Marking the passing of life


Perhaps the most terrible images of last month's tsunami are the mass graves: pits lined with children, bodies bulldozed over with dirt.

This footage is striking in part because it is rare. Usually the American camera discovers mass graves as they are uncovered, instead of created, when all that remains is a wreckage of skulls instead of distinct faces with matted eyelashes and blue lips.

But the sad sight on the Indian Ocean's shore is also jarring because it flies in the face of our national instincts. America, more than other Westernized nations, is devoted to the ideal of the marked grave.

"The mass grave defies that cultural norm in every element," says David Sloane, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning and Development and the author of The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History.

Americans romanticize the individual, and this ideal outlives us: The marked grave is the American way of dealing with death.

The government channels staggering amounts of money toward the identification of American dead so they can be brought home and buried.

In the days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the site was the closest resemblance to a mass grave on American soil in recent history. However, "there was a tremendous effort to locate ... everyone," said Karen Burns, an assistant anthropology professor at the University of Georgia who has investigated mass graves in Guatemala and Haiti.

That identification process "is still going on," she said. "It requires a tremendous amount of effort, a huge amount of will."

The country budgets at least $50 million annually for the recovery of its citizens' bodies across the world, a process of combing often remote areas for dental and genetic evidence. Technology has made this search and identification process so precise that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has become an anachronism: The body of a Vietnam-era serviceman - Michael Blassie of St. Louis - was removed and identified in 1998.

"We're different from the Brits and Australians, who have a 'leave them where they lie' attitude," particularly in times of war, said Lt. Col. Mark Brown, a public affairs officer for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii.

When necessary, these forensic details are used to retrieve civilians. Military teams are working in the tsunami-affected areas to salvage dozens of missing Americans from the mass graves.

"It's being American. It's just the way we are," Brown said.

But why? American soil cradles mass graves dating back to calamities such as the Civil War battles and cholera outbreaks of the 1800s. Even today, the state of Maryland uses a common grave in Sykesville to bury the cremated remains of medical school cadavers and the occasional John Doe.

Still, these sites are exceptions. Mass graves just "aren't supposed to happen in our particular culture," said Gary Laderman, an Emory University professor who has written several books on American attitudes toward death.

The nation's religious history provides a partial explanation, Laderman said. Christian cultures treat the dead body as the eventual vessel for resurrection, a form that will ultimately become transfigured and immortal.

The body is "not just a temporary housing for the spirit and the soul," he said. Thus "there's more of an impulse to know where the body is."

But the widespread practice of grave-marking emerged long after Christianity proliferated. In the Middle Ages, all save the wealthiest people were laid anonymously to rest, sometimes in group graves.

The marking of graves may be more closely linked to the development of modern democracy and the notion that the common man was as important as a king. The French Revolution in particular, Laderman said, may have catalyzed the change in how bodies were interred in the Western world.

Grave markers suddenly represented "the valorization of the individual, who should also have that individuality expressed in death," Laderman said.

Americans had adopted the practice even earlier, so graves here were marked even from its Colonial beginnings. The democratic symbolism of the singular grave only deepened in the 20th century, as mass and anonymous plots became the hallmark of the chaotic Third World countries and brutal regimes that the government sought political and moral distance from.

In modern America, the grave serves as "the final assessment of the individual," according to William T. Stuart, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Maryland. While marked graves once signified universal equality, today ornate tombs also set apart the wealthy and well-loved.

The labeled headstone is a national point of pride. Without one, Stuart said, "it means you were of no account" - a fate that, in status-conscious America, may be worse than death.

But many cultures feel otherwise, Stuart said. Many of the first Americans - including some of Maryland's native tribes - intentionally mingled remains after death, a ritual that enacted tribal ideals of unity.

Only time will tell how the tsunami-struck nations will interpret their mass graves, but some societies can eventually find comfort in these sites. Christian Davenport, a government professor at the University of Maryland, has studied the legacy of Rwanda's group tombs, the mute reminders of mid-1990s genocide. Although individual identities vanish in their depths, the graves seem to lend the deceased a collective significance that is even more striking.

In certain communities, he said, the common graves become places for prayers and meeting, common ground for the living and the dead.

But in this country, the unmarked grave remains a much lonelier prospect. And post-mortem anonymity will seem increasingly threatening as Americans become more mobile and family cemeteries fade out, Stuart said.

Without the anchor of an individual marker, the dead may be lost in a vast landscape, set adrift even as they are entombed.

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