a rhythm, a drone
The conventional ways to approach the vastness of dying and death in the dominant culture of North America proliferate by ways of non-approach. Our anxious reality is upheld by a history of spiritual poverty, ravenous conquering, slavery, appropriation, rape, reductionism, and consumption. In spite of how active we’ve made our lives, we feel an unmeasurable unrest. It might be that this yearning (for: something else, not here, not now, soon), is seen but not understood. Maybe the situation of our culture is one of flight, fear, and disconnection from something seemingly unnamable. Our presumptions incarnate, create phenomena like modern economies. These things sprout from a mind-seed of comfort seeking, consuming and seizing to wash our projections into all of our dark nethers (at any cost). These systems produce lifestyles, stories, and material things which are dis- missive and always surprised by the fragility of identity and the impermanence of life. Whatever made us reluctant to acknowledge change, or more specifically in this case, death and dying, will not be able to be fully explained here. But it is clear to see that having to die and joining the dead, as mysterious and unknown as it is (and will remain), actualizes itself in every moment just as life does.
You live by way of the dead, you will die so others will live.
As deep as this cuts, it becomes important to stay in those depths. It is a vast enormity that reveals an interconnectedness beyond interconnectedness. It is authentic in every relationship.
“The hawk, the swoop, and the hare are one.”
– Gary Snyder
In centuries past, the commodification and urbanization of life coupled with extreme population boom has caused a loss of primal heritage which was unquestionable to our ancestors. But this phenomena was not an isolated event; believing as such, is a rotten fruit of the historical processes which leach into the collective minds of all who interact with the modern ways of life. The rituals and memorials which are easily accessible in Western Culture reveal the significant burden of reduced relationships and spiritual poverty that afflicts our lives. In turn, most people have never seen a dead body, aren’t ready for the diminishment of dying people, and never realize that this is strange. We suffer from a deeply entrenched tradition of frenzied reductionism in our intellectual institutions, emotional relationships, and our relationships to places. This reducing of ecosystems into mechanistic parts and not relationships, perverts our understanding of our place in the world. This tradition which has wrought conventional sciences and modern religions, believes that “man” is separate from nature (himself). It’s an anthropocentric understanding of the world which has been taught in churches, schools, and jobs (i.e. everywhere ideas are shared).
Nature as “mistress” gives us a reasonable structure for terrifying consumption. If our underlying beliefs see the world as slave/master, it makes more sense knowing that those people with more power, in order to actualize this belief, would do so at any chance they get. The ravaging of women, animals, watersheds, microflora, mountains, rivers, oceans, the abuse of children, bodies, our stories, ancestors, and life, makes sense, if our deepest understanding of experience is fundamentally disconnected and its authenticity requires constant reassurance. This massive misunderstanding is overtly represented in our death-phobic culture. Modern cemeteries are ancestral landfills, constantly annexing spaces of natural habitats of funga, flora, and fauna into landscaped ideals of what a memorialized space ought to look like (ignoring the spiritual poverty created when industry defines sacred places). In thousands of cemeteries across the U.S. each year millions of gallons of embalming fluid is used and placed in the ground, tons of hardwood trees (including rainforest trees), and tons of steel, copper, and bronze, are buried in concrete vaults (data compiled by Green Burial Council). Harder to quantify, are the amounts of biocides used to maintain conventional cemetery landscaping. The wash of these toxic chemicals and processes leach into the earth in and around cemeteries polluting the groundwater, killing soil ecosystems, thwarting wild animal’s relationships, and disturbing and compacting soil structures which severely inhibits future health of these life systems.
