Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Body After Death

It has been over a month since the tragic 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and the country is still struggling to ease the effects of the aftermath. As of yesterday, the death toll, according to Japan’s National Police Agency, stands at 14,001 dead with 13,660 people still unaccounted for. Both of those are staggering numbers, especially for a country where 99.9% of their dead are cremated.

Japan doesn’t have enough facilities or fuel to handle that number of remains and they don’t have enough dry ice to keep the bodies in cold storage until they can be attended to. It’s been heartbreaking to watch the pictures of people finding their loved ones dead among rubble that used to be home. And harder still to watch them temporarily bury bodies that will prolong the process of grief.

What is amazing to me is the adaptability of a people who, amidst the magnitude of their physical and personal loss, can be spiritually flexible. Their beliefs have softened and bent with the wind the same way the Japanese learned to adapt their architecture to better absorb the shock of earthquakes. The government has designated areas for mass burial, with bodies wrapped in cloth or covered in simple coffins, tagged and marked for exhumation and cremation at a later time. How will this affect their grieving?

The cremation ceremony they undertake is quite beautiful to me, separated from the normal trappings of expense that the death industry has become. Two hours after the cremation, the family returns and what is left of the body is laid out. The bodies are heated in a manner that allows bone fragments to remain. The family takes turns picking out the bones with chopsticks beginning with the feet bones and ending with the head bones, placing them in an urn. I imagine it’s a hard undertaking, but also see how it could allow a tangible closure in sending your loved one off, caring for what remains of them… and I wonder whether they will still be able to participate in that portion of the ritual. Or, with so many dead, if they will have to further compromise their ritual grieving.

How we treat our dead and the way we send them off is a relevant topic for many cultures. What we’re seeing in Japan is a microcosm of the question we will all face someday- what happens when the dead more room?  How will we accommodate and allow for necessity and spirituality to coexist?

Greece’s laws reflect that very concern. The Greek Orthodox religion believes that bodies must be buried whole and complete for resurrection to occur. There are few permanent plots that can be purchased, at large expense. Instead, they have rental plots with leases of a maximum 3 years. At the end of that time, a family member must be present to witness the exhumation, the opening of the coffin (holding decomposing corpses) and then the transfer of remains into a small container for storage in an ossuary. If no one is there to bear witness, or payments stop being made, the bodies are placed in a mass grave and disposed of with chemicals.

Cremation, considered a pagan custom to the church, was illegal until 2006, when necessity and a look to the future began to take precedence, but as of last year, the country has yet to see the building of a crematorium within its borders.

Other European countries like France and Italy also lease plots, for a period of 10-50 years, at which point a family might renew the lease or choose to have the remains interred in a charnal house. In Sweden, caskets are dug up and the pit deepened so a second, new casket may be laid on top of the older one. The United Kingdom is starting to attempt something similar with remains that are over 100 years old as a way to handle lack of space.

How long before we start to feel that pressure in America? Now might just be the perfect time to start thinking outside the box. So what choices and options do we have?

I am learning that not every state has the same laws governing the disposal of the dead.
When burying my Grandmother and Grandfather we had the expense of the casket as well as the air-tight concrete vault that the casket was buried in, to insure that the embalming chemicals wouldn’t leech into the earth. The thought of it made me claustrophobic, that I might turn to soup and fade into dust without sharing the nutrients of my flesh with the earth? Why don’t we just throw ourselves in the ground and decompose, feeding the earth with our flesh? What I found on the Greensprings Natural Cemetery site is that there is no state that requires embalming for burial. There are no states that require vaults either, but many cemeteries do. Better yet, according to the World Health Organization, burial is only necessary if the person died of a communicable disease. Technically, smell withstanding, there’s no reason to seal the dead from the elements.

Having recently watched a Tibetan sky burial on the Discovery Channel, I would choose that method. After all of the animals I have consumed in my lifetime, I would love to have my body fed to the vultures, picked clean at the highest peak, feeding another carnivorous species. Yes, please. That’s my kind of karma.

  • Green burials are making a strong movement and are available in some states, where the cemeteries look more like parks and nature preserves and your body slowly decomposes in the ground.
  • Donate your body to science, so that future doctors and scientists can learn skills and make advances.
  • There’s also, where you send in your cremated remains and they compress it like coal to form diamond-gems of your loved one and set them in jewelry.

The reality is that the idea of a permanent resting place for the dead is recent. As far back as the Middle Ages, bodies were dug up and moved into charnal houses to make room for more dead to be buried. Embalming, something that we think of as part of the death process in America, was invented during the Civil War to keep decomposition at bay so that bodies could be shipped home for burial. And it allows people time to plan services and wait for out-of-town family where the body is to be shown.

It’s important to know why we do the things we do and why we have the laws we have, so that we can make informed decisions for the changes we will need to make in our future. This also brings up an ethical question that archaeologists and religious officials struggle with: how long are burial sites sacred and are they made less sacred by their removal/transfer? Where does what you want for yourself and your loved ones sit with your spiritual beliefs?

Can we afford to give anything weighted permanence in a world that is constantly shifting and changing?

Links to explore:

1 comment:

  1. You and I are on the same page here, friend. I think that the post-death rituals in America need to be re-examined. Simply because we have a lot of green space doesn't mean we have to fill it with sealed vaults of death that will never assimilate back into the Earth. I haven't written an official will and testament yet, but I'm leaning farther away from traditional burial practices.


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