2016-06-30
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.

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.

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.

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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