Left On Shelf, Not Six Feet Under

i-36d662220081811ca88c2796f5da28be-urna533.jpgHere’s something for my fellow burial aficionados to ponder. The news item’s headline is overstated (“Woman Grieved for Seven Years at Empty Grave”), but the actual occurrence is kind of interesting.

A Gothenburg woman grieved for seven years at her mother’s grave, but the urn with the mother’s remains had never left the crematory.

“This shouldn’t be allowed to happen. That’s why you turn to an undertaker’s, otherwise I could have done the work myself”, says the woman to Swedish Radio Gothenburg.

An urn should by rights be buried within the year. At crematories, urns occasionally remain for longer periods. In such cases, the staff usually ask undertakers to contact the family and make sure the urn is buried. Sometimes there is no family. Then a communal grave for abandoned urns is used. In this case there was a family plot, but despite having been contacted by the crematorium, the undertakers did nothing.

Clearly, modern Swedish society cultivates an intricate practice regarding unclaimed corpses. First there may be forensic investigations and an autopsy, the corpse is refrigerated for weeks or months, then a brief funeral service is held, the corpse is cremated and the rough bone chunks-and-gravel ground to a fine powder, then the bone powder is urned and stored on a shelf for a year, and finally it’s buried in a communal grave. As I’m fond of saying: there is no natural way to handle a corpse. Everything we do with them is culturally contingent. A grave is a work of art.

(Via Dagens Nyheter.)

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Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 11, 2007

    As I’m fond of saying: there is no natural way to handle a corpse.

    Natural Cemetaries

    A Natural Cemetery Preserve, also known as a woodland cemetery, a green-cemetery, eco-cemetery, or natural burial ground, is a place where the body is returned to nature. Native vegetation (often a memorial tree) is planted over or near the grave in place of a conventional cemetery monument. The resulting Ecospace establishes a living memorial and forms a protected wildlife preserve.

    I suppose it would be more natural to place the body in the backyard and let wolves tear it apart; but wolves are absent from much of their pre-Columbian range here in the USA.

  2. #2 Bruno
    July 11, 2007

    What strikes me as odd is that we’re ruining it for archeologists of the future, with all that corpse burning. Mind you, I don’t mind people doing so (or having it done after their death), but the wealth of information we’re losing… (see my guest post about the cemetary).

    Anyway, I read that 2000 years ago (or so) there was also corpse burning, but that it wasn’t that efficient, and a lot of information could still be found. But here, with the hotter burning process and the grinding afterwards (!), it seems later archeologists will have a hard time doing their job.

  3. #3 John McKay
    July 11, 2007

    I’d say that there are two natural ways to deal with a corpse. One way, that of the elephants, to sit around it demonstrating distress until it no longer smells like one of us and then leave. The other way, that of almost everyone else except the ungulates, is to eat it.

  4. #4 Christina
    July 11, 2007

    I think that was a highly relevant post in terms of interpreting archaeology. Very nice, Martin, thank you!
    I’ve though about this a lot lately, especially since there was a cock-up with my dad’s grave marker mysteriously “going missing” recently, and one of my cousins showing up with flowers only to find a hole in the ground where dad’s marker used to be. The outrage even made the papers…
    In terms of Swedish society, it strikes my as funny that so many Swedes do not actively practise any religion, and yet, they all seem to know that when they die, they want to be either buried in sacred ground (as in a church yard), or they want to be cremated “because I don’t want the maggots to eat my eyeballs”. If you truly have no faith, then once you’re dead, you’re dead and you really cannot feel the maggots eating your eyeballs. Honestly, I promise! Either that, or you have some kind of faith that makes you believe that your body is something more than a shell – ergo, you are religious. And as for being “none religious” and then wanting to be buried in a church yard, well, that’s kinf of a contradiction in terms, no? Anyhow, what I am getting at is that it all doesn’t quite add up. It seems many want to be non-religious in life, but when push comes to a shove, in death, they are “something”. This is something that is unique to western civilization, I think.

  5. #5 Martin R
    July 11, 2007

    Traditional behaviour survives long after the original ideological or religious content has evaporated. Many Swedes who never go to church at any other time in their lives do so for baptism, confirmation, wedding and funeral.

    Bruno, you’re right: cremation doesn’t turn a body into white dust. The largest cavities in the skeleton (cranium, marrow-filled long bones) explode, and then the fragments turn into limestone chemically speaking (calcium carbonate). Prehistoric cremation burials often retain so much bone detail that they can be aged and sexed, and skeletal pathologies identified.

  6. #6 furiku
    July 11, 2007

    Personally I must say I can’t see the big fuss – sure it’s bad that the undertaker bungled up, but to me it’s weird that the location of the body should matter to a grieving person. It’s not like you can cuddle it. O.o

    Is the jury still out on freeze-drying corpses?

  7. #7 Martin R
    July 12, 2007

    It is kind of non-religious AND non-secular to care much about the body of a dead person. But it makes emotional sense: you’ve cared about the well-being of that body for so long, and it’s hard to change that habit just because it’s died.

    Jury still out? Please explain.

  8. #8 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 13, 2007

    Freeze-drying

    …an enterprising Swedish biologist has developed what she claims is an ecologically sensitive departure from Earth.
    .
    The corpse is freeze-dried, pulverised, buried in a potato jacket and allowed to turn quickly into compost…