Disinterment is defined as removing a casket from its place of rest. It’s done for all types of reasons. Ongoing or reopened police investigations, court orders, but more often than not, the family simply changed their mind.
As funeral directors, we don’t like it, we try to avoid it, but one thing remains constant when a family decides to pull a casket out of the ground.
A funeral director must be there to witness it.
It’s not a sexy process. The permits are checked, the family arrives, the hole is dug. Once the cemetery machinery hits the concrete vault, we know we’re almost there.
As the old saying goes, you never forget your first.
My first was Edna. She died in 1981, but her son Jasper had recently purchased a large private section of the cemetery for the family and wanted everyone to be buried together.
So here we were, in the rain, pulling Edna out of the ground.
The casket was pulled up, water cascading from the sides, as if it were crying-asking to be left alone to disintegrate in peace.
“Is it supposed to look like that? She was embalmed right? So if I wanted to open it, we could right?” Jasper asked.
I didn’t know, she’d been in there longer than I’ve been alive.
I responded with the tried and true response of all funeral directors:
“There is no evidence that any casket represented as having protective features, which may include a gasket, will preserve human remains.”
Jasper didn’t like this.
“Why can’t you tell me flat out what she will look like? I need to know if I want to open it to see her.”
I took a breath.
“Jasper, your mother passed away more than 20 years ago. Even if she were embalmed, technology has evolved since then. Of course, you may view your mother if you choose, but I strongly advise against it.”
He paused and stared at me.
“Are you even old enough to work here?”
Suppressing the eye roll and one of the many sarcastic remarks that were flitting through my mind, I settled for a polite chuckle.
“I’ve been licensed for 5 years, so I sure hope so!”
He threw me another look, and his shoulders visibly relaxed.
“You know, I don’t think I need to take a look in the casket after all.”
The cemetery crew transported Edna to her new place of rest, placed the casket inside of the new vault, and lowered her into the space.
Before filling the space, Jasper asked us to wait. He ran to his car and came back with a basket full of white rose petals.
At that moment, the demanding man that I couldn’t seem to please disappeared. All I could see was a 6 year old boy who lost his mother too soon and just wanted her to be proud of him.
He sprinkled them into the space, on top of the vault, and though his back was turned to me, I saw his shoulders tremble.
He was crying.
“Rest well Mama.”
He turned away and began walking to his car.
“You can close it now.”
As I watched him walk away, I expected him to turn back, to look at the freshly dug earth filling the grave where he had just sprinkled rose petals. He never did.
I only saw Jasper once more after that. It was 3 months past the date of his mother’s disinterment/reinterment and we were preparing to bury him. He’d had a heart attack.
In a way, it felt like I got to witness a family reunion. I closed my eyes and imagined Jasper and Edna, together again, and smiled.