Death Culture

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” – Luke 24:5 (NRSV)

When my Grandma died in 2016, I drove to Iowa for the funeral with my Dad.  I knew there would be family visitation around the open casket (where people will take pictures).  After the funeral, we would go to the cemetery.  This is the death culture in my extended family.

As we were driving, my Dad and I talked about his thoughts regarding his funeral and “final resting place.” Their plans are to be cremated (which I knew).  But then what?  I said we would do whatever they wanted; however, I would never visit a gravesite.  Why would I look for the living among the dead?

For me, the gravesite is not meaningful. It is a place where their empty body or ashes are. It’s not the place where they are. It’s not where they live. Click To Tweet

I have visited many cemeteries and tombs when travelling.  I remember being in Boston as a teenager, amazed at headstones from the 1600’s.  I’ve been to Napoleon’s tomb both times I was in Paris.  I stood on the tombs of English personages at Westminster Abbey.  I’ve been to Dachau in Germany and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.  I have travelled to battle sites and cemeteries for the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and D-Day.  I’ve stood on the Mount of Olives among ancient tombs.

But none of these people were really ever “living” to me.  I didn’t know them, even if I knew many details about their lives through history books and biographies.  Visiting the gravesites and tombs was the primary connection I have with them.  But it’s all history.  It’s not memories.  It wasn’t relationship.

For me, when I go to the gravesite of someone I know, it’s not meaningful.  It is a place where their empty body or ashes are.  It’s not the place where they are.  It’s certainly not the place where my memories of them are. It’s not where they live. Instead, I want something from our shared life together.  Something, that reminds me of the living.

From my grandmas I have a cups and saucers.

I have my paternal grandma’s hope chest – which I always remember seeing in the basement with her maiden initials on them:  MM.  A gift to her from my grandpa.  In it, I found their baptism certificates and my grandma’s confirmation notes.

I also have this bowl.  This is because when you think of grandma and grandpa’s house, you remember the large, family meals (at any time of day, whether grandma knew you were coming or not).

From my maternal grandma, I have this cookie jar that always sat on her counter.  Of course, there were always more cookies at grandma’s house than would fit in any cookie jar.

I also have the elephant table, which always intrigued me growing up.  It didn’t fit in with everything else about my grandma. Having heard the story behind it after she died, I love it even more.  Now her “pagan elephant” table is at my house.

My father-in-law died this winter, and my mother-in-law has moved to assisted living.  Now, we are preparing to sell Dave’s boyhood home. And in some ways, my home, too.  This is where I also stayed for the ten years between when we met and when we moved back to Wisconsin.  Eldest and I lived in this house for five weeks when we were making that move: Dave still in Minneapolis, and I here with my new job but no new house yet.  It is not my childhood home, but it has borne witness to my transition into adulthood, married life, and motherhood.

This weekend, we went through the house with a friend to determine what we needed to fix (or not) before we could sell the house.  I asked Dave if we could bring something home.  He told me to take whatever I wanted.  I took him at his word, although it was probably grief talking.

And so we came home with the puss-in-boots cookie jar.  Not because I ever had cookies out of it but because I started collecting cookie jars with Dave’s Mom.  Dave’s Dad bought me this corn ear cookie jar at a flea market that we went to once a year.

I brought home this door holder because it sat in the kitchen all of these years holding open the door to the breezeway.  It too, has borne witness to so much for it was in that kitchen that I baked the cake for Eldest’s first birthday.

We also brought home the turtle bench that used to sit next to the koi pond.  For years, my boys perched on it when they fed the fish. It was the safe place for them to be – a known boundary so they didn’t fall into the pond.

Heaven aside, this is where they all live.  This is my death culture.  Although it is not so much a culture of death but a celebration of relationship and life. There is still grief, but is joined with the memories that shape who these people and places are to me.  As I wrote in stuck, it is the way we belong to one another.

Even in death.



The bell that used to ring us home when we were children now hangs at my house.



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4 Thoughts to “Death Culture”

  1. Joan Schwarz

    Beautifully written and with so much meaning. I too have special memory items in every room in my house and it is a blessing to me every day. So difficult a transition for you and Dave as you sell his parents’ home and close that chapter of your lives–let your wonderful memories sustain you.

    1. lifeinthelabyrinth

      Thank you Joan. Even though the things are not the people, they serve to keep our relationships living. Peace to you.

  2. Muskego Glenn

    Ah yes, cookie jars. My great grandma had the best sugar cookies ever. They barely fit in her jar, but even though you couldn’t see thru the glass, you knew they were in there. They always were.

    1. lifeinthelabyrinth

      The foundational things in life…

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