Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Passion Week Reflections: Ecology and the good death

“The glory of God is a human being 'fully alive.' ” St. Irenaeus.

The ritual climax of the Holy Week is special. It is special not merely for the ritual drama following centuries old traditions that unfold at this time, but for the opportunities for personal reflection that open up through the emotion these rituals release. Every little action, and prop used in the course of the ritual drama offers the opportunity to change the course of our daily performances for the rest of the year or our lives. And at the end of the day, is this not one of the reasons why we repeat this sacred drama year after year?

Some time ago I had the opportunity to hear the plans an elderly friend was making for his final rites. Concerned with his ‘ecological footprint’ this friend decided that he did not want to be buried as per the norms observed by Goan Catholics. He wanted to go to his grave simply; without being dressed in a suit, without claiming for eternity a space in the soil of a cemetery, and without the wooden coffin that carries us to our final rest. He would rather be cremated he reasoned, going to his end in a shroud, a bamboo litter and then reduced to ashes that could be disposed off with greater ease than in the case of burial. As if in need of some sort of social sanction, he culminated these reflections with a nod towards his ‘Hindu heritage’, indicating that he would like to return to the elements in a way his ancestors had.

Our common ecological concerns had laid the foundations for our friendship, I was moved by his concerns for a good death, that seemed to echo the observation by St. Irenaeus. Concerned even in the contemplation of death with creating space for life, wasn’t this an example of a human being fully alive? I cannot say I agreed entirely with this friend however. But, there are times when one does not argue; one merely lets the moment pass. The issue has however stayed with me, motivating this week’s reflections.

For those who follow this column, the first part of my argument should be obvious; I took objection to a Catholic unproblematically assuming his (or her) ‘Hindu heritage’. The assumption that we had ‘Hindu’ ancestors can largely be made only by those groups who claim ‘upper caste’ ancestry. For the rest of the Goan Catholics, that is, the majority of us, we have the blood of many peoples within us. We come from groups that include Muslims, persons from Africa, China, and other groups that were less concerned with marrying into the ‘right background’. A ‘Hindu heritage’ is not something we can uncomplicatedly claim.

Further, given that ‘Hindu-ness’ as we know it today is the product of the nineteenth century efforts of upper-caste reformers, we cannot technically say we had ‘Hindu’ ancestors. Also, even if one would like to call our non-Muslim ancestors Hindu, we must remember that a total burning of the corpse was a practice followed largely by ‘upper’ or dominant castes. The money for, or the quantities of wood, used for a complete burning of a corpse was available only to a small part of society. Other castes groups either buried their dead, or only partially burned the corpse and then buried it. In any case, there is no reason to assume that burning of the dead in this manner is any more eco-friendly than burial of the dead. On the contrary, a burial, without the heavy coffin, that is an unpleasant class marker in the first place, may in fact be more ecologically friendly, since it allows nature to do her work at her own pace. It is when we demand exclusive use of the burial space for all eternity that the ecological costs start mounting.

Finally, in what may perhaps be the most Christian argument against recourse to ‘Hindu ancestry’, our belief, through baptism, in a man who transcended through His resurrection both time and space, makes it difficult to select just one group as our ancestors. Through Christ, who conquers all time, all groups in the past, and indeed in the future, are our own. They become especially our own, when they are found exemplary in a Christian lifestyle. This awareness adds critical dimensions to St. Ireneaeus’ observations.

One of the props in the Passion Play on Good Friday offers us an interesting option for Christians seeking an ecologically responsible burial. In a number of churches the bier that the figure of the dead Christ is carried on in procession is the kind that is still used by Muslim communities in India and other parts of the world. This bier holds the shroud wrapped corpse, and is not interred into the grave with the corpse. On the contrary, only the body wrapped in the shroud is deposited in the grave, the bier is reused. This practice is not very different from the image we get from the reading of the Gospel during Holy week.

The funerary practices of local Muslim communities it would appear offer us an option in the imitation of Christ. This option however offers us more than the opportunity to imitate the life of Christ. We are also allowed in this process to identify more actively with one of the more sinned against communities in contemporary India. It allows us to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and our ancestry. In doing so, we are offered the opportunity to participate in laying the foundations for the just kingdom that we are committed to through our faith in Christ. Additionally it also gives us the opportunity to multiply the ways in which we can be fully committed to being alive. To stand for life, includes, creating the options for life subsequent to death, the expansion of our imagination of who is ‘our own’, and creating circumstances where people live in anticipation of life, not the fear of persecution.

Have a prayerful Holy Triduum and a Blessed Easter Season.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 20 April 2011)

No comments: