s grandson — to dress his body when he returned to Minnesota.
Gill politely thanked the family and stepped out into the clear, star-filled night on the reservation.
On the long return trip to Minnesota, he could smell the faint scent of the man’s clothes next to him on the passenger seat, and he rehearsed what he would say at his ceremony.
Finally arriving home past 10 p.m., Gill had a late supper with his wife, Bonita, and then laid out a suit for the next day’s journey back to the reservation.
French archaeologists said Thursday they discovered the grave of a small child with what appears to be a pet dog dating to the Roman rule of the region about 2,000 years ago.
The researchers said they found the burial site during a dig at the Clermont-Ferrand Airport in central France. They believe the child was about a year old and buried with animal offerings along with the remains of the pet dog inside a coffin.
The coffin was found in a 6-by-3-foot grave. It was surrounded by 20 objects, including terra cotta vases, glass pots, half a pig, three hams and other pork cuts along with two headless chickens.
“The graves of young Gallo-Roman children are often located outside the community funeral home and sometimes even buried near the family home,” a statement from France’s National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research said. “These toddlers rarely benefit from the same funeral practices as their elders, who at that time were generally cremated.
“The furniture that accompanies the deceased of Aulnat is quite exceptional, both in terms of its quantity and quality. Such a profusion of dishes and butchery items, as well as the personal belongings that followed the child to his grave, underline the privileged rank to which his family belonged,” the institute said.
The discovery is part of a dig that covers 7.4 acres where numerous objects from the Iron Age to the Middle Ages have been found. Researchers are conducting tests of glassware and containers to learn what they might have held.
Mourning is important. Mourning is necessary. Last rites, farewell rituals; now I understand the magnified conventions of burials and vigils.
When a life comes to an end abruptly, without due decay of age and illness, when youth is disgraced by an unceremonious death, then the loss becomes perpetual, the mourning is eternal, and sorrow is born. Like an infant, it needs to be tended to, weep to maturity, until it becomes an existence in itself, to fill the void left by the untimely demise of its origin. Then, perhaps, the debt is paid. Then, perhaps, the order of things is spared of merciless trauma.
It is not just humans that are living. The bonds between them have lives of their own. They, too, have natural courses of life and death. They, however, can be killed off with bloodshed, buried without trail, drowned in the dead of the night.
And that is what makes feelings dangerous: our self-deceptive ease of their denial. That is what makes them terrifyingly powerful.
When you love in silence, you do not yet know – you one day might have to mourn in silence, too. You might have to deny yourself the faintest whisper of devastating pain. And one day, you wake up to find it gone. And you embrace your newfound faith in the miracle of forgetfulness, the numbing balm of time.
But that’s the thing about undocumented assaults – you fling the evidence of your crimes into a river and walk away and one day find yourself under trial for a dead body that washes ashore on the riverbank of memory.
You wonder if the bitterness ever goes away. You think abandoning a feeling would make it wither, until one night, there is again poison trickling down your insides. All you asked was not to be the harbour where bitterness comes to find anchor. All you ever asked was to become the ocean itself.
Your deeds, your excesses, your injustice, your trauma, your unwept tears, your unspoken pains – everything catches up with you like mad hounds you couldn’t throw off your scent.
It is immensely naïve and profoundly ignorant for man to believe that the laws of universe are null and void in the empty spaces between each of our lives. How is that, an action has to have a reaction, but that human action has no consequences? That the things we do to each other deflect into some dark black abyss from where nothing ever returns? Do we actually believe that if we manage to inflict pain upon someone who does not have it in their power to claim retribution or recompense, the scores are settled? Accounts balanced? Charges dismissed? Case closed?
It’s the people who leave you for dead. Or those who drive you to the edge of cliffs and turn back just in time to avoid having to watch you fall. Somehow they think, not being a witness to the crime mitigates their culpability, diminishes their responsibility, validates their denial.
If it is ignorance, it is blind; if self-deception, destructive. Nothing ever really goes away. We do, and we will; but the legacy of endured, undeserved pain, stays.
The laws of the universe are not null and void – they are in vicious motion. It is only a matter of time. Time: the unknown variable, the great equaliser, the unrelenting ombudsman.
