Funeral Rituals

Whether to bury or to burn? Or? Funeral rituals vary widely.

I know two people who want their bodies to be exposed to the birds, what you might call "air burial," instead of either of the conventional alternatives. Among Buddhists in Tibet, the monks chop the dead up, and the parts are scattered on high hillsides. Why chop them up? To make it easier for the birds to eat them, they explain. The Parsis in Bombay have their "Towers of Silence," platforms high enough to simulate trees; they leave their bodies there to be devoured by white kites (kites are like vultures) specially maintained by them. To Parsis, who practice Zoroastrianism, both the earth and fire are too sacred to be polluted by dead bodies.

I had a Hindu Anthropology professor (he was a sadhu) who explained that burying was a Semitic practice carried over into Christianity, whereas the "Indo-Europeans" all practiced various forms of cremation. Think of the cremation grounds at Banaras, and the Viking cremations of chiefs and kings in their longboats. I always thought the latter would be the way to go, but of course it's extremely expensive and polluting to boot.

Elizabeth says that cremation is "cheating." After eating from the earth all your life, the least you can do is give you body back to be eaten, either in the ground, by worms or maggots, or in the trees, by birds.

While Christians and Muslims have fairly standard forms for burials, and theologically prefer burial, present day pagans in Europe and the US don't have established funeral rituals . Probably, most pagans are cremated, their ashes scattered in favorite places if they can manage it.

My father, an Atheist, had his ashes scattered under a special tree he had planted years before, and on his favorite beach on St. Maarten. Christian relatives have all been cremated, their ashes buried in cemeteries. A pagan friend washed her husband's corpse herself, and had him buried in the family plot.

Do pagans, or "non-believers," say things over the body or ashes that differ from Christian practice? Generally, they say things about the person who has died, about his or her life, about what he has left behind. I've not heard them say much about an after life or rebirth. On the other hand, Christian funerals usually quote standard Biblical passages, with the implication that there is an after-life.

When I toured the Catacombs in Rome, our guide pointed out something of more than local significance: prior to Christianity, burial practices were quite idiosyncratic, local and varied by family and temperament (but they did bury, not burn); after the takeover of Christianity, all the burials found in the Catacombs were very similar in form, as if they followed a prescribed formula. Instead of familial creativity, there was a sameness found year after year.

I think that sums up the difference between Christian (or Muslim or Jewish) funeral rituals and those of and modern day non-Christian or pagan practices quite succinctly. For the former, all quote relevant parts of the scriptures "I am the Resurrection and the Life," "From dust to dust," and so on, and among many Christian sects, the body must be kept inviolate, buried whole, whereas non-Christian/Jewish/Muslim funeral rituals vary widely; there is no formula, just as there is no set scripture, or creed for pagans, agnostics or atheists.

So, if your pagan/agnostic/atheist friend or lover dies, you'll have to write your own script, or follow the one he or she has left behind for his or her survivor to follow. Or find an inter-faith minister to help lead a funeral ritual, that fits your and your loved one's needs.