This Hallowed Soil

Which is more valuable: the soil that became man or the soil into which he is blended?

Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).

 

One hundred and sixty years ago this November 19, Abraham Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg about hallowed ground. He had gone to the Pennsylvania town, 85 miles from Washington, to dedicate a cemetery for the dead of that battle, which had occurred four months earlier. Lincoln spoke of that ground being consecrated not by his oratory or governmental fiat but by the “brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.” Their sacrifice, memorialized in that cemetery, should inspire the living to finish their labors for their country, so “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” What hallowed that ground was what those who died there did. It was the work of men who “gave their last full measure of devotion” that made hallowed ground of that previous Pennsylvania pasture.

We Catholics speak of cemeteries as “hallowed ground.” But what makes them hallowed? They are hallowed not because they are dirt but because of the dust that is added to them. Dust that the Creator God took into His Hand and breathed His own life into, “and man became a living being.” That is some special dust!

I make that observation this November — a month dedicated to the Holy Souls and to reckoning with our mortality — in light of certain accelerating cultural trends surrounding death. Put bluntly, those trends begrudge human persons graves.

There is a mindset in part of the environmental and climate movements that deems earth burial unjustified. It is a “waste of space” with a “heavy carbon footprint,” exacerbated by American funerary practices, such as burial in metal caskets inside vaults after embalming, that “damages” the environment. Partisans of this viewpoint initially promoted cremation until they decided the underlying fossil fuels required to incinerate a body also imposed too great a “burden” on Gaia. So, now they advocate for expedited destruction of the human body through chemical dissolution (e.g., alkaline hydrolysis) or artificially accelerated decomposition (e.g., “re-composting”). They argue an added benefit is that the resulting effluent can be used for heating or the residual biomass as “nutrient-rich topsoil” to be “recycled” into the “circle of life.”

Several states have already legalized such deliberate destruction of the post-mortem human body. A few Catholics have jumped on this bandwagon, “christening” the procedures by invoking “care for Mother Earth” and “our common home” as well as quasi-pantheistic tropes that may have roots in the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or the eschatology of Karl Rahner.

Recognizing the distinctiveness of this motivation, I nevertheless also would maintain that it synergizes with a number of other troubling contemporary trends that also minimize the significance of the human grave. One can argue that more aggressive methods of active corporeal destruction represented, for example, by alkaline hydrolysis, were intellectually and culturally prepared for by a growing broad public acceptance of cremation. That acceptance includes Catholics, whose resort to cremation appears to mirror the broader public’s, whose more commonly invoked justification for the practice is that it is cheaper than interment. Popular images of “scattering ashes” on beaches, in the Grand Canyon, and “other places our dear departed loved” also inherently negates the notion of a “final resting place” and the need for a grave. That the Church reiterates a preference for earth burial over cremation, prohibits the scattering of ashes or their conversion into mementoes/jewelry, and calls for those ashes to be placed in a Catholic cemetery all seem principles honored more in the breach than the norm after the prior ban against cremation itself was abandoned.

In all these instances, the idea that the remains of a deceased Christian — whether an intact body or ashes — should rest in hallowed ground is increasingly negated. Whether intended or not, this phaseout of the grave also speaks to the value attributed to the Christian body, made from dust but infused with the breath of God. For the economically-driven proponent of cremation, the dust of that body is not worth paying for the six feet of ground in which to place it, which intrinsically suggests the ground is more valuable. For the environmentally-driven votary of alkaline hydrolysis or re-composting, the human body is at best valueless, at most a burden on nature, which must be made “useful” by technological intervention. The Christian vision is that God raised man from the dust of the earth; the competing vision suggests it is better man be reduced to dust. Only by once again becoming mere dust does man become worthy of placing his carbon footprint on hallowed ground.

So, what soil is valuable: the soil that became man or the soil into which a man is blended once he is turned back into soil?

Once upon a time the Catholic funeral rite ended at the graveside with the priest putting a trowel of earth atop the coffin, intoning (as on Ash Wednesday): “Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” To which you shall return — without necessarily being sped along that path by human intervention, ostensibly in the name of “love of creation.” We’ve lost something with the loss of that gesture.

Pope St. John Paul II made Christological theological anthropology the hallmark of his papacy because he insisted we “are in a lively battle for the dignity of man” — including whether man’s dignity arises by being raised from the dust of the earth or by being reduced to it.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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