Standing around in a churchyard and going for soup and sandwiches after a funeral is part of a centuries-old tradition, but we have had to adapt to different grieving measures due to Covid-19, writes Joyce Fegan.
AT THE height of the global pandemic, just 10 mourners were allowed per funeral. When restrictions were eased that number only increased to 25.
Wakes did not happen. There was no gathering in churchyards to shake the hands of the bereaved and no soup and sandwiches in the local pub afterwards to share stories about the life of the deceased.
This curtailment of our oldest and most celebrated ritual has meant that people have not been able to grieve their loved ones nor be consoled by the sympathies of others, as they normally would have been.
Donal Forde has been burying people for 35 years but, in 2020, funerals as he knew them changed.
“They [the public] miss the physical contact of being able to shake hands and hug. There were people who would have always expected big crowds at their funeral and that didn’t happen.
“The general public miss being able to go to funerals. People like to offer their support — just being there and shaking hands can mean so much,” says Donal.
When it was down to 10 mourners only, families found that restriction particularly hard but, with 25, most families could just about manage.
While removals, wakes and refreshments have all stopped, Irish people did different things to pay their respects during the pandemic.
“At the rural funerals, you’d have people on every corner, from the house to church and from the church to cemetery, paying their respects. And in the city, it’s gathering outside the house,” explains Donal.
However, what has had the biggest effect on people, in his observation, is families being unable to be with their loved ones as they die.
“The biggest thing we’ve noticed with families is the not being able to enter into nursing homes and hospitals and the just getting in on last few days. That’s had a big effect on people. Or only one family member has been allowed in,” he states.
The effect has been, people are still upset. It’s hard to know how it will affect them in the long term.
One organisation that flagged the possible side effects of grieving in exceptional times was the Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF).
Orla Keegan is the head of education and bereavement services at the IHF. At the height of the pandemic, the IHF decided to set up a bereavement helpline for people experiencing the death of someone they loved because of Covid-19 or a death from other causes.
They realised that people may also be finding a previous bereavement more difficult at this time.
While so much was “unknown” in March 2020, the helpline was set up and modelled on the “notion of psychological first aid or bereavement first aid”, says Orla.
People of all age groups ring the helpline, from adult children to friends and people in their 20s right up to their 90s.
As head of education, Orla says that the foundation is very clear to “never minimise a loss”.
The longer you’ve had someone, the more you’ve had to lose and mourn. There is a lifetime of memories.
People say: ‘Oh, you get used to loss as you get older’, but that is a myth,” she says.
Orla says that the wake, removal and funeral all serve functions for human beings and each of those have been “disrupted” this year.
“They help us come to terms with the reality of the death, that physical presence. The being there at the time of death helps with that, so too does the funeral. It also helps us feel our pain and have our pain witnessed by the community and, in viewing pain, people want to come towards us to commiserate. It’s part of the social contract.
“It’s showing us the person’s place in the community. You get to really define who that person was; you’re beginning that part of telling the story. You meet people you haven’t seen for years and they’re telling stories you’d never heard — it could be your father’s work colleague.
“So that got a bit disrupted, to put it frankly. People have to find different ways of doing it or they are feeling robbed or cut off from that,” says Orla.
The Christian funeral is of “profound importance to Irish society, allowing a celebration of the life of the deceased,” says historian Dr Marion McGarry.
The rituals surrounding our funerals allowed the bereaved to mourn, grieve and, hopefully, recover in a healthy manner.
She says the purpose of rituals at an Irish funeral is twofold.
“It is a way for the community to mark the passing of one of their members and show sympathy to those who have lost their loved ones,” says Dr McGarry.
For the bereaved, seeing people turn up in this way, gathering together in large numbers to shake hands, acknowledges their grief and can be of great comfort.
Going back hundreds of years, Irish people have had the wake, in various forms, and the sharing of refreshments afterwards.
“In older times, there were many rituals and practices around Irish wakes and funerals. People would ritually smoke clay pipes at wakes, professional mourners or ‘keeners’ were hired to cry over the dead and there were even ‘wake games’ played to keep mourners awake as they sat up with the corpse.
“These customs have fallen away and, while the Irish funeral is more sombre now than it was in older times, it differs little from the past where prayers were said, refreshments were provided, alcohol may have been served, and stories and occasional laughter were welcome,” she explains.