The behavior involving the bodies of the dead prior to disposition is indicative of the funeral industry’s binding control over practices regarding death rites. Laws regarding funeral and disposition practices have been historically reactionary on a state by state basis to accommodate the needs of the funeral industry. Legislation is worded in ways which inhibit holistic practitioners by requiring refrigeration of the body or embalming if the body is to be shown after death, and in many cases embalming is pushed regardless of specific ceremony. The federal rules (of which are few) allow people to choose not to be embalmed, but do little to protect people from feeling pressured by local laws or funeral homes. These capitalistic practices make it harder for people in very vulnerable times to make choices which might be healthier because solicitation underlies the rituals. In addition to the the influence industry practices have over funerals and dispositions, a more detrimental problem happens around the beliefs people hold about dead bodies themselves. Both the CDC and WHO clearly state that dead bodies don’t cause any health risks. This of course is not the case with some hardy communicable diseases, but the disease is present on the living body before death, it is not the death of the body that creates disease (and with death the disease looses its body). The idea that bodies are unclean lead us to being physically afraid of our dead, making it easier to send them away to a “professional”. Lots has and can be said about how much sway consumerism and the funeral industry has had over cultural values of death and dying. The average American death (excluding a analysis of the conventional medical culture of not dying) costs close to $8000, which is unavoidable bondage, especially to poor folks, to a heartless capitalist vortex. (price average given by Home Funeral Alliance).
This commodification of grief and love (by the death industry) have the ability to undermine the feelings they claim to facilitate. How many of us haven’t been able to be emotionally crushed and/or vitally renewed because of the belief that it is not in our power to do so? or because it would create such a burden of time, away from work, or a looming threat of our relationships changing in a way we think we couldn’t handle? The reality is that things turn over, and by participating in habits which avoid this cycle of life makes it terrifying when your own life begins to give back to the boundless. But, of course, the problem is a lack of guidance on a path towards deeper understanding. The withered relationship with our ancestors disempowers us in our skill to connect to the land and stories of grief and wonder, or in other words, the great mystery of being alive. When families actively manage the death of loved ones, the process can aid not only in actualizing the reality of the death, but also in the practice of grieving. When people take up the enormous task of facing the map of their territory dissolving, and not rushing to draw a new one, this becomes the deep practice of grief. Grief, being not a feeling that afflicts you, but a intentional and wondering practice which is worthy of honoring the dead. The conventional approach to dying and death could be equated to the beliefs about food and eating in the Dominant North American Culture. American’s disconnection to the food they eat by not growing and harvesting plants and animals, not cooking, and allowing others (mostly corporations, whose purpose is consumption not nourishment) to prepare your food is disempowering. This mechanist phenomena produces a crippling anxiety around personal responsibility and nurturing. Without expounding on the underlying historical processes which have brought us to this point of neglect; we now live in a time where the attention towards the wondrous things which keep us alive and in-tune with the seasons has been replaced by ravenous urges to actualize ideas of permanence that can never been felt. As our society continues to evangelize comfort, we forget the wisdom in our grief.
Small groups of people are doing vital work advocating and practicing death rites which help families better understand options when facing end of life decisions. These practitioners participate in a death trade that guides families (the bereaved) to be the foundation in the process of feeling grief and orchestrating funerals which are held at home. Sometimes called Death Doulas, or Death Midwifes, the role of the practitioner is to support families to do the process themselves in a affordable manner by suggesting (not selling) disposition choices, instructing how to cool and bathe the body, and helping with paperwork like body transportation permits and the death certificate. It seems novel in times like these, but families taking care of their own is a strong ancient process. Home funerals help make a death real, by being with the body in the home of the lived. It allows the process to go at a rate that the bereaved (young and old) see fit, normalizing and embracing whats happening. Staying with the body allows people to see the immediate changes upon a persons death. The body loses heat, stiffens, blood pools towards the earth giving blue colors, and new processes begin that were not present in its former way. It is important to know that the same cells and micro-organisms that keep you healthy and alive are the same ones that, after death has occurred, help decompose you and give life to other forms. And to many, bathing the body feels of a deeper honor, washing the body of its former self to make way for what lies ahead. Embracing the time with a dead body can be a powerful experience for the bereaved, it removes the abstractness that can occur when the body is immediately carted away to be prepared behind closed doors. The body, the life, the death, are all genuine, physical, and fathomless.
The most profound ritual and ceremony in the care for the dead is how they are given back to a place. We honor and bind ourselves to the powerful forces of life by intentionally transferring the care of the dead to Mother Nature. By burying in the earth, leaving them in the wind for weathering and animals, burning by fire, by giving them back to the great oceans of the earth, or by other forgotten ways, our ancestors become our guides to realizing a sense of place and the celebrators to the great mystery in the way of things.
