The Profound Horror of the Mass Grave

If funerals show a society’s endurance, ours is coming apart

Kathryn Lofton
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

When I was a child, my father hunted small game from the backdoor of our home, a small house surrounded by other houses and duplexes in a Midwestern city. He sometimes boiled the carcasses in the garage so he could reconstruct the animals’ skeletons, bleaching the bones and carefully wiring together the parts into lattice sculptures. Sometimes he had no plans for artistry, and just killed the animals to rid his yard of intrusion. These bodies he buried at the bases of trees and bushes at the border of the lawn in the darkest part of the night.

Once, when I was eight, I thought he had killed a tabby that occasionally accompanied me for a half-block as I walked to school. I waited until he went to the hardware store for something, maybe two weeks after the suspected crime, and I ran outside to dig up the freshest grave in the backyard. I exhumed the body with the intent to say a proper goodbye. Maybe too I wanted the measure of my father’s menace. The smell when I got to the animal’s body was so awful I threw up my lunchtime sandwich. I scrambled to rebury the creature and spray down my sick, reconstructing the scene so he would not guess at my investigations.

It wasn’t the tabby. Still, as I raked the dirt back over its body, I sang “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music, which I decided was the most solemn song I knew.

Every child knows that when something dies it should receive a funeral.

Sociologists have explained repeatedly that theorizing society necessitates theorizing ritual. Ritual is the mechanism by which society understands itself, knows what it is, and restates what it wants to support or decry.

Three months into the pandemic, I have been invited to a lot of rituals even as I shelter in place. I’ve been invited to rabbinical and priestly ordinations of former students via Zoom. Friends have requested my attendance at virtual Passover meals; a colleague asked that I join a virtual church service to hear her preach. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in Conservative Judaism has offered guidance for remote gatherings in a time of COVID-19, including the recitation of the mourner’s Kaddish. I’ve read about people managing to hold weddings in spite of the shutdown.

I wonder how some rituals can be made possible, and why others can’t.

Funeral homes resort to storing bodies on ice; bodies pile up in trucks; bodies overflow morgues. “We can’t properly bury our dead because of the situation,” people are saying. And I think: Is that true? If a funeral is a ceremony that honors the dead, do the conditions of the pandemic preclude us from conducting them? And what does it mean if we can’t hold these rituals to honor the dead?

I turn to the experts to help answer these questions, those people in forensic science and crisis management who have faced these logistics before. I read about mortuary provision in major accidents, natural disasters, or acts of hostility that cause mass fatalities. I read an article titled “Steadily Increasing Control: The Professionalization of Mass Death” in Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management that explains, “Today, as well, the handling of large numbers of bodies—and their personal effects—has become a specialized business.”

I read, too, “Memorial services are an important step in the process of handling of the dead.” In a 2015 article in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, the authors exhort, “Two of the most enduring American values are respect for the deceased and compassion for the bereaved.”

According to the experts, if we can provide funerals, we should provide funerals. It’s not logistics that keeps us from saying prayers or finding ways to gather ourselves socially. It is our society, or present lack thereof. It is hard to make a ritual when you don’t know what society you feel good about constituting.

I read a study about early medieval plague graves in Germany and find that, when people buried the victims, they observed the customary rites of burial. Plague bodies were dressed up carefully and given the same religious grave goods as those who died of other causes. The article is largely boring—DNA testing on soil samples, etc.—but then the authors get political, insisting that these medieval plague gravesites are not “mass graves”:

Usually, the term “mass grave” includes the perception of a certain way to conduct burials, like to bury the dead hastily, and with very minimalistic or no burial rites. Therefore, we would like to distinguish between “mass graves” and “multiple burials.” Both can be the physical or material expression of a plague outbreak and therefore a higher rate of mortality, but they show a very different way of handling the crisis by the contemporary society.

A very different way of handling. The difference is in whether you’re driven by haste or still observing the ceremonial rites. Mass graves exist when we want to move quickly; when we want to bury the mess without remark; when we can’t handle speaking aloud the society that made this loss on this scale.

