Thank you for desecrating my grave

I try not to get involved over at PZ's place, but his post today just sucked me right in. To catch you up, in a case before the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia argued that a cross can actually be a secular symbol used to honor the dead.

"I assume it [the cross] is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of ... of ... of the resting place of the dead."

Um, Tony? My cemetery doesn't have a single cross. In fact, none of my relatives is buried at a cemetery with crosses in it. What's up with that?

I must be some sort of freak. If these cross things are so common, how come none of my peeps have them on their graves? I shouldn't feel bad. According to Scalia, the cross is for Yids, to:

"I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead," thunders Scalia. "I think that's an outrageous conclusion!"

See, the symbol of the cross, whose only common use is to symbolize the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ in Christian mythology, is secular, and Jew-boys like me should feel honored that generous Christians might adorn my grave with one. How can I turn down a gift like that?

It's thinking like that that incites religious hatred. In fact, a part of me was thinking, "Gee, I'd really like to take a nice, big mogen David and shove it up Tony's ass." But that's horrible. Let's step back from my nastier urges for a moment.

I have no doubt that many people (but not Scalia) "innocently" see the cross as common enough to be a secular grave marker. But only someone deeply steeped in Christian culture could make such a terrible mistake.

First, just because crosses are benign to you does not mean they are to all. That is very narrow thinking.

Second, there may be reasons other than simple religious disagreements that set off people like me. I'm not a religious person, but the thought of a cross some day adorning my grave, or someone baptizing me post-mortem, horrifies me. I perceive this as an existential threat. It is not a leap for me to think that acts like these against the dead might lead to viler acts against the living. While a nice, peaceful Christian dude might see this as ridiculous, I submit that it is not. Once you lift the blinder of your own preconceptions, you may see that Christianity (or maleness, whiteness, or whatever) is not "regular" and everything else "other".

So do yourself a thought experiment. Think---really think---about what it might be like to be "other". I don't mean what it's like to sit when you pee, or to go to a synagogue on Friday night. I mean what it's like to ride the bus, to sit in a meeting and listen to the people around you, to think about where you can bury your uncle and not have his grave desecrated. Put some effort into it.

More like this

I spent the first half of my life trying to get away from the cross...I'll be damned if I'm stuck with it after I die too.

I seem to recall the Reverend Lovejoy on The Simpsons commenting on religious freedom by saying "We all get to worship Jesus in our own way." Justice Scalia seems to be as enlightened as a cartoon character. (Just as I had long suspected.)

I'd rather be dumped on the body farm and eaten by maggots than have a cross on my grave. (spits three times) The cross? A secular symbol?? This is so deeply offensive and troubling. Just disgusting. I have this gut reaction to crosses -- fear. And I am neither religious nor paranoid.

By Catharine (not verified) on 08 Oct 2009 #permalink

Well, Jesus died on a cross, and he was Jewish. So what complaint could you possibly have? It's an all-purpose symbol. Like the Christmas tree! Or saying "under God" when you pledge allegiance. Or swearing on a Bible. It doesn't mean anything *religious*.
I'm sure Justice Scalia wouldn't consider burning a cross or even immersing it in piss to be sacrilege, because a cross just symbolizes the resting place of the dead - it's secular.

This is an honest question... I am NOT trying to piss anyone off.

As I understand it, the cross in question has existed for 60-70 years. So far, no one has indicated that anyone objected to it before now.

Presumably there was some public support for it when it was built.

So - why should we erase our cultural heritage? Does every monument ever built still speak to us the way it did when it was built? Isn't it a part of our history that not all veterans were honoured equally on Remembrance Day? Isn't it also true that aboriginal and black soldiers were missing from the military motifs of nearly every war? Should we now take those images and photoshop them to something more politically correct?

It seems to me that sanatizing history is really, really dangerous. Architecture, monuments, place names, local heroes, literature should reflect the time they were created. They give us the opportunity to reflect on how we would do thing differently now. They point out how we have the power to make better choices in the here and now.

I know we all hate the "slippery slope" argument, but apparently some fools are trying to whitewash the memory of Joseph Stalin. It's bad enough that history always is written by the victors. Let's not erase the tangible signs of the world as it really was.

The cross in question hasn't been there 74 years. If it was still the original wooden cross that was erected then I would say you have a point. However it has been replaced a number of times and the whole reason this became an issue is because the park service refused to allow a Buddhist shrine on the same land. That clearly set it up as one religion being given preference. If they had been neutral on the subject and allowed the shrine this would never have gone to the courts in the first place.

