I first heard about the Parsis from a friend who spent two years in India. I was intrigued, perhaps even inspired, by stories about the Parsis and death. When a Parsi dies, the body is not cremated and it’s not buried. Instead, it’s placed on a platform where it can be devoured by birds of prey, typically vultures.
From an NPR news story this morning, I learned that the Parsis are facing a challenge regarding their ancient practice. In addition to humans, the vultures in India feed on cattle carcasses, and it appears that a drug administered to the cattle, and subsequently ingested by the birds, has nearly exterminated the vulture population. The problem the Parsis are encountering is obvious.
The Parsi problem troubles me. I admire their tradition.
Here in the USA, most of us do nearly anything possible to escape the reality of death. The corpse is embalmed to delay decay. It’s then encased in a steel or hardwood casket which is then enclosed in a concrete vault. All this is accomplished by paid professionals. If there is a viewing of the body, what is actually seen is a preserved shell with a lot of make-up, surrounded by flowers and soft, indirect lighting.
So much for ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Like the Parsis, most of the major world religions address and accept the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death. We’re here for a season, and then we’re gone. We enter with nothing; we leave with nothing. At the end of the day, we’re all equal — food for worms (or birds). If it’s God’s design for our bodies to return to the earth, why do we want to fight it?
I’ve made my family and friends aware of my wishes for my body’s final disposition. I would like my remains to be dressed or wrapped in natural fibers that will quickly decompose. Then I would like my body to be placed into the earth without a container and covered with dirt. That’s it. No resisting nature. No hindering God’s design.
So with visions of Parsis, vultures, worms, and (green) burials all dancing in my head, I sat down this afternoon to see what Netflix had to offer. The movie with the cellist on the cover looked nice, so I hit the enter button and sat back with my (green) tea to watch Departures (2008).
After losing his job with a Tokyo orchestra, the cellist, the one on the cover, returns to his childhood home to try to rebuild his shattered life. Through a misunderstanding, he becomes an apprentice to a nakanshi, a man who dresses and prepares dead bodies.
Initially, his modern sensibilities cause him to see his new career as repulsive. He stays in it for the money, but a transformation occurs as he comes to experience his new job as a calling, as a loving service of sacred giving. In the movie, we experience many touching scenes of his tender interaction with the deceased and their families.
Some cursory research informed me that this Japanese tradition is quickly fading. The Japanese, like those of us here in the US, are putting more and more distance between themselves and the reality and finality of death. Too bad.
The physician cutteth off a long disease; and he that is today a king tomorrow shall die. For when a man is dead, he shall inherit creeping things, beasts, and worms. ~ Sirach 10:10-11.
© panthera2, 2012.