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.

Advertisements

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.

danger of assumptions

The assumptions that guide and control our everyday thinking and behaviors are generally helpful, saving us the trouble of having to consciously consider our every thought and movement.

Assumptions become dangerous and destructive, however, when they stand in the way of our progress and improvement as individuals and as a society.  We assumed our (flat) earth was at the center of the universe. We assumed that a particular ethnicity or gender was inferior to others.

A movie I recently saw reminded me of one of our contemporary, cherished assumptions. In K-Pax (2001), Prot is a character who claims to be visiting Earth from some distant planet. At one point, he describes the social structure of his home planet to his psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Powell. When Powell asks him about punishment on his planet, Prot responds as follows.

You humans, most of you, subscribe to this policy of an eye for an eye, a life for a life, which is known throughout the universe for its stupidity. Even your Buddha and your Christ had quite a different vision, but nobody’s paid much attention to them, not even the Buddhists or the Christians. You humans. It’s hard to imagine how you’ve made it this far.

Our assumption is that punishment and vengeance are necessary to keep individuals in society in check. We simply assume eye for eye and tooth for tooth. We assume that society has a right to its pound of flesh for every wrongdoing. We assume that vengeance is good and necessary, a God-ordained right. And it looks like the U.S. is very serious about this assumption. Consider the following.

  • The U.S. leads the world when it comes to prisoners per capita—730 incarcerated individuals for every 100,000 of the overall population. For comparison, we can look at some other countries: Russia (508), South Africa (310), Mexico (199), England and Wales (154), Canada (117), Italy (108), Germany (83), Switzerland (76), Japan (55).
  • The population of the U.S. is about 5% of the total world population. U.S. prison population is about 25% of the world prison population.
  • In 1980, about 350,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. By the end of 2002, over 2 million people were incarcerated in the U.S. (at a cost of over $40 billion per year).
  • The majority of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are people of color. The percentage of people of color is even higher on death row.
  • Prison sentences in the U.S. tend to be much longer than those in the rest of the world. The U.S. is one of only nine countries which has both the death penalty and life without parole. (The others are China, Comoros, Cuba, Israel, Kazakhstan, Lesotho, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

The purpose of this essay is to challenge the acceptance of our assumptions concerning equating punishment, retribution, vengeance, and getting even with justice. We need to think about alternatives, but that’s not the purpose of this particular essay.

When Dr. Powell asks Prot why he chooses to visit Earth, Prot says he likes to visit class BA-3 planets (early stage of evolution, future uncertain). He also really enjoys our fruits and vegetables.

For further reading on this subject, you may want to consider the following links. Much of the information listed above comes from these sources.

© panthera2, 2012.