Burying a body in the earth is a practice found past and present all around the world, it is intuitive and amazing. By digging deep and/or mounding earth, it is an act that respectfully returns a person to the ground which holds and feeds them. It becomes a change in landscape which is beneficial by letting the body feed and become soil, which go on to feed all terrestrial life. Trees, for instance, especially enjoy mammalian bodies like ours because we not only give hotlife to the fungi and soil bacteria, we also give them a great source of ancient minerals in our dense bones. There are many examples of indigenous and diasporic (“modern”) peoples practicing earth burials. One way that is vital to note in our time in North America is called “Conservation Burial”. Conservation Burial is a stark contrast to conventional methods by requiring organic locally available materials for memorials, only interning biodegradable things (including a nonembalmed body), and seeing place over profit. These natural burial grounds not only represent a respect for ecosystems, they also perpetually and sustainably protect a space from modern development by inspiring cultural sacredness.
A practice seemingly foreign to Dominant North American Culture is a disposition of the body in open air, or on the wind. Examples of this are spaciously living Native Western North American peoples who historically placed their dead on scaffolding platforms or high in trees, or the Zoroastrian Persian people’s open air towers, and the famous Tibetan “Sky Burials”. Most of instances of wind burial are found in very open spaces. Leaving the body to creatures is a profound act, evoking the circle of life through powerful carrion-eater/recycler-animals like vultures and crows. By giving your body back to the watchers of the sky and keen roamers, you create an encouraged relationship with the wildness of animals and spaces which helps see these things as deep companions and protectors. Someday, it would be a cause of great celebration if our peoples in open spaces were in a situation where wind burials could be again be a reasonable and accessible option for honoring the dead.
Transformation by fire is a deeply sacred and useful ritual found in every human community. The intensity of fire reveals itself effortlessly in a cremation ceremony. The body is forever and quickly changed in moments where other forms of burial take on a patient quieter process. But just as it is with earth burials in conventional society, when the process removes itself from personal experience and is industrialized it becomes harmful. Because a fire lighted is an intentional fire, it is to be witnessed and respected. As urban populations grow and absorb polluted elements, their burning by way of modern crematoriums becomes a ceaseless source of atmospheric imbalance. There will always be a need to build pyres and burn bodies into ash, but it must be done with an understanding of the power of fire and the bereaved who have wisdom to acknowledge the right choice for a place and its communities.
For coastal peoples living by way of the oceans, burying a body at sea has been a prehistoric practice continued to this day. But as authentic ocean communities become rarer so too do practices and rituals like water burials in our Westernized world. This ritual should be seen as an example; as we continue to use our water bodies as dumping grounds for our toxic global-industrial productions we inhibit communities who understand the magnitude of respect the oceans and river systems deserve, to sustain themselves and healthfully live in those places.
Whatever form of burial or disposition is practiced, its fruition can be seen as a gauge by which to measure our understanding if the deep tangle we’re in with the world around us. If hard times, which bring feelings of loss, are also the times of great contemplation and honoring, it is easy to imagine the transformative healing strength that can come from a death in a community who understands its importance.
Living by way of the Dead
Our way of living has become inured to distrust. We doubt that every cry is squished in an ancient bosom, every confused rage is a darkness denied light of day, and every lover refused connection stands in a shadow of a heart chained to the pillar of permanence. Living with the shame of knowledge misunderstood is a burden too heavy to bare, yet we all continue. Every taking, is a taking of yourself. Knowing, is seeing clearly that we are in relationship to all things. We as a people most be aware the ebb will give way to flow, and if done with openness and realization, any chance of terror will make way for chance of wonder. Wonder, that we don’t know, yet things turn over, expand and contract, die and live. Any real work that is to be done is relayed through a language that chimes deeper than words, it is a rich and all encompassing song. Life and Death are actualized in every moment.
“All the deaths of all living
things feed life;
what does our death feed?
All of life’s deaths mean that
what does our death mean?”
– Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise