Purification of human remains

12 Dec

From Charles Cowling’s excellent blog The Good Funeral Guide I copy a few lines from his last article entitled “Haunting Presence“.

“The beauty of burial is that it results in the permanent relocation of the complete body. You think it’s all over as the soil rattles down on the coffin. It is. Your hands are now empty.

Not so with cremation. You get a version of the body back.”

Actually Charles, this distinction in terms of final disposition between burial and cremation is not always as clear as you make it, certainly not in many aboriginal cultures and not even in all western ones.

This year, on the 3rd anniversary of the death of my Greek wife’s grandmother, my mother-in-law needs to go back to the tomb of her mother to clean out and reinstall the bones back into the grave. This is traditional in Greece. And it doesn’t merely serve practical purposes such as compacting the remains for the next family burial etc. It has a religious meaning I’ve yet to discover.

In many traditional aboriginal cultures, similar practices are common. There are two phases, corresponding to your “cremated remains dilemma”: the purification of the remains by decomposition or other destruction of the fleshy “earthly” parts; then the installation of the cleaned remains in a permanent place of rest. Until their purification, the remains are potentially dangerous to the living, spiritually speaking – although as a pure materialist one could speculate about hygienic concerns being the basis of the spiritual practices. Once purified, the remains become harmless to the living, indeed they become sacred, since they create a symbolic connection with the dead and the afterworld. They form the basis of the ancestor cult.

What is especially relevent here: in some of these cultures, cremation is used for the first purification phase. The cremated remains are then ritually placed in their final home. As something no longer fearful but rather sacred, they can even rest in or near the home.

Essentially your observation in this article points to the enormous need of our secularized society to apply themselves to these death-matters a little more deeply and less tritely. Other cultures understood better the “remains dilemma”, and they figured out psychological/spiritual solutions. Perhaps our own culture, confused and insensitive to these matters, could learn something from them. For example that the final home of cremated remains is an important issue and taking the path of least psychological resistance may not work. (I think in particular of scattering, which I personally object to.)


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