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.

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maybe we’re dreaming

I just finished watching Margin Call (2011), a Wall Street thriller (?) set in the early hours of the 2008 financial crisis. As their world crumbles beneath their feet, one of the powerful suggests to one of his peers that perhaps it’s a dream. The response — Maybe it’s all been a dream, and we’re now just waking up.

The questions raised by that curt retort are enormous.

One of my close friends is unswervingly convinced that our entire economy is a balloon on the verge of exploding. But I’ve always leaned toward optimism, brushing off the bleak prophesies of the doomsayers. Economies rise and fall. Fortunes are made and lost. It’s a cycle.

But perspective comes with age. The older we get, the further we can see into the past. And it seems that with the ability to see into the past, we also gain an uncanny knack for peering into the future.

I can’t even begin to comprehend the complexities and intricacies of economics. But I can understand addition and subtraction. And I can understand that there just has to be a limit to spending what we don’t have. And I can understand that the world cannot go on forever with a small fraction of its population consuming most of its resources and enjoying the bulk of its wealth.

In the movie, one of the wealthy money men expresses his belief that there will always be fat cats and starving dogs. It’s clear to him that life is a game with winners and losers. You’re the first, you’re the fastest, you’re the smartest, or you lose. His point is illustrated in an almost comedic manner when two power brokers, engaged in an intense survival strategies discussion, enter an elevator and take positions flanking a cleaning woman. They continue their discussion uninterrupted as though the woman doesn’t exist. Sadly, to them, she doesn’t.

Over the millennia, people have responded to the wealth question in so many ways. Some take vows of poverty, some take up work to improve poor conditions, and others try to distribute a portion of their wealth to others in need. Some of the doomsday prophets respond by stockpiling and minimizing their connection to the grid.

But most of us generally ignore those on the financial rungs below ours, at least most of the time. Like the woman on the elevator, we don’t see them. In our orbits, they don’t exist.

So I keep returning to the question, Have we been living a dream and is the alarm about to ring? Can we really feel satisfied knowing that our IRAs are secure and growing? Can we really expect the years ahead to be as comfortable as the years behind us?

I believe Margin Call answers these big questions in a very subtle and indirect manner. Sam Rogers, a main character and one of the firm’s managers, is relentlessly clobbered with an incessant stream of difficult questions and hard dilemmas. He stands to lose his career, his fortune, and his integrity.

But he is most troubled by the loss of his dog to a malignant tumor.

To take this any further, I risk sounding pompous, arrogant, or overly religious. But the bottom line truth is inescapable. Anything and everything that is tangible will pass away. We all know it, but few of us live like we know it. Our possessions, our careers, our wealth, and even our reputations are impermanent.

Whether we live like it or not, what matters most, at the end of the day, is authentic relationships.

© panthera2, 2012.

the value of one

It’s taken me many years and more pain and heartache than any one person should ever have to bear. But I think I have finally come to understand the value of one person, one friendship, one relationship. Over the past year, I can point to so many times when I would not or could not have gone on living had it not been for the intervention of one person.

Often, that intervention occurs in small ways. A glass of cold water. An invitation to lunch. A note of encouragement. Sometimes, it is as simple as an acknowledgement of my existence.

Fair weather friends are abundant and of questionable value. I think of the words of Jesus:

For if you love them which love you, what reward do you have? Can’t even tax collectors do that? And if you greet your brethren only, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the publicans so?

During the past year, I experienced a catastrophic life crisis. Before the crisis, I had more friends and acquaintances than I could have listed. Now, all but about a dozen have drifted away. It’s quite an awakening to find out that so much of my life was a delusion.

I’ve spent months licking my wounds, and perhaps that’s a necessary part of the process. But I sense that it’s now time to get up and be the kind of person that I think others should be.

It’s almost amusing to see the way people have twisted the teachings of Jesus to come up with a rigid code of behavior entailing countless “Thou shalt nots.” Clearly, Jesus himself had (has) much more interest in the “Thou shalts.”

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked Jesus a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In one of the gospel accounts, the lawyer, still not satisfied, presses Jesus further, asking him to define what constitutes being a neighbor. In response to this query, Jesus tells the well-know story of the “Good Samaritan.”

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that love is the trump card.

And love is most clearly realized when it is intentional, active, and directed toward one.

My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.

© panthera2, 2012.