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

Continued from page 1

In America, cremation is seen not so much as an alternative to earth or sea burial, or entombment, but more often as an alternative to a funeral and its attendant expenses. The dead body is treated as an inconvenience, an embarrassing reminder of mortality. A "memorial service" without the dead body present is said to be more "upbeat" or "life affirming" and resembles, in spiritual and ritual terms, a baptism without the baby or a wedding without the bride.

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.
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Thomas Lynch
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