Cultural Heritage – What is it?
There was an interesting post on an artist community blog recently. It was about the effects of cultural heritage in our modern world. Not exactly something that comes to mind every day, right? What is it exactly?
Culture heritage is defined as a connection to social values, tradition, beliefs and customs inherited and passed down generation to generation. The importance, according to the article, is that “Cultural heritage can provide an automatic sense of unity and belonging within a group and allows us to better understand previous generations and the history of where we come from”.
The Heritage Cycle helps us understand the value of finding and incorporating heritage into our lives.
(Simon Thurley, used by permission)
You can see from the cycle how knowing more about our heritage can add value to our lives and our communities.
What does this have to do with gravestones?
Everything! Cemeteries are important places in our neighborhoods. They contain the story of our family and friends and our city. A gravestone or monument is to mark the place that someone is buried. You’ve seen a stone that has a name and birth and death date engraved on it. But what if it does more than that? Did you also notice a flower, or a deer or even something strange like a compass or a hand? These symbols have special meaning. The significance of a gravestone lies not only in its inscribed information but also in the reflections and insights it is able to trigger in our minds. It gives us knowledge of a person, but more than that, a grave marker can unfold conversations and stories and act as a platform for reflection on knowledge systems, beliefs, values and attitudes of our families and our communities.
For example, a few years ago I met with a grieving mother and together we created a stunning arrowhead shape monument that was her son’s exact height. The monument featured laser etching portraits of him and his spirit animal. The inscriptions all held with his native heritage too. We spent time together talking about how the cemetery monument would best represent her son and about the importance of their cultural heritage and how that connects to generations of people, land, and beliefs. We took the time she needed to go through this process. It’s okay to take things slowly.
Lately, though it seems more and more people are in a hurry and say to us, “I just want to be cremated”. I get it. We live in a time when microwaves and high-speed internet rule our days. Life is full speed ahead and we need to keep up. And then there are those who think that they don’t have heritage because times have changed. In the past there was a homestead, and kids didn’t move far away from their families. Now, it seems grandpa doesn’t have a family farm to pass down to the next generation. Or what about disagreements, political or religious, that can keep families apart? We can feel disconnected to our immediate family and in turn disconnected from our cultural heritage. Finally, there are many people who want to be earth friendly. They want to have a “green” burial that matches their minimalist lifestyle and ideologies. I get it.
For some people, cemeteries and markers are a definite “yes”. But for some, it seems that “just scatter my ashes” has become the preferred idea for the final arrangements. While there are a variety of reasons that people give, I always wonder about the family and friends who are still living and what they may need emotionally and yes, culturally? For those who think they have no need for funeral homes, cemeteries and monument builders, I ‘d like to remind them that burial and memorialization is not old fashioned and not a tradition to rebel against. Complete departure of death care and memorialization is not healthy for the people who love us, or for our communities. Monuments and memorials are important whether it’s at home, in a park or in a cemetery. It is more than a marker.
Cultural heritage narratives should extend to death, burial and grave markers.