Thursday, October 27, 2005

Enriching the earth with our bodies

``You are nothing but an infinitesimal combination of earth's rocks, water and air; these are two billion years of evolutionary explorations, new trials, new combinations, new forms of life.... beauty comes in knowing what you are and where you came and why you be, earth child.'' – Walt Whitman

During the long weekend ahead when we honor our dear departed, it behooves us to ponder on our mortality and immortality.

In the film ``The Lion King’’, King Mufasa gives Simba, the future Lion King of Pride Rock, a lecture on life and death. ``When we die,'' he tells his only begotten son, ``our bodies become the grass. And the antelope eat grass. Then we become part of the great circle of life.''

Human beings are the most notorious when it comes to the disruption of ``the circle.'' By opting not to go back to the earth, humans have cut themselves off from the great circle. Burial practices have deprived our living planet of the enrichment it deserves.

Die-hard ecologists tell us that the best way to bury the dead is to dig a hole in the ground, gently lay the dead in there and cover it with soft, warm earth. There the dead breaks down into different elements and participates in the earth's life-giving process. Why consign a corpse to an airless, concrete tomb where it cannot enrich various life forms?

In the Christian religion, there will be a Final Resurrection, sure, but in the meantime people could help make little resurrections happen every day. Doesn’t the Bible say: ``Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies....'' So what better way to show reverence for the sacred body than to give it back to the earth's great embrace?

Until some decades ago, Christianity, Catholicism in particular, eschewed cremation because of the literal understanding of the resurrection of bodies on the Final Judgment and reverence for the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. But environmental awareness worldwide and the new fields of theology of creation and creation spirituality are changing the old thinking.

In the magnificent cycle of life there is no place for cemeteries where the dead are imprisoned forever in impermeable boxes. The elements in dead bodies are not able to go back to the earth from where these came from in the first place.

Sister Gloria Martires, a Franciscan nun who had a doctorate in bio-science was a strong proponent of direct burial in the ground. (She passed away some years ago and was not buried in the ground.) She said it is important to understand what happens to people's bodies when these go back to the earth from where they came. ``The minerals from the dead bodies will be incorporated in green plants and grazing animals which will again enrich new living organisms--plants, animals, people--with the help of the power of the sun. Matter is not destroyed, it is only transformed. This is the transformation of matter from the abiotic to the biotic, with the power being supplied by the sun's energy, and then again to the abiotic (minerals in the soil). Rejuvenation is then accomplished.’’

The human body is composed of some 40 elements and 75 percent water. The moment a body becomes lifeless, decomposition sets in. Decomposition is simply the breaking down or simplification of organic matter, as when proteins are digested in the stomach and the small intestine. Decomposition as accomplished by bacteria (an essential part of any ecosystem) releases the minerals or nutrients locked up in dead bodies so that recycling can be accomplished.

Martires challenged the belief (of those against cremation) that on the Last Day God will reassemble people's bodies like houses made of prefabricated materials. This is not her idea of the Final Resurrection. ``We must bear in mind that our bodies are developed for nine months in the wombs of our biological mothers and that all the elements and atoms in our bodies came from the earth that has undergone evolution for billions of years.''

So building palatial tombs to enclose bodies is out. Not only do cemeteries and memorial parks destroy what should be productive land, they also run counter to sound ecology.

So is cremation the thing? If the ashes that come out of the incinerator are kept in urns and bottles and not returned to the earth or sea where food could grow, they serve no purpose.

In India, the Parsis (the Parsi religion had its beginnings in Persia) give their dead a ``sky burial'' in Towers of Silence. (I’ve watched this from afar.) The vultures feast on the human remains that then come out as bird shit that could fertilize the earth.

Martires winced at this ``consumer-to-consumer'' thing. Humans are on top of the food chain and, for her, and being eaten by carnivorous birds didn’t seem right.

Martires wanted to be buried in a rice field. People's repugnance for ``katas ng patay'' (corpse juice) going into their food is foolish, she said. If we bury dead pets near trees so they would bear much fruit, what's wrong with doing the same with human remains? When they break down into elements, they are as good as any other. It is not the katas that nourishes the tree, it is the soil that has been enriched that nourishes the tree.

Remember, ecology is interdependence, interconnectedness, relationships. As Chief Seattle said: ``All things are connected like the blood that unites one's family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.'' And whatever is given back returns again and again and lives forever.