Why Cemeteries Matter

Oct. 28 2021

Increasingly, Americans are choosing post-mortem options other than traditional burial, including cremation and “body composting.” While, in 2010, 53 percent of the dead were interred, by 2015 the number was 45 percent, and is expected to be a mere 37 percent in 2021. Judaism is particularly insistent on burial in the earth as the sole correct way to honor the dead—this week’s Torah reading begins with a description of Abraham purchasing the plot in which to bury his wife Sarah—and both Christianity and Islam have traditionally preferred burial as well. Rachel K. Alexander describes what can be lost as a secularizing society abandons the practice:

For religious Jews, cemeteries evince respect for the human body. Burial rituals are, therefore, essential; they involve keeping watch over the body until burial, purifying the body, dressing it in a shroud and placing it in a casket, and reciting the kaddish—first at the gravesite, then daily for an eleven-month period, the end of which is marked by a return to the grave for the unveiling of a tombstone. Visits to the graves of loved ones are especially important in anticipation of the High Holy Days, and cemeteries bear further significance for Jews as historical memorials. When Nazis during the Holocaust, Arab armies after 1948, and anti-Semites in America and elsewhere today desecrate Jewish graves and cemeteries, they attempt to erase the history of an entire people.

A walk through the graves of our forebears not only reminds us that we will die (and should therefore use our limited time and resources well), but it also reminds us that the buried once lived. They worked and married and raised children and spent their lives on or nearby the very land where they now lie. To the extent that they lived well, they gave their lives to that land, and we benefit from that gift. As James Madison famously explained in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “the improvements made by the dead form a charge against the living who take the benefit of them.” Burial grounds serve this purpose, too: to remind us to be good stewards of the benefits we’ve inherited, and to make gifts of our own lives, in turn.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: American society, Death, James Madison, Jewish cemeteries, Judaism

Salman Rushdie and the Western Apologists for Those Who Wish Him Dead

Aug. 17 2022

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) in 1989 calling for believers to murder the novelist Salman Rushdie due to the content of his novel, The Satanic Verses. Over the years, two of the book’s translators have been stabbed—one fatally—and numerous others have been injured or killed in attempts to follow the ayatollah’s writ. Last week, an American Shiite Muslim came closer than his many predecessors to killing Rushdie, stabbing him multiple times and leaving him in critical condition. Graeme Wood comments on those intellectuals in the West who have exuded sympathy for the stabbers:

In 1989, the reaction to the fatwa was split three ways: some supported it; some opposed it; and some opposed it, to be sure, but still wanted everyone to know how bad Rushdie and his novel were. This last faction, Team To Be Sure, took the West to task for elevating this troublesome man and his insulting book, whose devilry could have been averted had others been more attuned to the sensibilities of the offended.

The fumes are still rising off of this last group. The former president Jimmy Carter was, at the time of the original fatwa, the most prominent American to suggest that the crime of murder should be balanced against Rushdie’s crime of blasphemy. The ayatollah’s death sentence “caused writers and public officials in Western nations to become almost exclusively preoccupied with the author’s rights,” Carter wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times. Well, yes. Carter did not only say that many Muslims were offended and wished violence on Rushdie; that was simply a matter of fact, reported frequently in the news pages. He took to the op-ed page to add his view that these fanatics had a point. “While Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important,” he wrote, “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated.” Never mind that millions of Muslims take no offense at all, and are insulted by the implication that they should.

Over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that “nobody would have the [courage]” to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.

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Read more at Atlantic

More about: Ayatollah Khomeini, Freedom of Speech, Iran, Islamism, Jimmy Carter