Perhaps it’s just what I deserve for reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, or maybe it is just one of the perks of living in New Jersey. On the front page of today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger is a story of grave robbery. Two recent graves, one eerily reminiscent of King’s novel, have been plundered for what officials are calling a “non-traditional religious practice.” If the locally popular magazine Weird NJ is to be believed, the state hosts many religious groups that fall into the non-traditional category. This is a predictable by-product of religious freedom; some people find religious fulfillment in idiosyncratic rituals. And all religions are concerned about death.
“Some religious sects use human remains in ceremonies,” the journalists state matter-of-factly. The concept has an ancient pedigree, even in orthodox varieties of religion. The macabre practice of keeping a bone, or occasionally a whole body, of a saint for veneration is cut from the same cloth. In King’s novel, the darker side of resurrection is explored. We miss our dead, but do we really want them back here with us? The use of human bones is disturbing because it suggests the rest and sanctity of the dead has been violated. Perhaps a Halloweenish horde of restless deceased will be unbound among us. We prefer our dead to be left in peace.
Perhaps it is that lives filled with the turmoil of our frenetic scramble to stay ahead of tragedy look forward to death’s eternal slumber. Anything that suggests the dead have been disturbed sends ripples through the psyche of the living. While visiting an ancestral plot some years ago, I discovered that vandals had tipped over the tombstone where my great-grandfather and several great uncles rested. No caretaker was on duty at the remote cemetery, so I found the address and mailed a request to have the stone set back in place. The image of that fallen stone distressed me for several days. Those who rob graves likely do not take the distress of family into account – their religion requires human remains and we attach great significance to the inert matter that used to be one of us. It is an impasse. Religions make demands and those who get in the way, either living or dead, often end up violated.
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