With Covid-19, neither the wake nor the sharing of food and drink were permitted.
“The wake — that allows time spent with the body — can help in the grieving process. The substantial funeral service and burial, with the time taken and numbers involved, are all curtailed. After the burial, time taken to share food with neighbours and friends is no longer allowable,” states Dr McGarry.
Proving the importance of funerals to Irish people is the fact that you don’t just attend funerals of people you know, “there is an unspoken rule that you attend funerals of those closely related to people you know too”.
Case Study: ‘I lost six people this year — I couldn’t even say goodbye to my own mother’
Niall Lynch lost six people this year, including his mother, Ursula Lynch, 93.
She died at the height of lockdown which meant he was unable to see her in the weeks leading up to her death.
It also meant his wife and children had to wait in the car outside the church during his mother’s funeral mass.
Several days later his wife’s father would pass away too, still in lockdown, so it was now Niall who would be watching the funeral on his phone in the car outside the church.
“My mother had dementia, she was in a nursing home in Navan, she died April 6. Vascular dementia shuts down different functions, and her swallow function shut down, so she hadn’t eaten solids in a week. This was the second or third time this happened in nine months, and at 93 you can’t survive too many bouts like that.
“It was in lockdown and my sister was able to visit her through the window, but my mother couldn’t really see her because she had limited eyesight. Then my sister was with her for the last hour, by her side. They called her and said: ‘You’d better get here’.
They met her at the front door of the nursing home, gowned her, and she was given 60 minutes with my mother. She couldn’t touch her. They were being super careful,” says Niall.
Niall last saw his mother on March 13, the day after the first tranche of government restrictions were announced.
So when Ursula passed away on April 6, the full lockdown had been enforced and his family was left grappling with manoeuvring itself through different counties and Government restrictions.
Niall was stopped four times by gardaí on the way to his 93-year-old mother’s funeral.
“It was strange at first, you’re trying to get your head around things and calculate this and that and where can we go, what are we allowed to do. The funeral home was open for max an hour, you had to stay your distance – all the usual stuff you now take for granted was granted.
“And we were travelling from Cavan to Meath, so we worried about that and being stopped by the guards. So I said: ‘I’ll keep RIP up on my phone if guards stop us’, and they did. We were stopped four times and they saw us as a family dressed up,” explains Niall.
Niall was able to see his mother in the funeral home before her mass, and his children were too, so everyone was able to say their goodbyes.
“Just to be able to do that little thing,” says Niall.
As lockdown was so new and so little was known about the spread of the virus, extreme caution was taken, meaning that when Ursula’s coffin arrived at the church, the front door was not open.
“The undertaker had to rap the door and the priest opened the door and said it was locked because he had to make sure it was no one else and that’s why he had it bolted. Only 10 of us were allowed in and I had to give the undertaker a list of those people and he showed it to priest who kept a record.
“The priest led us in and it was quite strange – this large open church with galleries upstairs it was like sitting in the Gaiety with 10 people and you could see the emptiness,” says Niall.
Ursula had six children, meaning there wasn’t room for sons and daughters-in-law, nor grandchildren.
My wife and children sat in the car park and watched it on the parish webcam.
One thing that Niall missed was the Navan tradition of neighbours and friends gathering for the “big old chat in the chapel yard”.
“You’d look forward to that, that was all gone. Now you’re reading comments on RIP and it was just ‘goodbye old neighbours’ and that was as close as you got to locals coming up to you in the chapel yard saying that your mother was an ‘auld native’ and that she was a ‘good one’. My mother would have loved that,” says Niall.
At the graveside, cousins gathered, but again everyone kept their physical distance and as soon as his mother Ursula was buried “there was nothing after that,” as everyone went their separate ways.
Ten days later, Niall’s father-in-law, Tom White, 88, died unexpectedly. He had been up and about walking at home, when he developed a chest infection.
He ended up in hospital but it was arranged that two of his family members could go on a rota and be with him for the last two days of his life.
“They all got to see him, and one of them got to be with him when he died,” explains Niall.
