I am no spring chicken. As a widow, I have had to go through the process of end of life decisions when I made preparations for my husband’s funeral. He was taken from me unexpectedly by a heart attack. We had not yet reached that point in our lives where we were considering pre-arranging for an event like this. The most important thing I learned is that I do not want to leave this planet unprepared. I do not want my grieving loved ones left with the additional task of planning what to do with my remains. No one should have to make any kind of emotional decision like that during a period of grief.
I prefer to be cremated. No muss, no fuss. I don’t want a memorial service. I just want everyone I love to go on with their lives. Now, before I came to this simple conclusion, I had already been through the brochures and tours of “memorial parks”, that’s the fancy term now used for “cemetery”. Some of the options offered were based on different cultural practices and religious traditions. Being naturally curious, I have since done some reading on the different practices throughout history and around the world of what people do with their dead.
Burial or entombment is the most common practice. Oftentimes the deceased is interred with beloved or symbolic objects. This has been going on for almost 100,000 years. Of course, although burial is now seen as a sign of respect toward the dead, its origins were probably more practical. By covering a dead body with tons of soil and rock, the distinct and horrible odor of decomposition is locked away.
Not all religions and cultures, however, tuck their dead away within the earth. Buddhists perform what is known as a “sky burial”. The remains are left exposed to the elements and scavenger species help to return the remains to the earth. This is in accordance with the “cycle of life” belief.
The ancient Chaldeans would cross the arms of the deceased over their chests. This created the symbol “X” which signified their god, the god of the sky. Although, over time, the name of this god was changed as the religion transformed throughout different historical cultures, the same death ritual can be seen in the discovered historical remains of Egyptian mummies.
For some religious practices, the position of the body is very important. When a Muslim is interred, the body is laid on its back with its head turned toward Mecca. As the person positioned themselves toward Mecca in life during prayer, so do they in death.
Christian burials also lay the person on their back but the body is oriented in an east to west direction with the head at the western direction. This is due to the religious belief that the Messiah will stage his return in the eastern horizon. Upon his return, the dead will awaken. The dead want to be oriented so that when they open their eyes they will be first looking upon their Messiah.
In just about any culture murder and suicide is a taboo. Historically, murderers and people who have committed suicide have not received a burial indicative of respect. Many have been found to have been buried upside down, yes, head first.
However, there is one religious sect that believed being buried upside down was a sign of faith. They were the Millenarians of ancient Great Britain. They believed that the world would become upside down during the future Apocalypse. By being buried upside down they would actually be upright at the end of the world.
The Baha’I faith forbids cremation and has specific procedures outlined for burial. The deceased must be wrapped in a cloth of cotton or silk. If the deceased is fifteen years old or older, a ring should be worn by the dead with a religious inscription of their religious creed. The coffin must be constructed of natural materials such as wood, stone or crystal with the body oriented within the same as a Muslim ritual burial. The body cannot be carried for longer than one hour to reach its burial destination. Before interment, if the deceased was fifteen years old or older, the formal Prayer for the Dead is to be recited.
As for me, I simply want a cremation and then have my remains returned to the earth. I like the idea of these cremation pods. A person’s ashes are interred in a biodegradable pod that contains a small tree. Yes, after my death I would like to become a tree.