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

BY: Thomas Lynch


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In the West, fire is not seen as cleansing or reuniting a body with the elements, or releasing the spirit--as it is in Eastern thought--but as a cost-effective, more convenient, user-friendly alternative to "all the fuss and bother" funerals are. Instead of, "Please cremate me," folks most often instruct their kin to "just cremate me," with the emphasis not on the burning but on minimizing the disruption--emotional, fiscal, and spiritual. Too often cremation is a form of disappearing the dead rather than witnessing the difficult mysteries they present.

Perhaps this flows from the basic difference in the place of fire in Eastern and Western sensibilities. Among the Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims, fire is for the most part positive, elemental, and connected to the divine in the figure of Agni; it is also a gift. Among Jews and Christians, however, fire is famously punitive, vaguely wasteful. When in trouble with God, we go to hell, where we burn. When debating the merits of cremation, we worry over the "waste" of burning a box but glide past the relative value of the body inside the box. "What a shame," we say, "to burn such a lovely piece of wood," apparently impervious to the fact that the same fire is burning the body of someone that we loved.

We have convinced ourselves that the dead body is "just a shell"--a thing of no value once it ceases to breath. As if the timepeace my great grandfather brought from West Clare a century and a half ago becomes "just a watch" once it has quit ticking.

...whether dead bodies are consigned to the earth, the fire, the sea, or the air, it seems that family and friends should take part in filling the holes, stoking the fires, keeping the vigil until the job is done.

A dead body presents the living with more than just practical concerns--what to do before the odor and flies and rot appear. The dead body is an emblem of our nature and mortality, an icon of our attachments, relationships, and losses, the corruptible remnants of our connection, by flesh, by faith, or in fact, with the incorruptible Creator or creation. Before humans learned farming or alphabets, we learned to bury and burn our dead with ceremony--to act out in organized, purposeful, highly stylized liturgies, those things that are hard to put in words: great faith and great love, great hope and despair, good grief.

Whether we bury or burn or blast the dead in rockets to the moon, oughtn't the living take their part in these sad duties? The care of the dead by the living seems among the most ancient and honorable obligations. Wakes and funerals provide a witness to the lives that have been lived, the deaths that occur, and the relationships that were and remain. And whether dead bodies are consigned to the earth, the fire, the sea, or the air, it seems that family and friends should take part in filling the holes, stoking the fires, keeping the vigil until the job is done. To farm out the honorable duties that attend the disposition of the dead, by cell phone and credit card, to some eager "death care" salesperson seems a missed boat, a lost chance to bring meaning to our mortality.

Whether earth returns to earth, or ashes to ashes, or dust to dust, what happens to my dead body is a matter of profound indifference to me. My guess is that being dead means you don't have to care about what is done to you, or for you, or with you, or about you. But whatever is done, I want my people to watch and wait until the job is finished. I want them, like their species has done for 40 or 50,000 years now, to look into the hole or fire or sea or cyber-tomb--whatever void I am consigned to--I want them to look into that depth or darkness or blinding light and watch and wonder and bear witness. It honors the dead, instructs the living, and ennobles the species in ways that matter.

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