Grave Thoughts

I didn't know that the Hebrew word for a funeral - 'levayah' - means 'accompaniment' until I read a post called Earth and Pine at Velveteen Rabbi's blog.

She writes about the last act at a Jewish burial of mourners throwing handfuls or shovelfulls of earth over the casket and how this is seen as 'the last act of kindness one can perform for someone who has died, having "accompanied the soul of the person we love as far as we can go."

At Christian burials a similar tradition of throwing token amounts earth over the coffin is usually followed. By this we acknowledge that as far as the person's bodily remains are concerned, there is nothing more to be done but to complete the burial.

The physical burial work is done by the grave digger/filler, sometimes seen waiting discreetly at a distance until all the mourners have left. Why don't some or all stay and watch this or why don't able-bodied relatives help with this? Because it would be too distressing? Because our funeral clothes and highly polished shoes would get muddy? Because it would take too long? Because we don't have a liturgy for this? Because it's not the tradition? Because it tends to be be mechanised nowadays and the noise jars with the idea of leaving the loved one to rest in peace? Because we can't get away quickly enough from the reality of death? Because we want to celebrate life not death? Transformation not decay? Or because our hold on the "hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ" is not as "sure and certain" as we proclaim?

Just asking. What do you think?

Image: my photo taken in St Deiniol's churchyard, Hawarden, Wales, September 2010


  1. I must admit I haven't attended a burial for a number of years. Cremation now seems to predominate, although you are able to have a separate interment services for the Ashes.

    The last time I attended a burial, it was for the husband of a family friend. It was a very wet day and by the time we reached the graveside, the grave was half full of water. To hear the coffin splash down into this pool of water, was distressing for the family. Any attempt to distribute a handful of earth, would have resulted in a handful of wet mud. Not a very appetising thing to do.

    I can remember in childhood, while in care in an RC establishment, if one of the Nuns died, we would attend the burial and wait quietly, praying for the repose of the soul of the deceased, until the grave had been filled. Not sure if this was specific to them, or a more general custom that has died out (forgive the pun).

  2. I do think that there is a fear of death and an embarassment factor over grief that prevents many people from wanting to engage with funerals for longer than necessary.

  3. Interesting comment UK Viewer. Yes, burials on wet days are hard for everyone. I was a curate in an area that regularly floods. One of the 4 churchyards has a particularly high water table and in order to keep the empty grave clear of water the funeral directors sometimes have to employ a water pump during the funeral service in church, removing it just before the procession to the graveside. But they always have a pre-prepared small box of dry earth for mourners to use at the appropriate time.
    Chelliah - I agree that the fear of death and the embarassment factor means many people feel the need to only engage for the minumum time. Often this is greater in my experience with people of no religious faith attending a religious ceremony.

  4. Nancy, thanks for bringing up this topic ... we in the US have a definite culture of denial about death, aided by the funeral industry. Fears about death - and also fears about people grieving !!! - have turned our burial practices away from accompaniment to the grave to shielding people from it. I officiated the interrment of ashes for a man who had moved away, and all his family was from out of town, too - he wanted to be buried next to his wife here. When I got to the cemetery, there was no urn to be seen, just this hideous astro-turf square of green carpet under a tent with some chairs. I discovered that the cemetery people had already buried the ashes before we got there! There was not even an urn, but just flowers. It was so weird and disembodied.

    In the desire to keep things neat and un-distressing, people are robbed of their opportunity to experience appropriate grief.

    My former preaching professor, Thomas G. Long, has written some good articles and a book about recovering burial practices of accompaniment.

  5. Penelope - I don't think the funeral industry in the UK has moved as far towards denying death as seems to be the case in the US. It seems to me that one of the main purposes of any funeral is to help people to grieve and face the reality of death, as well as (in a Christian funeral) presenting the Christian hope. The trend here now is for people to want the funeral to be mainly a celebration of the deceased person's life, which is OK but not when that is chiefly to run away from the appropriate sadness of a funeral. I will look up what Thomas G. Long has written - thanks for the tip.


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