Burying the Dead, and Then Digging Them Up

About a week after my partner Clayton was murdered in 2015, I went back to his gravesite with one of his brothers to visit. The cemetery, located in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, was a peaceful place, with expansive lawns and even some trees that afforded much-needed shade near Clayton’s burial site. Clayton’s headstone hadn’t yet arrived, but even if it had, we wouldn’t have been able to see it that day.

When we arrived at the cemetery, another police officer who had died while on duty was being buried – on top of Clayton. The cemetery workers were lowering his coffin into the ground as we walked up. We left, not wanting to disturb the family members and friends who surrounded the grave.

Clayton’s grave and Fox, the dog. (Courtesy Cassia Roth)

I was shocked, Clayton’s brother less so. According to him, this was common practice in Rio’s cemeteries, a way of maximizing space. The police force, who pays for the funerals and burial plots of any of its forces killed in the line of duty, always did it. I just didn’t know – and wasn’t expecting it. Of course, putting numerous people in one tomb or burial plot isn’t new or particular to modern Rio de Janeiro. In New Orleans, families were often buried in the same tomb, with the oldest mortal remains taken out of coffins and put in smaller boxes to make way for the large and yet-to-be decomposed bodies of the newly dead. In the small churchyard cemeteries of the eighteenth-century United States, burials were often six-coffins deep. It’s not inherently dehumanizing or disrespectful; in fact, it’s downright practical. I now find it comforting that Clayton has a neighbor. If you think about the physical aspects of this vertical practice, it’s not really different from the closeness between gravesites on the horizontal plane.

Clayton’s situation was just different from my own experience with burials. My grandmother was put to rest in a Jewish section of her local cemetery, next to her friend. She is the only person buried in that plot. My father was a practicing Buddhist, and his ashes are in a small box at a Buddhist monastery in Northern California. No one else in his little box but him. (The monks let us bury his titanium knee, which didn’t burn during cremation, in the monastery’s pet cemetery next to the cremated remains of our beloved dog Sam. Papa would have wanted to be close to him.)

The day I first went to visit Clayton after his funeral, I just wasn’t expecting a stranger to be on top of him, that’s all. It’s not as if their coffins were haphazardly placed on top of the other. A stone slab separates the two plots. And it’s not like Clayton minds. He once told me that he would like to be buried in the middle of a forest. No grave marker needed. Just trees and animals.

With the alarming rise of COVID-19 deaths in Brazil, maximizing space in cemeteries is even more urgent. In the Amazonian city of Manaus, one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, graves are being dug deep enough for three coffins to sit one on top of the other. The city is not simply facing a collapse in its already precarious public healthcare system; its cemeteries and burial systems are also at risk. Officials in the country have also implemented the more controversial practice of “mass graves,” where coffins rest side-by-side in large holes. In Rio de Janeiro, which is also facing a crisis in availability, the local government is building large above-ground concrete tombs, with more slots for individual caskets than traditional below-ground tombs.

But Clayton’s final resting place didn’t end up being final. No matter how much a community maximizes space in an existing cemetery, one problem remains: people keep dying. Unless the cemetery expands its grounds, which is often impossible in an urban setting, or removes remains, eventually it will run out of space. The police in Rio de Janeiro respond to this problem by moving the remains of their dead after three years. Unless you buy the plot yourself at the time of death, your loved one will be moved – their coffin dug up, their mortal remains put into a smaller container. For legal and familial reasons, I was unable to buy a space when Clayton died. His complicated relationship with his family, which has continued to shape my interactions with them, means that I don’t know where he is. When he died, I was terrified of this reality – not knowing where he was. I entered a protracted and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle to gain control over his mortal remains. For many years, the energy and money I put into the issue was a tangible thing – these were bones that once held flesh, after all, flesh that I had touched and loved. I wanted to have control over his body in death, perhaps to have something to control in a world that felt so uncontrollable.

I don’t know how I feel about Clayton’s resting place anymore, wherever that is. Disconnected, definitely. Terrified? Not anymore. It’s happened. He’s been moved. But watching the scenes of Brazilian families trying to mourn their loved ones who have died from the pandemic has brought the issue of Clayton’s remains back to me. In São Paulo, mourners have to wait in a line to get into the city’s biggest cemetery because of the number of COVID-19-related deaths. What about those who can’t afford a plot – is that where mass graves come in? What happens when they fill up? Do they move bodies? Do they tell families?

Cemeteries are for the living. Burial rituals are for the living. They allow us to process the death of our loved ones, to honor them in a way that we think they (and we) would feel was right. Pain and trauma go hand-in-hand with burial services that don’t correspond with the values of the living. I live with that pain, that trauma, every day. And now, as the pandemic ramps up in Brazil, so will millions more.

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