Way back in 1970, a funeral-industry publication predicted that before long, American funeral traditions would collapse completely, and services would take place without the presence of a body. This has proven prescient: Today, more and more Americans opt for corpse-free “memorial services” instead of funerals. We’ve gone from celebrating Christ’s triumph over the grave to chuckling at poor Uncle Fred’s golf game.
It’s understandable. The reality is harsh. We dispose of our dead because we have no choice: Eventually they stink, and they spread disease. Down through the ages, various means of dealing with dead bodies evolved: We’ve covered them with stones, buried them, floated them away, engulfed them in flames, let birds pick them apart. What remains after that is picked apart by people like Janet Monge, who, unlike most of us, will miss dead bodies when they’re gone.
“Most of archaeology is tombs,” says Janet, between bites of a cheesesteak. She’s an anthropology prof at Penn and the Curator and Keeper of Skeletal Collections at its museum—the guardian of the bones. There’s nothing grim or creepy about her, though, as we share lunch in her museum’s sun-drenched cafe. A native of West Philly, she’s plainspoken and wry, with deep-set eyes and a mass of wiry gray hair.
“Anthropologists use burial context to get to the identity of a people,” she explains. “There are a limited number of disposal methods, but many variations. You can have the body lying straight in the grave, or in fetal position, or on its side, like Muslims. It can be sitting down, standing up, with the hands folded or extended. … What objects are associated with them? What are they wearing? We try to pierce through and extract the minute differences.” What’s useful about graves is that they’re covered over, so the contents are protected. Cremation, though—“It’s a glimpse,” says Janet, “but it doesn’t allow us to do much study.”
The earliest bones in her collection are from the Middle East and were interred 25,000 years ago. “I think of them as individuals,” she says of the remains she catalogs. “They have stories to tell. Not the same as a human story, but a pretty elaborate one.”
Royal tombs tend to be fanciest. In Ancient Egypt, that meant bigger monuments, more elaborate death scrolls, better mummification, nicer linens. Other classes emulated as much as they could afford. “We still have this attempt to mimic extravagance in burials,” Janet notes. “How many flowers? How big a casket?” What has changed is our acceptance of death: “There’s an expectation now that biomedicine will cure everything. We don’t really think we’re going to die.”
Back when the first bodies went into my family plot, people died at home, in their beds. Loved ones, friends and neighbors gathered to watch and wait for you to “pass.” For Emily Dickinson, this moment was “that last Onset—when the King/Be witnessed—in the Room”: the breaching of the membrane between this world and the next.
Nowadays, most deaths in the U.S. take place in hospitals or nursing homes. We die in cranked-up beds, tethered to machines that clinically record our last breath and heartbeat; there’s no mystery, no piercing of the veil. We don’t take our dead home, bathe them, dress them, and lay them out in the front parlor. Dead people, frankly, creep us out. American burial rituals—the embalming, the concrete vaults—are proof. “There’s this idea that you’re not going to decompose,” Janet sniffs. “We’re supposed to decompose.”
One reason we’re so profoundly uncomfortable with death is that it’s become increasingly less familiar. In Pennsylvania in 1910, 150 out of every thousand children died before their first birthday. In 2010, it was less than eight. Death used to be a constant playmate; in Victorian times, a dead grandparent was mourned more than a dead child. Today, no tragedy looms larger than Sandy Hook.
My kids have been to less than a handful of funerals—and just two viewings, which totally weirded them out. I only ever go to my family’s burial plot for funerals. Graveyards were once popular spots for picnics and outings, but not anymore. Not to mention that we’re all increasingly mobile, likely to live hundreds or even thousands of miles from where family members are buried. A baby born today will move 12 times in her lifetime. Millennials say they hope to change jobs every three years. You can take Mom with you if she’s in an urn. Eternity in the same place is becoming a tough sell.