All The Ways Literature Makes Being Buried Sound Utterly Lovely.

Tania Braukamper
The Coffeelicious
Published in
5 min readFeb 1, 2022


I don’t want to be cremated.

Imagine having your body charred to ash in a fury of fire. It’s so… permanent. To be honest, I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment.

Neil Degrasse Tyson, the pop astrophysicist, agrees with me. “Bury me,” I heard him say in an interview, “so that my molecules can be dined upon by flora and fauna, such as what I have dined upon my entire life.”

When you’re cremated, says Tyson, the energy from your molecules dissipates into the atmosphere. Cremation means you don’t get to rejoin the cycle of life.

Cremation is like the death equivalent of not bothering to recycle.

Tyson may be right, but whatever — I’m not in it for the science.

Bury me because it’s romantic.

The Canterville Ghost longed for death. A good two decades after reading the novel I can recall nothing except these words, which haunt me to this day:

“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence.

To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”

The ghost in Oscar Wilde’s story wants to be laid to rest. To cease his restless wanderings; to find eternal peace.

Do you hear him talking about cremation? No. Soft brown earth and waving grasses sound infinitely more inviting.

I’m reminded of the Canterville Ghost when I hear the equally-lovely lyrics of Tom Waits’ song “Green Grass” — which could be the same dreams echoed across more than a century:

“Lay your head where my heart used to be
Hold the earth above me
Lay down in the green grass
Remember when you loved me.”

The average human body takes 2–3 hours to cremate. According to the website How Stuff Works, the body, mostly composed of water, first dries out from the 1,100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Then:

“As the soft tissues begin to tighten, burn and vaporize from the heat, the skin becomes waxy, discolors, blisters and splits. The muscle begins to char, flexing and extending limbs as it tightens. The bones, which are the last to go, become calcified as they are exposed to the heat and begin to flake or crumble.”

In his poem Maud, Tennyson gives voice to the dead and buried. The narrator has no peace in his grave (is that not sad, he asks?) because of all the noise the living make passing overhead.

“DEAD, long dead,
Long dead!
And my heart is a handful of dust,
And the wheels go over my head,
And my bones are shaken with pain,
For into a shallow grave they are thrust,
Only a yard beneath the street…”

Tennyson’s restless sleeper may not be making a strong case, prima facie, for burial. He is tortured, trapped, suspended between two states. He is no longer of the world, nor is he dead to it.

And yet, these verses too always stung me with their unlikely romanticism. What is it that the narrator craves? He doesn’t ask to be lifted back up into the clang and clutter of life. He doesn’t beg for his weary bones to be incinerated.

What he craves is a tranquillity that can only be found in more remote depths, beneath a heavier pile of earth.

“Maybe still I am but half-dead;
Then I cannot be wholly dumb:
I will cry to the steps above my head,
And somebody, surely, some kind heart will come
To bury me, bury me
Deeper, ever so little deeper.”

Implicit in his gentle yearning is the idea that a deep, dark grave is the most peaceful place to spend one’s eternity.

An almost-too-informative article in Popular Mechanics lays out the businesslike particulars of cremation: the way emissions have to fall within the limits of environmental regulations; the way data is crunched and charted and shown on screens as bodies burn; the way fuel is calculated to match the volume of fat.

And the way the ashes are more casket than human. We evaporate. We are water, after all.

It’s just that being buried makes it easier to forget it.

In poetry, death and sleep are synonymous. How often are the dead depicted as tranquil maidens, lying in an extended slumber?

Poe — who famously declared that the death of a beautiful woman is, “unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” — was a master of such descriptions.

“The lady sleeps! Oh, may her sleep,
Which is enduring, so be deep!
Heaven have her in its sacred keep!”

He wrote in his poem, The Sleeper.

Its heroine, Irene, sleeps in a stone sepulchre — “remote, alone” — as does his famed tragic beauty, Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea —
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Tombing up Annabel Lee may not allow her the privilege of waving grasses and starry skies, but it serves another romantic function: it keeps her body wholly in the Earthly realm, giving her lover the chance to lie down by her side, faithfully, night after night.

Or to put it another way: One simply can’t imagine burning up these fair and delicate maidens in a high-tech, data-crunching incinerator.

But if there’s one writer who encapsulated the death-as-sleep analogy better than any other, it must be Shakespeare, in one of my favourite lines from The Tempest:

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

Our little life (sigh). Rounded, gently, with a sleep.

Leave it to Shakespeare to make death sound utterly adorable, even as he drives home our mortality and insignificance.

Yes, being buried makes death seem more like sleep. More restful. Less final. Hopeful, even.

If I were to look up the mechanics of death and decay, I’d most certainly find that being buried is not as romantic as classic literature would have me believe.

The dead are not fairytale princesses, suspended in sleep. Our bodies stiffen, go cold, decompose.

And anyway — I suppose that, ultimately, what happens to our bodies after we die is inconsequential. If we’re nothing but matter — a collection of bones and meat and cells and atoms — death is final, regardless.

If our spiritual life continues beyond this one, our bodies are no longer needed. Whether they burn or remain, we can float away unfettered and leave them behind us — and the sooner we break the tethers to the physical realm, the better.

Still, I’m not quite ready to embrace the idea of a fast and furious incineration over a long and lingering decay.

I believe in romance. And in recycling.

Illustration: Morella by Harry Clarke



Tania Braukamper
The Coffeelicious

Loves words, takes pictures. Is an accidental tornado of disaster.