It’s all too easy to look at a burial, even a magnificent burial, and see it in isolation. This is a grave… and it a grave for this individual person… and that’s as far as we might look. But really, there is a great deal more going on here. The reality is that the dead don’t bury themselves. So even on the surface level, when we look at a grave, we are seeing elements of how the individuals involved in the burial, often the deceased’s community, processed the experience of death. But we are also seeing how they related to the individual who had died. Different individuals receive different burials, and the status and relationship between the deceased and the people responsible for burying them can result in widely varied styles of burials. Consider the difference between a mass grave following some sort of massacre, and a burial for some sort of general or leader. The same group of people could carry out both burials, but the gravesites would look radically different. And that is generally determined by the relationship that the deceased had with the community that was burying him or her.
And that relationship can change over time… for example, Oliver Cromwell received a funeral at Westminster Abbey with all the pomp you might expect… only to be later dug up, hung, beheaded, and chucked into a pit. And while the attention paid to Cromwell certainly had to do with his actions in life, the state of his burial, exhumation, posthumous execution, and low altitude headless basejumping was entirely centered around the feelings of the community.
So that’s one level of what we should be looking at when we look at these burials. That this is an expression of the community in relationship to the dead. But there’s another aspect as well. Namely, the dead aren’t always passive in this circumstance.