Here's a simple solution for anyone with a shred of common sense: take it down and erect a simple attractive non-religion monument with an inscription that say: In honor of all US war dead

First, R E G, pull your head out of your nether regions and note the fact that Dr. Pal wasn't writing about the actual case. He objected quite clearly and specifically to Justice Scalia's twisted and insulting legal rationalization in this case. (I say rationalization, not reasoning, because it is clearly a shoddy imitation of reasoning intended to support a position that Scalia reached before considering and quite aside from any logical or evidential arguments in its favor - or he wouldn't have said anything so offensively stupid as calling the cross a secular symbol.)

Second, consider the facts of the actual case. Contra Noadi, I'm not sure it would matter much if it were the original wooden cross. In a time ("60-70 years" ago) when people regularly, casually, and thoughtlessly (although sometimes with malice aforethought) would dismiss and oppress every cultural, ethnic and religious minority that came within their purview, some people erected a public monument to those fallen in war. Since a vast majority of the Americans who died in WWI were probably Christian, it's not unreasonable that they chose to erect a cross in their honor. But you imply that the monument was supported or approved by some ill-defined majority of people ("Presumably there was some public support for it..."), when in fact it was erected by the local VFW Post:

In the area known as Sunrise Rock, the cross was erected in 1934 by a Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) as a memorial to veterans who died in World War I. Wooden signs which described the site as a memorial are no longer present, but the original cross has since been privately replaced several times. (from here)

So what bearing does your overheated rhetoric about "cultural heritage" and "sanitized history" and "history being written by the victors" have on the actual substance of this case? None at all. The monument in question is not a great work of art or otherwise an aesthetic/cultural addition to the public area in which it is placed, nor does it in any way signify its intended memorial purpose: It's just a big ol' cross. (And it's not even the original big ol' cross! Although if it was, the rest of my points would still undermine its cultural significance.) As an object, its only connection to its original purpose lies in the history of its original dedication and erection - a history in no way indicated or symbolized by the actual object standing there today. Very few of the people who see the thing would or could possibly know that it is a war memorial (unless they've read about this legal case), so it is a ridiculous stretch to refer to this particular object as a substantial, meaningful piece of "cultural heritage." It's just a big, context-free cross of no apparent significance besides the significance of any cross - which, Scalia's mental gymnastics aside, is a quite thoroughly religious significance.

Since you appear to be clueless, I'll spell out the opposition to this cross a bit: Non-Christians already feel like second-class citizens in this country most of the damned time, what with the excesses of public piety engaged in by elected officials and pundits and ordinary citizens - which, as acts of fellow citizens exercising free speech, we must endure with good grace. So the last thing we want to see is official state endorsement of religion on top of all that. Fortunately, we are not obligated to endure official state endorsements of religion with good grace, but rather the opposite: The state is obligated not to do that sort of thing by the Constitution. And yes, a large religious symbol without any context or evident historical meaning prominently displayed on federal land does in fact serve as a state endorsement and promotion of religion - not just religion in general, but a specific religion, Christianity. The fact that this is the religion embraced by a majority of citizens only highlights the seriousness of the problem, since the purpose of defined legal rights (such as those established in the First Amendment) is precisely to limit and prevent the majority from imposing its will on minorities.

I'll be generous and grant that your aim was not to piss people off - but you definitely did NOT ask an honest question: An honest question would have actually pertained to the matter at hand, and you missed on two counts. Firstly, the matter at hand was not the actual legal case at all, but Scalia's absurd and insulting legal excuse-making in the case. Secondly, even if the matter at hand had been the actual case before the Supreme Court, none of the b.s. about cultural heritage and whitewashed history and such has anything at all to do with Buono v. Salazar, about which you obviously didn't make the much effort to inform yourself. I can only infer that when you said "As I understand it..." to preface your remarks on this issue, what you actually meant was "As the right-wing media that shapes my opinions told me to understand this issue..."

Reading the transcript of Scalia's comment, it seemed to me that he truly could not understand his own bias in this case. To him, a cross is a universal symbol, much in the same way white, landowning men were the prototype for "citizen" to the founding fathers. It is humbling to realize that sometimes one can not see what is plainly in front of his or her face. But we do expect more from a judge on the Supreme Court!

By skepville (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

I agree with your post.

My understanding is that his friends call him "Nino," not "Tony."

By Marilyn Mann (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

Precisely why no one here refers to Scalia as "Nino"

I am aware of that. : )

In my family when someone says or does something that is so obviously out of step with reality and common sense we say "There's a diagnosis there".

So we could bring this back around to the medical theme of the blog and ask for differential diagnoses on Justice Scalia's mental disorder.

By micheleinmichigan (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

As committed agnostic, I've decided I want a question mark on my grave.

By micheleinmichigan (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

Who could possibly look at a cross and interpret it as a secular symbol? It is solely a religious symbol without secular connotation. Scalia is a moron.

By a perfect circle (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

OK, I didn't mean to imply you were a friend of his. But what is the purpose of calling him "Tony"? I must be missing something.

