Recently I had to oversee the cremation of my younger brother, who died suddenly near his home in Phoenix. Unlike me, Luther Heatherly was a passionate environmentalist of the “Earth First” persuasion; his radical views made Al Gore look like Boone Pickens.
A poet and strident essayist, my brother’s self-published 2003 book, The Last Human Spring, was a radical critique of industrial society’s uncritical worship of technology. The planned scattering of my brother’s ashes this spring on a remote Arizona creek respects his dedication to environmentalism: If he had lived east of the Hudson, no doubt he would have wanted his ashes scattered near Walden Pond.
And yet, as appropriate as cremation was for my brother in view of his uncompromising naturalism, something bothered me profoundly about his cremation and the obligatory “scattering” of the human ashes. Cremation is not only traditional among millions of Hindus and Buddhists, but it is also increasingly accepted in the Western world across many religions. In my brother’s hometown of Phoenix, according to one news report, 60 percent of funerals now involve cremation, not burial.
What troubles me most about this growing trend has nothing to do with cremation per se. What to me is problematic is the neo-pagan ceremony of scattering the human ashes—typically at the beach, a river, or in the wilderness. This scattering appeals to many people as a final resting place preferable to the cold soil of the graveyard. But this sentiment overlooks a significant paradox: theological considerations aside, cemeteries and their monuments, like funerals and a period of mourning, exist more for the benefit of the living than the dead.
Socially and culturally, the scattering of human ashes in the ocean or a distant wilderness sends a very different message from burial in a family vault or local cemetery. We need to ask, is that message salutary for human civilization, for what my brother called “human nurturing”? Is the irresistible efficiency of technological innovation the only social transformation with “vast unintended consequences”?
In the case of cremation, I think the answer is by no means clear. The traditional cemetery, religious or secular, is a visible, ubiquitous reminder of our collective link to the past. Removing cemetery visits from our personal lives suggests, however indirectly or subtly, that it is not really important to honor and respect parents and ancestors on whose shoulders our own proud achievements are built.
Undeniably, that generational inheritance—in every society—is a double-edged sword: in every society that inheritance has both positive and negative dimensions, as the sins and shortcomings of our ancestors are numerous and often burdensome. Did some of my Tennessee ancestors rob banks or own slaves?
It seems that to a growing number of people, cremation and the scattering of human ashes in a setting reminiscent of Earth before it was overrun and raped by mankind offers a nobler “final resting place” than conventional burial in a cemetery. Every human invention and human institution is scarred by human crimes and failures, presumably foreign to the primordial world of natural selection. In my brother’s apocalyptic view, industrial technology has perverted natural selection and social evolution into a dystopian horror.
All the same, it remains indisputably true that each human being is more than a collection of ashes floating in nature’s galactic river. Human flourishing and noble accomplishments are not only still possible, they are all around us in great abundance. And contrary to my brother’s skepticism about human inventiveness, that human flourishing requires more than pristine forests, sunshine, and rainbows.
Yes, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is a sobering reminder of the finite character of our earthly journey. Yet, Aristotle is not alone in seeing human striving as both existential and purposeful. The human flourishing we call civilization has more complex and ambitious dimensions than the most beautiful flowers of the distant meadow. Apparently, that is becoming a minority view.