Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return

A few years ago, in an academic exchange, somebody remarked that the line in the burial scenes in movies--ashes to ashes, and dust to dust--is not literally there in the bible, but is a paraphrase of the idea.  I tell ya, academics are very particular about the words used.  I remember two colleagues arguing about the meaning of the word "intrinsic."  Whatever floats one's boat, right?

Anyway, about the burial scenes in movies.  A few days ago, my father was recalling old stories and about a death in the extended family.  He said only a couple of people went to the burial ground.  I suppose I forgot I was talking with my father, and as if I was in a classroom I asked him, "when it is cremation that is done, why the usage of 'burial ground'"?  He thinks it might have been from the British days, which is how English words became a part of the vocabulary.  Because the Christian British referred to the burial ground, well, even cremation grounds became "burial grounds."  Methinks I should stop asking questions! ;)

The atheist that I am, even if it were not for my Hindu upbringing, I favor cremation.  After all, death renders the person as nothing but "the body."  When alive, I am sriram, but after I die, the question will not be "what are you going to do with sriram?"  Nope.  The question will be "what about the body?"

As Neil deGrasse Tyson wonderfully put it in this talk, our body is nothing but cosmic dust.  The periodic table elements in us matches the elements in the universe.  The universe is within us, and we are the universe.  It is one heck of a spiritual way to appreciate our place in this universe.  So, after death, cremating and converting me to ashes sounds logical.  Return me to dust.

Of course, to many believers, in the Judeo-Christian faith, cremation is not, ahem, kosher.  Which means that new doctrinal interpretations have to be developed by those who can read the mind of god.  The Roman Catholic institution is now caught up in the, ahem, dust:
On Tuesday, the Vatican responded to what it called an “unstoppable increase” in cremation and set down new guidelines barring the scattering of ashes “in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way.”
When new guidelines are issued, I would think that those we quickly refer to as fundamentalists go berserk.  Either something was the instruction from god, or it was not.  So, what happens to the old instruction that the dead body should not be cremated because of the belief "in the resurrection of the body"?  Not my hassle--it is for the believers to sort out the new software update, so to speak.
Burial prevents the forgetting of the loved one, as well as “unfitting or superstitious practices,” the document states.
For that reason, the Vatican said that cremation urns should not be kept at home, save for “grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature.”
My conversations with my father are evidence that cremation does not mean we have forgotten the people who went before us.  We share plenty of stories about those whose bodies were cremated; a marker in the graveyard  is not needed by any means to remember and respect the dead.

But then, maybe I am being a cantankerous academic ;)


Ramesh said...

Some random comments.

Its not called a burial ground in India - Its a "Burning ghat". In Tamil its சுடுகாடு . In English its a crematorium.

Why is burning a body a better way to send it back to ash than burial. At least in a burial, the body is useful as food to various creatures. If you burn it, it simply consumes energy, presumably causes pollution and serves no purpose.

Let me make a plug for organ donation. Since either way, the organs are reduced to dust, can we sign up to donate organs and possibly help somebody else.

Both the themes explored by Dr Tyson are splendid indeed. Blog about the other thing he talked about - if another life form were 1% different from us in the same direction as we are different from chimpanzees ......

And a final random thought. In Chinese culture, the tradition is indeed to bury. They have a Qing Ming festival where people go to the graves of their ancestors to sweep those graves. But because of sheer numbers, the Chinese government has now banned burials. You have to cremate. And after death, the family of the deceased has to obtain an "appointment" at the crematorium and you can cremate then.

I can't believe I commented so long on your favourite topic :)

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, of course, the Tamil word is "sudu kaadu" ... my point was that I was curious why my father referred to the burial ground when it was for cremation. (We converse a lot in English) ...
btw, back in my life in Neyveli, Coimbatore, and Chennai, I have never ever heard anybody say "burning ghat" ... I wonder if "ghat" has been imported into the South with the greater influx of non-Tamils?

Yes, to the organ donation. I have had that box checked off ever since my first driver license day in this country.

And the video I had linked to includes Tyson's "fascinating thought" about the species 1% away from us ...

Every aspect of traditions in China becomes subject to the Communist Party's interpretation, eh ... how awful!

Finally, you are coming around to talking about death. Look how much you have grown up ;)

Anne in Salem said...

Interesting post. I'm going to have to think about this and research a bit. More later.

Anne in Salem said...

Yes, cremation causes language difficulties. Catholics celebrate the Mass of Christian Burial whether the deceased is bodily buried or cremated. Curious linguistic conundrum.

Relative to changes and acceptance thereof, not all beliefs are instructions from God. Temporal practices change, and, in some areas, the Church must change to keep pace. Not in doctrine or dogma, but in practices, such as the Vatican II change to the vernacular. Yes, some people think the world will end with the changes, but celebrating in English or Tamil or Latin doesn't change the essence of the Mass. Once the fuss budgets realize that, they come around.

Yes to organ donation as well. Same as Sriram, have had that box checked since my first license.

Sriram Khé said...

You--as a believer--dismiss this with "not all beliefs are instructions from God"??? That's one serious statement. Which means you are way less a believer than I thought you were ...

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