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funeral comparison

Posted by Erik on July 14, 2009

A little while back I came across an overview of Parsi funeral customs (from an Indian funeral management course, stumbled across while looking for something else). As I read through it, some of the practices listed seemed strangely familiar, and I realized that they were quite similar to Jewish customs that we had studied during our year of almost converting.

In both traditions, emphasis is placed on treating the body with care and reverence. In both traditions the body is washed completely by hand with water (after this the Jewish body is also immersed in the mikveh, the ritual bath), and then dressed in white – Jewish tradition calls for a hand-sewn shroud of linen or muslin, Parsi tradition for a new outfit of white cotton that has never been worn, which is washed by the family. (The Jewish shroud is buried with the body, and the Parsi outfit is completely destroyed after the funeral.) In both traditions, the reading of scriptures and prayers for the soul of the deceased are woven throughout the process.

After this point, the traditions diverge radically in practice, but not in intention – they take opposite approaches to achieve a similar end. The Jewish body is buried in a simple wooden casket with a pillow of straw, so that there is nothing that will not in the end return to the earth (even the requirement that the shroud be sewn by hand rather than machine is designed to hasten the decomposition process; one article I read mentioned that if machine sewn garments must be used, someone is supposed to loosen all the stitches). In the Parsi tradition, famously, the body is taken to the top of a “tower of silence” and there exposed naked for the elements and vultures to do the work of returning it to the Earth.

Compare this to the general experience of the American funeral industry.

While individual funeral directors are probably by and large sympathetic and caring people (I can’t imagine getting into that line of work if you didn’t want to help people when they needed it most, although I have to assume that some do), the industry as a whole is geared not to the care of the soul, much less to any kind of environmental awareness, but to the making of money.

I resonate with the desire of both of the traditions discussed to facilitate the body’s reunion with the Earth. For myself, when my time comes I don’t want my body to be stuck in a metal casket forever; let me be cremated, and let my ashes fertilize some little corner of the woods as my soul goes on to whatever lies ahead… and let my memorial be whatever good I may have managed to do in this world.

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7 Responses to “funeral comparison”

  1. Feral Boy said

    My thoughts exactly — I want to re-enter the cycle of life as soon as I can. I’ve even mentioned to some spreading my ashes in a tomato garden (shades of Michael Valentine Smith!) — but some of my friends might see that as taking recycling just a bit too far!

  2. executivepagan said

    And thus we see how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar…

  3. luckyloom1 said

    How strange, I was just about to write (on my blog)about our local woodland burial site who, incidently, have just erected their very own stone circle! The Woodland Burial Movement here in the UK is growing. People are buried in fully biodegradeable materials (shrouds included) and are placed in the earth, a tree planted above them. This way parts of open farmland are returning back to woodland. My sister was buried in a woodland burial site on the mainland; my Dad has his blot booked there too, as does my sister’s family. When my sister was buried, we stood amongst the trees and wild majoram, bees and dragonflies buzzing around us, the birds singing. Her body was carried through the woods in a willow coffin by a horse and cart.It felt right – much more connected not only to the earth but also to the spirit of that moment of letting go.

    The burials are designed to have a minimal impact on the environment; the sense of the body being giving back to the earth in a loving and respectful way,all the more strongly felt.I agree with you – the modern experience of death is one that sadly doesn’t really do the moment justice. Hopefully, the growth in Woodland Burials is a sign that this is beginning to change. I find it really moving to think of these growing woodlands and forest nurtured and fed by the dead – new life from old, the continuity of life easing the pain of loss.

  4. executivepagan said

    What a lovely idea. Was the willow coffin woven, then? That’s brilliant…
    I’m very much looking forward to reading your post about this!

  5. executivepagan said

    I’m also struck by how thoroughly the modern funeral industry seems to strive to insulate us from the actual physical reality of death – from the false illusion of life involved in the intricate makeup job required to make the body look “natural” (that is, not dead – in other words, completely unnatural) for the viewing, to the subconscious message that the body will somehow be better preserved in that $3,000 metal box.

  6. Feral Boy said

    I’ll have to look into this, but I believe that in Missouri, there is some kind of law that requires embalming and burial in a regular casket. Source is not primary, but still — if that’s true & my time is near — GET ME OUT OF TOWN !!!

    — Feral Boy

  7. luckyloom1 said

    Yes, it was woven willow (my niece had it laced with flowers – it looked very beautiful). Other choices are cardboard, woven bamboo or plain shroud, no coffin at all. They are all such humble contrasts to those great, old gloomy caskets; the body doesn’t feel quite so hidden away, which I feel seems to help in the whole process. Family members can dig the grave if they wish; my nephew filled in my sister’s quietly by himself afterwards. It means that people can feel more closely involved if they want to. For my nephew, I think it helped him cope with his feelings that day. I certainly want to be buried this way.

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