Chief mourners are usually offered some earth, which they can sprinkle a handful of onto the casket, at burials. This is then offered round to other mourners. If you don’t wish to use earth, I can arrange alternatives such as flowers, petals, or sprigs of rosemary, although there is no pressure or obligation to take part in any way at all.
But why do we offer this? What is the meaning and symbolism of this act?
There are several reasons. The first is that it’s a very old custom. Ancient Egyptians would have the family throw sand on the body before burial. It is also part of the Jewish faith to bury your own dead, and leave stones after graveside visits. In Christianity, it relates to the belief that man is made from earth and returns to earth (ashes to ashes, dust to dust). In Paganism, it is also about gently returning to the land that sustained you.
There are other reasons: For loved-ones to feel connected to the event, and to fully commit themselves to the funeral and all that it means. When other mourners also participate, it feels like a group effort by all who liked and loved the person, and offers support and involvement to each other. Assisting with the burial in this way can also symbolically recognise saying a final goodbye to that person’s physical presence. It can help give finality and closure to the funeral process, and to feel like the funeral ceremony has properly ended, and is complete. Then the next step of the grieving and healing process can begin. It is also about intimacy, as those who knew the person best are those taking care of them at the very end.
But the aspect and explanation I like best is this: It is charity. The true sign of charity is to do something for someone with no hope or expectation of anything in return. To bury a person, therefore, is an act of love.
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