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.