Ashes to Ashes: Living and Dying Sustainably
Photo by Anna Seva

Ashes to Ashes: Living and Dying Sustainably

“In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love you invest your life.” (Mumford & Sons, Awake My Soul)

Impermanence is a theme that reaches across the fragile stretch of each human life cycle. The body reminds us of our corporeal reality on a daily basis and mortality lies in its very heart. As we were born, so will we die.

Facing death means facing life in its entirety and requires the deliberate consideration of the existential questions at hand. What ultimately counts in life? What really matters and how do we prioritize? What is our work, our responsibility and our practice as human beings? What do we stand for in this life?

A few years ago I spent a month in Varanasi, India, the holy city of Shiva. Most nights I walked to the burning ghats by the river Ganges and sat watching the cremation rituals. The bodies of the deceased, wrapped in cloths of vibrant colors and tied with ribbons of flowers, were carried to the fire on a bamboo stretcher, laid down and set to burn in a ritual of mantras and prayers. The loved ones stayed gathered around the fire as it gradually burned the body in its entirety, dancing its way through the shell of the human. Sometimes the process of burning was quiet and gentle, sometimes fierce and harsh, even grotesque. The circles of fire never ceased, new bodies lighting up as the previous ones burned out.

I sat there, hour after hour, in a state of total absorption, ash falling on my hair like snow. The experience fulfilled in me an ancient longing for an immediate experience, a direct exposure to the full cycle of life and death. Sitting by the ghats I felt that I was looking at my humanity squarely in the eye and participating in the ritual of saying goodbye and letting go in a context beyond the personal. For the first time death wasn’t hidden, denied or removed by a degree or two.

After coming home to California I began to research burial customs around the world, wanting to know and understand more. I got tremendously interested in the movement for green funerals and conscious death awareness. I found out about handmade burial shrouds, biodegradable urns and eco-friendly cardboard and wicker caskets. I looked into natural burial grounds that look like remote wild parks with only GPS coordinates marking the location of specific bodies. I considered building and painting my own coffin but realized I wouldn’t have the storage space for it. I debated ordering a burial shroud from Kinkaraco and tucking it in the back of my underwear drawer. I deliberated the need for workshops in all aspects of death preparation, both practical and emotional.

Years later I lived in Israel and learned about the Jewish tradition of burying the dead as soon as possible, ideally on the same day. Death notices are printed out and stapled on trees or tacked on walls in the neighborhood of the deceased. When my partner’s grandfather died, his funeral was arranged within hours. His body wrapped in a white sheet, he was laid to the ground in a simple ritual under a wide open January sky.

My own grandfather, in contrast, had stayed in the mortuary fridge for five weeks before the funeral. The day felt sterile and solemn, stiff like the expensive presentations of imported flowers on his elaborate steel casket. During the viewing of the body we encountered a strange and shrunken version of him, covered in layers of caky color. I didn’t like the thought of my grandfather’s body sitting in the fridge and lying in the coffin looking like someone else. He had been a man of principle and action, swift decisions and sober thinking. For decades he swam laps every morning and went skiing each spring in the mountains of Northern Lapland. He forbade me, as a kid, to wear makeup in his house, saying you couldn’t improve upon God’s work.

Living authentically means dying authentically and part of living a sustainable and ecologically responsible life is considering the final disposal of our bodies. Pausing to honestly acknowledge the end of life alters the perspective we have on everything. Letting go of resistance to recognizing death as a reality of life opens up a new way of being in the world. How, then, do I negotiate the content of my remaining stay on this planet? How do I make sense of my wants, needs and longings? What areas of my life ask for attention and resolution? What do I choose to actively prioritize? What is my unlived life and how shall I address it in the time I have left?

Unpacking and exploring the fear of death takes the excessive charge of tension off the event itself. Willingness to face my deepest apprehensions about living and dying is a ticket to a new perspective. A sense of freedom shows up at the heels of understanding how temporary this all is. Gratitude emerges without effort, along with a desire to live well and fully in the remaining time I have. I ask: What does it mean to have a good and rewarding death? But first, let’s ask: What does it mean to have a good and rewarding life?

Posted by Anna Seva

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