Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Unpeaceful Rest

From earliest times societies have treated their dead with great care, surrounding the process of burial with sacred meaning and ritual.  From the great pyramids of Egypt to the Hallstatt Culture barrows of Central Europe to the mausoleum of Qin Shihuangdi with its terracotta warriors, burial sites have provided rich information about civilizations long gone. 
The first burial about which any detail is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures is that of Sarah, wife of the patriarch Abraham.  Genesis 23 describes how Abraham negotiated with the Hittites, among whom he was then living, to purchase a field and cave near Hebron to use as a burial site.  When Abraham died years later, he was laid to rest in this cave of Machpelah with his wife Sarah.  (Genesis 25:10)
When his beloved wife Rachel died in childbirth as their household journeyed from Bethel to Ephrath, Abraham’s grandson Jacob set up a pillar to mark her gravesite.  The author of this portion of Genesis, recording events that had taken place hundreds of years before they were written down, noted that the pillar of Rachel’s tomb “is there to this day.”  (Genesis 35:20) A few verses later we read that Jacob and his twin brother Esau, with whom he had only recently been reconciled after a lengthy estrangement, together buried their father Isaac after his death.
By Jesus’ time elaborate rites had been developed surrounding death and burial.  We learn about some of them in the gospel accounts – the wrapping of the body with spices and ointments, the procession to the graveyard, the ministry of professional mourners.  Unlike the Egyptian use of spices, which were intended to preserve and mummify the body of the deceased, the herbs and oils used by the Hebrews were meant to hasten decomposition.  After two or three years in a sealed tomb such as the one in which Jesus’ body was placed after his crucifixion, the remaining fragments of bone were removed and placed in a small casket called an ossuary.  A section of the place in Jerusalem where ossuaries were permanently stored during Jesus’ time is still visible to travelers today.
Burial sites in the United States range from great, solemn national cemeteries such as Arlington and Gettysburg to tiny family plots fenced off in the corner of a farm field.  Most country churches include a graveyard on their property, as do a number of older city churches.  And ordinarily such burial grounds, whether they extend for many acres or just a few square yards, are accorded the respect they deserve.  When vandals topple headstones or scrawl graffiti, it is front page news evoking properly outraged letters to the editor.  Desecration of a grave is a prosecutable offense.  If a new construction project unearths long-forgotten graves, all work ceases until careful arrangements are made to accord the disturbed remains a decent reburial.
If we regard such patterns of behavior as proper and appropriate for a civilized society, which I firmly believe they are, then what are we to think when we learn of the wanton destruction of cemeteries?  Of bulldozers pushing aside and shattering headstones like so much scrub pine?  Of backhoes ripping up soil and caskets, then dumping them over a cliff, to be buried again by rubble tossed on top?  Of mourning families learning of the planned destruction only on the morning when the bulldozers appear, with no warning or opportunity to protest, to negotiate, even to relocate the threatened graves? 
If we learn that all of this is happening with impunity, with the concurrence of civil authorities, would we conclude that we were witnessing a terrible revenge exacted for unforgiven injuries?  Or that we were caught in the midst of a devastating civil war?  The truth is that we would be viewing the results of a coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal which is common to the hills of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and scattered locations in eastern Tennessee.  Instead of traditional mining, with its deep tunnels and chambers, mining companies now simply use tons of explosives to blow off the top of a mountain, exposing the coal seams once buried beneath it.  In the past ten years over a thousand cemeteries have been destroyed by this process.
The disregard for the dead is probably not surprising when one considers how the living are treated.  Appalachian communities are being devastated by mountaintop removal.  Rock dust and coal dust permeate the air, causing extremely high rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.  Cadmium, selenium, and arsenic leach into drinking water.  The population is being slowly poisoned.  Nor does the harm end with humans.  Detritus from the removal process has polluted and buried nearly 2,000 miles of headwater streams.  Vibrant ecosystems, once teeming with a rich variety of plant and animal life, have simply vanished.  Author and activist Terry Tempest Williams, writing in the June 2011 issue of The Progressive, describes her first view of the destruction: “The mountain below us is gone.  Flatland.  Tableland.  Sterile.  Bare.  Dead.”
What are we to think of a society that permits such total destruction?  That privileges the greed of the few over the basic needs of the many?  That is so deeply in denial about the massive harm that is being done that few outside the affected areas are even aware that it is happening?  There are a number of Bible verses that come to mind: You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24b)  Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.  (Matthew 25:40b)
Throughout the scriptures the metaphor of the garden is used to signify God’s good gifts to creation.  The Psalmist compares the righteous to trees planted by streams of water.  Isaiah’s message of hope during a time of exile promises “you shall be like an watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”  We are intended to be caretakers of the garden, not destroyers of it.  “Ignorance is bliss” the saying goes.  But with knowledge comes responsibility.  Now that we are aware of this wanton obliteration of creation, what are we going to do about it?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. First of all this is an excellent and thought provoking article. It completely captivated my mind and engaged my spirit.

  3. "The short and direct penetration into the practice of blowing up mountains comes from the minds of the people who came here from Europe. We ignore the subject being overly sensitive to how it makes white people feel, and in the end we don't examine the facts or the spirit of the question.

    The first step to acquiring personal power comes from the practice of unlearning all you know. That process requires deep self-examination. In the public forums centered around the environment the source and root of the problems go to the side and we all are instructed not to look in that direction, or make the obvious connections between the environment, conquest, supremacy, dictatorial patriotism, the Euro-American belief structure, and the tendency that came from the practice of killing one's grandchildren to feed one's children that none of the conquered people had ever heard of, or conceived in their darkest dreams!

    How else does a person deal with the truth of their actions to change behavior, I assert, is the central question to the complex problem of mistreating the Earth, our Mother. Activism not coming from a deep relationship with our Mother further soils the living waters. Why is that?" - Gregory E. Woods, Keeper of Stories