This funeral was a “rural affair” and “people lined the roadsides” as his coffin passed. Again, the 10-mourner rule applied as Tom died on April 15, however, there were far more than 10 in his family as he was survived by his wife Teresa, 10 children and 24 grandchildren.
“I remember the undertaker saying: ‘Between you and me I think I’ve let 11 in’,” says Niall.
At Tom’s graveside, with everyone dotted around with two metres apart, about 19 of his grandchildren joined together in song and sang as his coffin was lowered into the ground.
Niall would attend four more funerals, his aunt, a daughter of a very good friend of his and two first cousins, Declan Reilly, 60, of Swords, Co Dublin, and PJ Lynch, 74, of Clontarf and Artane, Co Dublin.
“We used to check in with each other all the time, we were the three from the three different families that always touched base with each other,” explains Niall.
Both of those funerals took place during the Level 5 restrictions.
Niall has seen both the good and bad in 2020.
“What we used to dissipate our grief with was company and chat and ritual and we’ve not been able to do that, but on the other hand, and it’s strange to say it, but it has been a kind of a gift. We’ve been forced into a space we might not otherwise have allowed ourselves to have – to sit back and contemplate,” believes Niall.
The good and the bad aside, Covid-19 has taught him to express any love or gratitude he has for a person, before it’s too late.
“Too much loss and lack of memory and ‘biting of the holy cords atwain’ is going to affect us all for years. Who knows for the better or the worse? So I know that every phone call I make is a must. I don’t want to lose anyone else without saying ‘I love you, I’m grateful for knowing you, you made a difference’ in whatever way I can say it and without delay.
“Because all we have right now is now. We can only hope that [a life] lived well, will carry us through to some friendlier place. We may someday be grateful, even, for what changes Covid-19 wrought in us”.
Case Study: She mouthed ‘I love you’, and she was gone
Margaret Kelly lost her mother Mary O’Connor (née Duggan), 89, on October 6.
Mary, raised in Frankfield View on the Old Youghal Road, had been living on Capwell Road until her death.
However, Mary, who loved company and “out”, moved in with Margaret for the duration of lockdown.
“Mum lived on her own, but she lived with me and my husband and daughter for March and April, we had her for 12 weeks, it’s a blessing. I finished up work on Tuesday and collected her on the Tuesday evening.
“Her biggest thing was loneliness. She said to me: ‘If I don’t die of Covid I would have died of loneliness’.
“I live in Carrignavar, and we would drive down to the end of the road and she would walk that park every single day during lockdown, it was 350 steps but that was a huge deal to her.
“My husband and I would get up and have breakfast and take the dogs out. When we’d come home, she’d be sitting waiting with her coat on to go for that walk,” explains Margaret.
Unfortunately Mary took a fall on May 23, which resulted in a hip replacement. Mary was taken to hospital by army personnel and because she had been watching the news every night with Margaret and her family, she was well aware of what was ahead of her in terms of no visitors.
Mary recovered from her hip operation and returned home to her own house.
However, in October, she fell ill.
“In October she wasn’t feeling well. My son used to take her out every single Friday for lunch. She loved out, if you were getting the car NCT-ed she’d go with you.
“She was ages opening the front door and this was unusual, when my son got in, she just collapsed into his arms. That was a Friday and she passed on the Tuesday, she was brought into the Mercy Hospital and I got a phone call to say there was no hope, she had pneumonia,” says Margaret.
The fact that it early October, meant that the country was neither in Level 5 restrictions, nor lockdown, so Margaret was able to be with her mother as she passed.
The hospital was also very quiet, so they had peace of mind when visiting Mary.
Margaret describes the experience of her mother’s passing as both “beautiful” and something she is extremely grateful for.
My mum wasn’t talking but she was rubbing our hands and our faces and blowing kisses – that was her down to the ground.
“I said: ‘Mam you need to go, don’t be hanging on for us’, and with that she mouthed: ‘I love you’ and she was gone. There was no drama. It was beautiful and we were with her,” says Margaret.
“My mum’s own mum died when she was six weeks old, and she always had one dream in life and that was to meet her own mother, and at nearly 90, it was still always at the back of her mind. The fact that she was finally going to meet her mum gave us great solace,” she adds.
For the funeral, only 25 people were allowed into the church, but something special happened after the mass, that eased the restrictions.
