dust to dust

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.


in the name of god?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch teaches his daughter one of the most critical lessons any of us could ever hope to master.

If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

I don’t claim to have mastered this simple trick, but two movies I saw in the past two days have forced me into making some progress.

For My Father (2008) is set in Tel Aviv. Terek, a young Palestinian man, is a suicide bomber with a mission to detonate in a crowded marketplace to restore his father’s honor. Before seeing this film, I could never have condoned such an act of destruction. After seeing this film, I still cannot. But I do have a little better understanding of the Palestinian “point of view.” I also have a little better understanding of the Israeli “point of view.” For My Father does an excellent job of helping us see through the eyes of real people on both sides of this horrible conflict.

The War Within (2005) is set mainly in New York City. Hassan, a Pakistani student, is mistakenly arrested (and tortured) because he is suspected of being a terrorist. Burning with anger over the injustice, Hassan becomes deeply devoted to his religious faith and joins a New York-based terrorist cell intent on detonating bombs in Manhattan. Before seeing this film, I could never have condoned such an act of destruction. After seeing this film, I still cannot. But I do have a little better understanding of the radical Islamist “point of view.” I also have a little better understanding of the U.S. government’s “point of view.” The War Within does an excellent job of helping us see through the eyes of real people.

What disturbs me the most, however, is the way we humans commit so much violence and killing with divine approval.

In God We Trust
In Jesus’ Name

Violence will always be with us. We will never cease hurting one another. But I cannot accept our killing each other and bringing pain into others’ lives in the name of God. I cannot bring myself to honor and worship a God who promotes our destroying one another.

It seems to me that none of us have a monopoly on violence (just as none of us have a monopoly on non-violence and compassion).

  • How many Muslims did the Christians kill in the Crusades?
  • Did the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire really massacre 1.5 million Armenian Christians in the early 1900s?
  • Did 200,000 Muslims really die at the hands of Christian Serbs and Croats in the 1990s?
  • Is it true that the Nazis (mostly Christian) exterminated 6 million Jews in the 20th century?
  • Did Christian churches in the U.S. and Germany actually bless the bombs (and the soldiers) that killed their fellow Christians?

Just a sampling. Enough to know that we all have blood on our hands.

The forecast is not good. Doesn’t look like things will be clearing up in the foreseeable future.

Maybe we can’t stop it, but just maybe we can slow things down just a little by applying Atticus’ “simple trick”  in our own little, insignificant, individual lives. Just maybe. A little.

© panthera2, 2012.