By Julia Hartsell
In death planning talk, body disposition refers to what people choose to do with their bodies after death. In recent years, I’ve had the fortune of talking to a lot of people about their disposition wishes. Sometimes (like 50% of the time) conversations lead to someone sharing, either implicitly or explicitly, that the soul is gone so the body doesn’t matter.
Each time I hear that, my heart sinks. The tendency towards disposability in our culture has not-so-subtly crept into the most sacred transformational rite of our lives, our deaths, and to these temples that are our bodies.
When I hear people say it doesn’t matter what happens to the body because it’s just the body, I see / hear / feel all the ways that living bodies are also disregarded on our planet, especially in this culture. From animals to trees, to rivers, to mountain tops, to humans–especially groups of oppressed or less exalted in the bullshit supremacy structures designated for humans–bodies don’t matter.
The word dispose, in the disposable sense, has evolved from “available” (think disposable income) to “designed to be discarded after one use” (think diapers, and subsequently everything else in the West.)
Disposition means a “person’s inherent qualities of mind and character” or “the way in which something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other things”.
If we reconsider that our bodies are available for something meaningful, something that reflects our character and our relationship with others, rather than something ready to discard, how does that shift our attitudes towards what we intend for our bodies post-death? Are they available to return to the elements, nourish the soil, feed plants, feed animals or fungi, to preserve land?
In life and in death, it’s a worthy question to consider “what or whom do we wish to feed with our energy”?
In regards to the soul or consciousness, I absolutely concur that there *is* something that continues after death that is not reliant on the body. And, I get the need to value what’s next rather than what no longer functions. Perhaps it’s also a comfort to the grieving and those reflecting on mortality to release attachment to the body. Respect to that.
Paradoxically, many Christians theologically prioritize the eternal soul and yet invest $10-20k into embalming the body, protecting it in a coffin, inside a metal vault. For some, this is merely a matter of convention, for others a way to preserve the body for eventual resurrection. Regardless of intent, the body is kept from returning to the body of the earth.
But to me, returning to the elements is a profoundly sacred act. Whether one chooses fire, earth burial, water cremation or sky burial (digestion by vultures), there’s a magical alchemical process that occurs. Our choices deeply reflect our disposition, represent our values, our attitudes towards life, our sacred map of the cosmos, our conception of consciousness.
My position is that our bodies are sacred. From birth to death and beyond. Matter continues after death, here, in the earth. We undergo many massively awesome changes in life, but never something as profound as a literal change to earth or ash or bird.
The bones in the earth (vaulted or not) or the cremains stay here on earth also impact this place and future generations. Temples are built to house the bones of revered, popular ancestors because they hold a link to that person. Even if we have not gained some saintly status, the bones of the dead, graves, cemeteries, urns can become altars to the dead. A sacred place, the position for the person, an amplified link to the life that was and really, still is, even if in a disembodied form. The ancestors are real. Believe in them or not, they impact our lives, the earth, living bodies, our culture.
It’s so good to see evolution in body disposition these days–water cremation, composting, more places for natural burial. It’s comforting to see more “green” options. Cheers to not leaving a bigger mess in death. And, even green disposition plans can still disregard the value of the human body. There are plenty of environmentally-friendly, earth-loving folks who hate humans.
Eventually, I’ll write some reflections on specific disposition methods as folks are writing to me a lot with questions and links, but I guess, before even choosing a “method” it seems important to look at underlying assumptions or attitudes about the body and that which may continue beyond this physical temple.
What do you want for your brokedown palace?
Photo: Skull Chapel, Czermna, Poland (from the internet)