“When we came out of the church and passed mam’s house, all the neighbours were out. The older people are so respectful and they all had their hands clasped, it was all people could do,” says Margaret.
Although losing her mother during 2020 was “not ideal”, gratitude is one of her overriding feelings.
“It wasn’t ideal, but we are so grateful to the Mercy. We didn’t take being with her for granted, and it has to be said because there are so many people out there who didn’t have that,” says Margaret.
Mary O’Connor was predeceased by her beloved husband Finbarr of 48 years. She is survived by her children Donal, Norma and Margaret, and her four grandchildren Yvonne, Darren, Graham and Leanne.
‘We can’t stay in touch on Zoom, it’s taking away our humanity’
For the first time in human history, in peacetime, we saw funerals physically banned in some countries, and heavily restricted in others.
But marking death and respecting the dead is what makes us human, and what makes us different from every other species on earth.
It is this basic fact that makes funerals extremely significant, says UCC professor of sociology Arpad Szakolczai. His work focuses on social theory, historical sociology, and political anthropology — the scientific study of humanity.
“The origin of human culture is related to burial, marking the dead makes us humans, burials go back half a million years,” says Prof Szakolczai.
“Remembering the dead and burying the dead, is one of the main, if not the most important source of human culture.”
Any time in human history when the dead have not been respected was a sign of breakdown in culture.
“The Iliad ends with Hector humiliating the dead body of an enemy — this is never appropriate,” says Prof Szakolczai.
But in 2020 terms, and in peacetime, he feels strongly about the impact of restrictions on rituals surrounding death.
“Prohibiting burial rituals, not taking proper care of the dead, is a very serious issue,” says the professor.
There are other factors around death, aside from the funeral itself, that have been affected by Covid-19 restrictions.
“Dying at home or with family was the normal condition for humans — that was the way of saying farewell to the dead,” said Prof Szakolczai.
“To discontinue these rituals — I don’t agree at all, it disrupts customs and family ties.”
While this did not happen in Ireland during the pandemic, some funerals were banned in their entirety to stop the spread of Covid-19 in other countries.
Prof Szakolczai describes this practice as “quasi- apocalyptic”.
“Death was also about the departing soul being given some kind of rest. What happens to people who are not buried properly? It’s quasi-apocalyptic, it’s not an enlightened condition.
“There is a problem that we don’t take care of the dead.”
In Ireland in particular, out of many countries in the world, funeral and burial rituals have all been “preserved in an exemplary manner”.
“It’s an important custom that has stayed on, but now it’s interrupted,” says Prof Szakolczai.
However, we have been able to attend people’s funerals virtually. Does this not go some way to creating ritual around death?
Prof Szakolczai says “virtual reality” is not a real connection, and our physical presence is most important when it comes to death.
“Virtual reality — that’s another kind of issue, the importance of presence and concreteness cannot be underestimated when it comes to death,” he says. “Virtual reality is the elimination of presence and the delusion of family ties, that’s not a real connection.
“You can’t spread holy water through the internet.”
Physical presence is fundamental to our humanity, states the professor.
“It’s nonsense that we can stay in touch on Zoom, it’s taking away our humanity. It’s an extremely serious issue.
“We are human, we are not competitors of artificial intelligence.”
With all the advances in science and proliferation of knowledge, death still remains “this big mystery” to human beings.
“We don’t have a scientific answer about what survives after death, and this is what human beings have always thought about, it has never gone away,” says Prof Szakolczai.
Many anthropologists consider death, not birth, the most important turning point of human life.
Birth is an event, and it is hugely significant for the parents, but there are very few memories associated with the new life.
Death is the opposite.
“Birth involves a limited number of people, and there are not many memories when a new born baby is very little,” says Szakolczai. “However, when someone dies, everything that person lived through and who they interacted with come together.
“Death and funeral rituals show that we care about us, family and friends and colleagues and people. It’s crucial to keeping society together, and it is among the most important rituals for human life — and that [belief] is shared by historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists.”
Prof Szakolczai says he hopes that the interruption of social practices, such as funerals, and the disruption of human relations, through social distancing, will not continue for much longer.
“We shouldn’t get used to this, that’s the point. If a generation is brought up like this, what is the effect?”