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Jivamukti Focus of the Month April 2013: To Bury or to Burn

When I see a corpse, I want to bury it, not eat it. Ingrid Newkirk

Grandma the cat was twenty years old when she died on the morning of the winter solstice. We made an altar in the house and placed her body on it surrounded by flowers, candles and incense. Along with the other cats, we spent a day in front of her body, praying and remembering our love for her. On the second day we went outside to look for a suitable place to dig a grave. The ground was cold and frozen and it was hard to make much of a dent with the shovel. David suggested, “Why don’t we make a funeral pyre and cremate her body?” I envisioned myself sitting by that fire seeing her small black and white body burning in the flames—smelling like meat cooking. “No, cremation is out of the question, we have to bury her.”

That incident made me realize something about how different cultures deal with their dead and how that was related to how those cultures viewed and treated animals. Members of the three religions founded by Abraham—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—all adhere to the practice of burying their dead, unlike Hindus who cremate the body shortly after death. Meat eating (the eating of cooked corpses) is as central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam as vegetarianism is to Hinduism—interesting. I was raised as a meat-eating Christian, and the smell of cooking flesh is engrained in my consciousness as the smell of dinner—not as the smell that I associate with the funeral of a friend or family member. The repulsion we feel at the smell of burning human flesh stems from its similarity to the smell of cooked meat, which must be viewed as soulless in order for us to eat it with guiltless justification. We do, in fact, have cremation in the West, but unlike in places like India where cremation is performed outside in public view, in the West the body is taken away and put in a sealed, high temperature oven at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit for about 4 hours. To alleviate any risk of repugnance, the only thing that family and friends see are the clean, odorless ashes that remain.

The story of Abraham is found both in the Bible and the Quran, and it tells of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (or Ismael, in the Quran). But just as he was about to place his son on the fire, an angel appeared to say, “You have proved your faith and your fear of God; for that He is happy with you, so unbind your son and instead, put a lamb on the fire.” Ritualized sacrifice of animals—killing them and burning their bodies and then distributing the meat all in the name of God—formed the foundation of the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It also formed the political core and the establishment of urbanization—a sedentary way of life deeply rooted in a practice of enslaving animals, exploiting animals, buying and selling animals and eating animals, which demanded that animals be viewed as soulless objects whose only purpose was to be used by human beings.

Prior to the great agricultural explosion, which gave birth to capitalism and urbanization and pretty much the world as we know it today, human beings lived wild with other wild animals and the natural wild environment. At that time, human beings felt connected and as kindred spirits with all of nature. But when we started to enslave (domesticate) other animal beings, we had to disconnect from them, as well as deny our connection to the whole of nature. Elaborate rituals were employed to accomplish this division and nullify guilt. Ritualized killing was part of this process. Domesticated animals were brought to a temple to be offered to God, killed by priests while reciting incantations, put on a fire, cooked and then either given back to the person for a fee or the meat was sold and distributed to others. In time as human population increased, so did the herds of domesticated animals, and cities grew larger, as did temples and political power. Religious temples became more and more like commercial slaughterhouses. Two thousand years ago, ancient Jerusalem was known as the “red city,” not because of how the beautiful sunsets colorfully reflected on the walled fortress surrounding the city, but because of the crimson blood that overflowed the gutter troughs running out of the main temple—the by-product of the many animal sacrifices that were going on. All of the three religions of Abraham uphold a speciesist view, which looks upon animals as inferior to humans, so in those religions cremation is not acceptable because burning is for animals, not humans.

Vegetarianism was not always a central feature of Hinduism. The ritualized killing of animals played a big part in early Vedic culture. The Brahmin priests did the job of animal sacrifice, and originally only Brahmins were allowed to eat meat. After the religious reforms brought about by Jainism and Buddhism, Hinduism became primarily a religion that upheld the virtue of ahimsa and along with it, the practice of vegetarianism. In turn, cremation became the popular method used to dispose of human corpses among the vegetarian Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.

When we begin to look deeply into the rituals of our culture, including funeral ceremonies, we may uncover the roots of many violent practices that have been ingrained and unquestioned in our way of life, and we may come to realize that many of these practices have been learned. The good news is that when we recognize the origins of certain behaviors, we realize that they aren’t necessarily natural or hard wired into us, and with that we are reminded that when something is learned it can be unlearned. We can dismantle the old ways of our present animal slave-based culture and create a new way of living. We can rise like the phoenix from the ashes of the sacrificial fire and fly to greater heights than have even yet been imagined.

-Sharon Gannon

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