We are running mass graves on Hart Island.

I read about the purchase of the island, off the northeastern tip of the Bronx, in 1868 by the Department of Charities and Correction. I read about how they bought it with the intention to set up a workhouse for older boys from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island.

I think about the conjunction of those words, charities and correction and refuge.

I read about how, soon after the workhouse opened in 1869, the city began conducting the burials of unclaimed and unidentified people there. I look at photographs by Jacob Riis: of the dock where the unknown dead were unloaded, of the laborers loading coffins into an open trench at the city burial ground. I read about how, more than a century later, AIDS victims were buried on Hart Island in a cordoned-off corner; I read about how Rikers Island prisoners worked then and now as gravediggers; I read about the dizzying rates of infection and death from the coronavirus on Rikers Island. I read about how NYU’s medical school buried donated bodies on Hart Island against the precise wishes of its donors. I read an apology from NYU: “As an institution, we weren’t aware that this was happening,” Lisa Greiner, a spokesperson for Langone Medical Center, said in 2016.

I read about what it means to be what law enforcement calls an “unidentified decedent” and what it means to identify one. I think about how an unidentified decedent is, by his, her, or their very deposit in a potter’s field, marked by other identifiers: opioid addict; orphan; runaway; homeless; murder victim; plague victim. Subjects of charity, all.

Funerals vary across cultures, but all societies discovered through archaeology and every culture engaged by anthropology share one idea: that funerals symbolize the endurance of society and its values in the face of individual death. They symbolically conquer death by engaging the bereaved in a ritual that binds them together in the world of the living.

Can we have a society without funerals? The history of history, the history of sociology, the history of religions say: no.

As the death count in the United States approaches 90,000, I read a study about recovering from mass death. Among the Cambodian survivors of the Khmer Rouge, there are many PTSD symptoms described. First, survivors report recurrent, disturbing dreams about loved ones who died violently during the regime. Second, kut caraeun, or “thinking too much.” This includes thinking about upsetting topics, traumatic events from the past, and the loss of loved ones. Kut caraeun may lead to headaches, dizziness, “wind attacks,” depletion of bodily energy, heart weakness, and even “overheating of the brain,” the crucial signs of which are memory loss and insanity.

The only durative therapies for their suffering are Buddhist practices, including meditation; assisting the dead toward rebirth by honoring the dead person’s merit; and participating in p’chum ben, the annual festival of the dead. As one male survivor reports, “We do rituals to calm the spirits of the dead, and I think that the ceremony can also calm down my feeling, so that I am not furiously mad at the cruel behavior of the Khmer Rouge.”

I think about whether we can make up rituals to make up for our ritual failure. After World War II, local civilian committees across Eastern Europe excavated mass graves. Sometimes they did so under the enforcing eye of occupying forces. Sometimes they did so voluntarily. I think about these acts of exhumation: about how the townspeople then individually buried the remains of the bodies. I wonder if any of them got sick, or cried late into the night about what they saw. I think about how we do small things—read a poem, say a prayer, leave a token—not because we aren’t collapsing, but to remember someone lost as someone particular.

I think of a program in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, that pays for burials and memorial services for people whose unidentified remains have been in county possession for at least two years. I think of a headstone they placed in the multiple burial site in 2012: “We grow afraid of what we might forget. We will find peace and value through community in knowing that we belong to each other.”

I think about what I could do. I think about the old shovel I dragged out to dig for the tabby, and I think about the shovel I have in my basement now. I think of how I could get in a canoe and paddle from New Haven to Hart Island. I think about how, even though I lack upper body strength or seafaring experience, I could ride the rip, passing Bridgeport and Norwalk and Port Chester on my right, with Long Island a long sliver on my left. I could paddle away, and find the island right at the juncture where Connecticut meets the Bronx, just before Long Island Sound becomes the East River.

I think I could do this. I think I should.

Kathryn Lofton is the Lex Hixon Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies at Yale University.
Originally published:
May 19, 2020


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