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The Valley of Dry Bones


A recent NPR article about the possibility of moving the remains of U.S. President James K Polk reminded me what an odd concept the grave is. A descendant of our 11th president, dead now these 168 years, is quoted as saying how much Polk wanted to remain in Nashville. This was apparently requested in his will, as though his corpse, obscured underground, might enjoy its time more in Music City than elsewhere.

It is true that cemeteries/graveyards served a useful purpose at one time, as they stand as historical records during a period when such records weren't always well kept via other methods (paper, digitally, etc.) In today's age, we have much better ways of keeping track of who has come and gone on this earth. Putting a body into the ground and marking it with a headstone simply isn't necessary.

I know I sound cold about what happens with human remains, but it's an issue I've never been comfortable with. Whether you believe it's because a spirit has left and gone somewhere else, or simply that the plethora of organic gears that continually work to make a person alive have stopped working, the body that we put into the ground is no longer the person we once knew. While I understand having respect for it in the period directly after death, it would seem that long term, underground storage of it is impractical.

My father's grave is located just outside of Springfield, Illinois. Camp Butler. I've visited the site perhaps 2-3 times since he died nearly twenty years ago. Of course, the thought has crossed my mind of visiting more often than that, but then what would be the point? The living entity that was dad ceased to exist some two decades ago. Why feel obligated to visit a corpse?

James K Polk died almost 170 years ago, however, his body (or what's left of it) still resides entombed in Tennessee. George Washington has been dead two centuries, yet we can visit him at Mount Vernon. Except, it isn't really Polk or Washington that are still around, is it? Simply their remnants. And, honestly, the remains of James Polk don't care if they're in Nashville or somewhere else, so neither should we.


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