By Marilyn Mann (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

Marilyn, should we be respectful to him while he "innocently" declares that we're being "outrageous" to think that the cross is anything other than a benign, secular, all-purpose symbol of death and remembrance?


You are misunderstanding my point. I don't like Justice Scalia any more than you do. I was not saying you should be respectful to him. All I was saying is, call him by the name he actually uses. He doesn't use the name "Tony." I don't like George W. Bush, but I don't go around calling him "Bob."

It is not that important though. Call him whatever you like.

By Marilyn Mann (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

This is what drives me nuts about the coverage this issue has gotten. The problem isn't so much that a cross was erected. The problem is that, having allowed one group to erect a monument, the government would not allow another one to do so.

Nobody objects (as far as I know) to crosses at Arlington National Cemetery, because people of other faiths, or no faith at all, have their own symbols. No one is sticking crosses over non-Christians.

FWIW, I'd rather nourish a tree than have a piece of carved stone over my corpse. Something symbolic, though. You know, some kind of nut. :-)

Justice Scalia seems to be as enlightened as a cartoon character.

which should surprise no one.

Well, he does have a point in that, technically speaking, a cross can be used without a person professing any Christian beliefs. I don't imagine it happens very often, though, and this particular instance is not an example of it. The Christians who erected the cross clearly intended to honor all war dead, Christian or otherwise, but did so within the context of their religion, displaying a rather narrow-minded viewpoint which was unfortunately rather common at the time. (More unfortunately, such a narrow viewpoint persists to this day.)

Personally, I think the cross should remain, but other religious should be permitted to honor the dead in their own ways as well. That is, after all, the point of a cemetary.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

One more comment, for the record....

I actually don't know many cemeteries with lots of crosses in them, apart from military cemeteries, where the convention is a relatively plain marker with name, dates, rank, any medals, and the relevant religious adornment (eg a particular cross to designate the person's declared faith). Maybe it's just local preference (or maybe it's just that I don't have any Catholic relatives; we're Protestants), but most of the markers where my relatives are buried lack religious markings of any kind. Typically, the main memorial is just a stark granite block engraved with a surname, marking a family plot. The individual graves are marked by small stones carrying the basics (name, dates, possibly profession and/or relationship), set into the ground, often low enough to mow right over. Most carry just name and dates, and possibly an epitaph. My favorite belongs to a relative who died many years ago. It's a bench. He arranged for it before his death, so that if people came to visit, they'd have somewhere to sit. ;-)

Of course, markings do vary, and while some cemeteries impose restrictions in order to maintain a uniform appearance, most will let you put up just about anything you can pay for.

Last time I went grave-tending with relatives on Memorial Day, we did visit a few distant relatives who *are* Catholic. (Too distant for us to decorate; closer relations tend those graves.) I recall some graves having crosses on them, but most had no adornment at all. Angels were more common than crosses, which perhaps reflects common Catholic sentiments on the subject of angels.

There is one quasi-religious symbol that I've seen at a lot of these cemeteries, and that's a lamb. Referring both to the lamb of God and also to the story of Abraham and Isaac, lamb-shaped headstones were traditional for a long time to mark the grave of a child. Most are made from limestone, and the older ones have weathered severely, with some hardly recognizable as a lamb.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 09 Oct 2009 #permalink

I've seen those lambs, Calli, and I never thought of them as Biblical until now. It makes me never want to hear children referred to as "little lambs" again.

Also, when I've seen lamb headstones they've been about 6-8" long by a couple of inches high, just nestled into the grass, and they are everywhere. Made me realize how commonly children died--if the wealthy in the cemetery I visited lost so many, I wonder about the poor.

@ Felis

Thank you for taking the time to review my post.

I am willing to admit to being far less informed about the details of this case than you are.

Please feel free to accuse me of any number of failings EXCEPT being a pawn of the right wing media. That's unjust and untrue.

"EXCEPT being a pawn of the right wing media." - Right Wing media doesn't have pawns, only Kings, Queens, and Bishops. Left wing media on the other hand plays exclusively checkers or possibly go fish but without taking out the jokers.

So we could bring this back around to the medical theme of the blog and ask for differential diagnoses on Justice Scalia's mental disorder.

I'm going to go with RSSD (Religion Specific Stupidity Disorder)

... "Gee, I'd really like to take a nice, big mogen David and shove it up Tony's ass." But that's horrible. Let's step back from my nastier urges for a moment.

You had it right the first time.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 12 Oct 2009 #permalink

wow palmd! do your patients know that you suffer from such passive aggressiveness? i bet you don't post a copy of this article in your waiting room lobby. i am truely embarassed for you.

I wasn't aware that there was anything "passive" about it.