Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Whether we bury or cremate our dead, we need rituals that honor the difficult mystery of death

At the 18th International Conference on Death and Bereavement this mid-May in London, Ontario, I had the good luck of hearing Dr. Pittu Laungani discuss death and its meaning in Hindu culture. Along with the earful of wisdoms, he brought an eyeful of very instructive slides, including several on cremation--the burning of the dead--as it is practiced in India.

Having watched cremation in America increase, in half a century, from the fairly exceptional 2% of deaths to the fairly routine 28%, I am struck by how differently this ancient and honorable method is practiced among Eastern Hindis from the way it is done here among Western Christians--orthodox, reformed, and variously lapsed.

In America...the dead body is treated as an inconvenience, an embarrassing reminder of mortality.

The burning of the dead in Bombay or Calcutta is a public event full of ritual, religious, and practical ends. Observant Brahmins will not eat until the duties are done. This and the hot climate make timely disposition the rule--within 24 hours. No appointment is necessary. The public crematory is always "open." The carefully wrapped body is brought there by family and friends and placed on one of several racks filled with wood. More wood is placed on top of the body. The firstborn son brings fire from the home fire of the dead person to ignite the pyre. Friends and family watch the flames leap. Prayers are sung and said out loud while the body burns, and the fire itself is seen as powerful and purifying. The ashes are taken by pilgrimage to the holy river to be spread there--life and death are commingled in thought and symbol and geography.

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In Los Angeles or Phoenix, West Palm Beach or Cleveland, cremation is more often a singularly private event. The emphasis is not on the consigning of the dead to holy fire but the disposal of them behind closed doors. The flames are more functional than ceremonial. Less metaphor or meaning, more mechanics and efficiency.

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Thomas Lynch
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