Ashes to Ashes

22 Feb

Neva and I devoted two hours yesterday afternoon making arrangements for our cremation. I spent the rest of the day reflecting on the fate of our physical bodies when we die. I’m surprised at the richness that derives from thinking about my body after death. Although some readers will find this gruesome and read no further, I encourage you all to think along with me, and go even further. 

The religious traditions provide rich reflections. The Hindus go through extensive rituals to burn the bodies in the sacred river Ganges. An Indian Christian who recently died in my retirement home was cremated, and his relatives will make a trip to India, to deposit his ashes in the Ganges.

Jews believe the body should be intact for burial; they also remember that in the Holocaust, Nazis cremated Jews in the death camps. Some Jewish mystical traditions hold that the soul separates only slowly from the body; burial in the ground provides the time and space for this separation

For medieval Christians, there was a widespread belief that the body should be without blemish if it were to be acceptable to God. Presumably, handicapped bodies or those with artificial joints would not make the grade. In the Creed, we express belief in the resurrection of the body, while remembering that St. Paul confessed that he had no idea what that body would be like. He wrote in Romans 14:8, “For whether we live or whether we  die, we are the Lord’s.” These words grace the wall of our local congregation’s churchyard, where ashes are buried or scattered. The theologian, Joseph Sittler, chose this motto,  and his ashes are there. Ours will be there, too.

My mother dreaded the thought that her body lying in the cold, cold ground would provide a feast for worms and other critters. She insisted on cremation.

My father’s body is a special case. He died in our third-floor walkup apartment, and since neither a doctor nor a hospice worker was present, we had to call the police take his body. Two officers responded,  and they were clearly uneasy about taking my dad. They wrapped him in a body bag, and as they took him down the stairs, they dropped him. I empathized with their confusion and embarrassment. The friend who was with me, a clinical  psychologist, remarked afterwards that those cops would need counseling when they got back to the station.

Although my close friend, Ralph Burhoe, assigned his body for medical research, his ashes reside in the impressive mausoleum in his church, the Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, Chicago. His marker is flanked on either side by his two wives, Frances and Calla, who preceded him in death.

My own belief is that decomposition, whether  by burial in the ground or cremation, is essentially the same process. Cremation is simply much faster. 

The Japanese film, “Departures,” deals with death and cremation in a society that has no belief in God. The body is carefully washed and prepared. The man who cremates the body sends the dead person off with a fond farewell on a journey that we know little about.

I affirm the universal religious belief that the body of the dead must be treated with respect. In whatever form, the body remains in God’s hands. While I appreciate the widespread practice today of celebrating the lives of those who die, I also think it is important to consider the body. Our bodies do not just disappear; they undergo a process, even after death—whether slowly or quickly. They do not simply die. They truly pass away. Our bodies originated in the stardust of the Big Bang, and they end up, finally, as stardust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. . . .

(c) Phil Hefner 2/22/2019

5 Responses to “Ashes to Ashes”

  1. Liftthescreen February 23, 2019 at 1:26 am #

    From Martha: Thank you. I wish our society talked more about death. That it didn’t have to taboo it has. We all do it. It is complicated, and messy. But all a part of life.

  2. Liftthescreen February 23, 2019 at 1:27 am #

    From Stewart: Wise thoughts, Phil. You see not much difference between cremation and burial as different expressions of “decomposition”, which a body will have to do.

    Isn’t the question how accessible is what remains for following generations to relate to (awkward construction, sorry). Neva and you will reside in Augustana’s columbarium–your daughters will have no trouble finding you. I must say that I can’t get excited about scattering ashes over ground or water. That precludes that comfort of being able to get right up close to a deceased parent.

    My parents are nicely placed where we kids know exactly where they are. They were cremated (no hesitation about doing that) and interred on Shelter Island, under a magnificent oak tree at the edge of the Presbyterian cemetery. They take up very little space. Their ashes will not merge with the soil, for they are in small wooden boxes that I built, which in turn are encased in plastic boxes. Not that we ever would want to recover their ashes (the decomposition, after all, is total from cremation). But we kids have the comfort of knowing exactly where they are. And the long and difficult process of crafting a stone marker.

    Similarly, as I saw in Vietnam in December, victims of the My Lai massacre are memorialized in a readily identifiable place. Their names–all 500–are on a brass plaque, in a dignified building with an altar for relatives to leave offerings. That’s about as good a location as one might hope when the actual bodies probably could not be recovered for standard Vietnamese burial.

    I am glad that Neva and you are being proactive and have thought carefully about how to have yourselves relocated into a permanent repository when the time comes. I’ll bet your daughters appreciate that, too. But please don’t be in a rush to carry out your plans.

  3. Liftthescreen February 23, 2019 at 1:30 am #

    Martha—denial death coms too easily. I agree you; we should talk,about it without being gruesome.

  4. Liftthescreen February 23, 2019 at 1:35 am #

    Stewart— The representative of the Cremation Society of Illinois, with whom we are dealings, made quite a point of the views you shared. They put their own spin on it thus: they offered to take our thumb prints, to be plasticized, so that children and grandchildren could have them to keep. We declined this feature.

    • Liftthescreen February 23, 2019 at 1:40 am #

      Stewart—I saw the photo you posted of the My Lai memorial. I thought that, given the circumstances, it is a marvelous tribute. The plaques marking our ashes will be in the company of our youngest daughter, Rebecca, as well as the Sittler’s and others with whom we mingled at Augustana.

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