I heard a "Colorado Matters"* segment yesterday with the intriguing title "A Pickle Jar In The Basement Is No Place For Someone's Ashes To Spend Eternity". Coloradans may remember when the story broke about year ago of a funeral director buying an active funeral home in Montrose, only to discover 175 sets of cremains in the basement -- some dating back to 1947. When the new owner found these cremains, he set about to have them properly interred. That meant, in many cases, dealing with the next-of-kin. For some, however, there was no one to claim the remains. And the owner simply buried (or scattered) the ashes as dignifiedly as possible (those with a military background were given full military honors). From all indications, the new owner did everything right and good.
One interaction the funeral director mentioned, however, caught my mind. When he found the cremains originally, he went public with the names of the deceased (he published them in the local paper). That meant that many of the living were horrified and disbelieving. As the funeral director put it, "In a lot of those cases, there was already a grave marker out there, with a year and death on it and everything. So the family had been coming to these graves for years thinking that their loved one was buried there, when in fact they were in the basement here."
That's what got me started thinking. Those folks who went to an empty, although marked, grave -- were they any less consoled because the remains were NOT there? Or was the grave-marker with the name and dates (perhaps with some inscription) enough to bring back the "presence" of Uncle Harry or Grandma? In other words, can the marker "stand in" for the reality? And, if so, what happens when the "reality" is gone?
This story was provocative enough on its own. But, put in the context of our national "debate" over standing for the national anthem (or putting one's hand over one's heart to honor the flag), it took on a special cast, especially in light of a thoughtful article on that subject by Benjamin Zeller, "Why Kaepernick's refusal to stand isn an act of religious dissent". Zeller relates the incident to the theory of "totems" put forward by sociologist Emile Durkheim. As Zeller writes:
Rightly or wrongly, Durkheim centered his model of religion on the concept of the totem, “the material representation of the clan,” which over time becomes a sacred object and center of a tribal religion.
Within this model of religion, the totem serves as the preeminent symbol of the group. “Thus the god of the clan […] can be none other than the clan itself, but the clan transfigured and imagined in the form of the plant or animal that serves as totem.” What plants or animals did for ancient societies, flags do today. The totemic symbol of America, the American flag, represents the nation state as a sacred entity—it serves as symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship.
To threaten the totem, particularly in front of large groups (such as on national television!), is to call into question the foundations of society. “When a belief is shared unanimously by a people, to touch it—that is, to deny or question it—is forbidden,” Durkheim wrote. People kill or die for their symbols.
One of the key phrases in this quotation from the article (in my opinion) is "the material representation. . . which over time becomes a sacred object . . ." That is, an "object" stands in for the reality -- perhaps an absent reality (such as Uncle Harry or Granda), or mis-remembered reality, or entirely fabricated reality. But it is the object that acquires importance. That has become very apparent in the debate over Kaepernick's protest.
It is not my intent here to take a stand (pardon the pun) on Kaepernick's (non-)action. Nor is it to play loose with the experience of those families who learned that the grave had been empty. It is only to consider our propensity to infuse material objects with meaning, sometimes incredibly powerful meaning. After all, a gravestone is a rock, and a flag bits of fabric.
The First (or Second, depending on the way one counts) Commandment may offer helpful counsel beyond its original purpose: "You shall not make yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20.4-5a). There may be unfortunate consequences. Vigilance might be warranted!
* "Colorado Matters" is Colorado Public Radio show that features stories arising within or affecting Colorado. They may be about business, human interest, government, education, etc.
Note: the photo above is of an abandoned Soviet-era monument in Yugoslavia.