American history is full of macabre, if not downright horrific episodes of disturbing the dead. Think of all the Native American graves that have been dug up, pillaged, disrupted, in the long, often undignified history of US expansion from the colonial era through the twentieth century; or consider the American Civil War, when the dead on both sides of the conflict were ill-treated to demoralize and degrade the enemy; the early history of medical schools is full of episodes of grave-robbing—literally hiring “resurrectionists” who went out in the dead of night to unearth and carry back freshly buried corpses to basements for aspiring young doctors to dissect; or more recently, the tri-state crematory scandal in North Georgia with bodies left unburied on the grounds, defiled ashes after cremation, and living family members outraged by the disgraceful management of their dead.
Now with relatives of more than 7,000 bodies questioning the treatment and care of the dead entrusted to the Burr Oak Cemetery in Illinois, the American public is gripped by the indignity associated with the desecration of sacred remains, and the sympathy for family members affected by disturbances to the peace of the dead.
What could be more unsettling and infuriating than having your expectation of peace in the grave shattered by revelations like those we are now hearing about at this cemetery? Investigations, protests, inquiries, vigils, lawsuits, and a whole array of actions are currently being taken by relatives, political officials, and state regulators to get to the bottom of this scandal.
While we are likely to hear more about greed and illegalities, disrespect and ill-repute by employees there, this case also speaks to one of the most fearsome and disquieting acts imaginable: the profanation of the dead. The scale and longevity of mistreating the remains at Burr Oak Cemetery is astonishing indeed, but it does have a familiar ring to it in the longer view of US history, if not human history generally, of attitudes toward and abuses of the dead.
The profanation of the dead conjures up the worst of human motivations and actions: heartless mercenaries beholden to money, power, or prestige; savage instincts that betray humanity and dignity when it comes to the sacrosanct peace of the deceased; inhuman disregard for life and a universal morality surrounding the final resting place.
As the story of Burr Oak Cemetery unfolds, it will force the living—those affected but also those on the sidelines—to reconsider their relationships and responsibilities to the dead. Not only in terms of their spiritual value in the afterlife, though that is obviously an element; not only in terms of the therapeutic value of the peace of the grave, though this too is relevant; not in only terms of the economic value of fees paid to working professional and responsible parties, though of course this is an indisputable component.
But all of these combined—in other words, the total sacred investments we make in assuming that we have some degree of control over the fate of the dead as active spirit, comforting memory, and valuable commerce—in an uncertain, unjust world where the dead matter but not always for the same reasons.