It doesn’t matter how you treat a dead body. The dead wasp I vacuumed off my floor yesterday is just as dead as my great-grandfather– as far as science can tell us, anyway. Death means a lack of mattering. I appreciate how Buddhists try to get us comfortable with that, impossible as it may be.
The ancient Romans burned the bodies of their dead. So do Buddhists. And then, so did the Nazis. I imagine the Romans burned Caesar because the flames were more beautiful than his body would shortly be. It prevented his gorgeous form from ever being anything less than itself. Buddhist cremations seem to be about honoring the finality of death, and emphasizing the freedom achieved by death. Fast disposing of the body. Gone, as everything will be gone. The Nazis burned bodies to cover their tracks. They showed dead bodies the same utter disrespect they showed the living.
The ancient Egyptians, for whatever reason, preserved dead bodies. Their lives were very short, and I’m awed by the optimism they had for some future happy life somewhere else. Christians often preserve bodies. At least, they bury them rather than burn them, as a general rule. Some Christians worried that Jesus won’t be able to give them a resurrected body if we burn their original one.
My great-grandfather, Arthur, was a mortician. I always hoped this would help me deal better with death. Sometimes I’ve thought it was ridiculous to preserve dead bodies the way that we do. I have live flowers in my house, not dried ones, not plastic ones. Once a week, I assess them and throw out the dead ones. Live is live, and dead is dead, right? It seemed false and pathetic to me, to make a dead person look like he is sleeping. I understand it’s hard to see the dead person dead, but isn’t that the smallest part of the suffering on that day? Aren’t you so much in numb denial that a little more deadness wouldn’t do much harm? Doesn’t honesty help things?
In my classroom, we do not run. We do not touch each other with anything but gentle greeting. We do not throw things. Running, swatting, pushing, throwing– none of these would be particularly dangerous. But the line must be drawn well before danger. The limit must be a goodly distance from disaster, so we all have room to back up if we realize we’ve crossed it.
What we do to treat death tenderly and honorably is more about continuous practice of tenderness and honor. It is more about drawing a line of humanity so far past what is necessary that we are safe. What are humans like? the aliens ask. I would like to answer, nothing is trash to them. They honor even their animals and their trees. They honor even their dead. Behaving tenderly isn’t ever so much about the recipient, anyway. It’s mostly about how much calmer and happier you may become.