Thursday, March 26, 2009

Departure after death

What happens after you die?
Everyone mourns.
What happens to your body?

Some people would sigh and say "After I am dead why would I worry about what happens to me." A few are definite about the way they want to go. Unfortunately many are too late in deciding and have to leave it to the living. While complacent others have no choice but to abide by their religious norms.

The practice of disposing of bodies by burning is almost as old as the human race itself and has been practised by many civilizations.

In the Book of Genesis Abraham was ordered by God to prepare the funeral pyre for the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. By the time of the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations cremation had been the general method of disposing off the dead. (Courtesy BBC)

In India, Hinduism, cremate dead bodies in the open. Cremation is seen as the only way to return the body to the five elements of fire, water, earth, air and after cremation the ashes are poured into the sacred river Ganges or into the sea. This was detrimental to the environment. Till the intervention of Raja Ram Mohan Roy a Hindu wife was burnt alive with the dead body of her husband.

The Egyptians popularized the custom of Mummification, - drying of bodies to preserve them and to use stone coffins in the early Roman Empire long before the coming of Christianity.

Early Christians, influenced by the New Testament rejected cremation as a hangover from pagan times. They believed that the body of Christ was entombed according to Jewish rites. With the belief in the resurrection of the dead, cremation fell into disfavor. By the fifth century the practice had become almost completely obsolete.

The Christians also believed that you should present yourself before your Maker as an entire body rather than a pile of burnt bone fragments.

In the early 19th Century, some British officials in India campaigned for crematoria to be built to stop the Hindu custom of burning bodies in the open air.

Sir Henry Thompson, F.R.C.S., Surgeon to Queen Victoria, became the first and chief promoter of cremation in England.

The appalling conditions in many of the overcrowded burial grounds of Britain's major cities, together with the mounting costs of the pomp and ceremony of Victorian funerals, attracted people to a cheaper and cleaner way of disposal. It was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in density.

In some places, burials are impractical because the ground water is too high. Crypts in churches were used as tombs.

Burial is not always permanent. In some areas, burial grounds need to be re-used because of limited space. Once the dead decomposed to skeletons, the bones are removed; and placed in an ossuary.

Cremation would reduce the expense of funerals, spare mourners the necessity of standing exposed to the weather and the ashes, kept in urns, would be safe from vandalism. Sir Henry Thompson boldly advanced a further economic-technical argument that the ashes might be used as fertilizer!

On the other hand, cremation also poses problems.
Cremation could be used to destroy evidence of murder and mischief before a body could be properly examined. If buried, bodies could be exhumed on suspicion.

In 1878, the furnace was successfully tested on the body of a horse. It proved that an adult human body could be burnt to ashes in one to two hours with no smoke or effluvia escaping from the chimney.

In February, 1884, cremation was made legal in England.

Cremations in closed furnaces had already taken place in Germany.
The cremation movement spread to various parts of the British Empire, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Resistance to cremation continued till the mass slaughter of the First World War began to change people's social views.

In 1963 the Pope finally lifted the ban on Roman Catholics seeking cremation. Today only a few religious groups, including Muslims, Orthodox Jews and the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, still actively oppose cremation.

The church does not allow cremated remains to be scattered or kept at home. It is to be entombed.

In Sikhism cremation is the preferred method of disposal. Burial or submergence at sea is acceptable.
"Burial at sea" means the disposal of a corpse into the ocean, wrapped and tied with weights to make sure it sinks.

99.82% of all deceased Japanese are cremated, but a burial in a family grave is allowed.

Those with concerns about the effects of traditional burial or cremation on the environment choose to be buried in an all natural bio-degradable green burial shroud, a simple coffin made of cardboard or other easily-biodegradable material. They choose to be buried in a park or woodland, known as an eco - cemetery. A tree is planted over their grave as a contribution to the environment and a remembrance.

West Africans buried the dead in the floor of their houses.

Rarer forms of disposal of the dead include exposure of the body to the elements and to scavenger animals. The corpse is stripped off the flesh, leaving only the bones, which are then either buried or stored elsewhere, in ossuaries or tombs. This was done by some groups of Native American.
Tibetan Buddhists living in high altitudes also practice this ‘giving alms to the birds’ due to lack of fire wood and the ground being unfit for burial.

Zoroastrians in Bombay place bodies in "Towers of Silence", where vultures and other carrion eating birds then dispose of the corpses. The bones are collected in a central pit where assisted by lime they decompose.

Cannibalism is also practiced post-mortem in some countries.

With a growing population and increasing pressure on land space it looks likely that the days of the huge cemeteries and vaults will finally come to an end.

Cremation in a crematorium does make a lot of difference to the environment.

Do I sound macabre? Facts of life are hard to accept.

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