The Newly Legal Process for Turning Human Corpses to Soil

Reusable eight-by-four-foot steel cylinders, packed with wood chips, straw, and alfalfa, present an eco-friendly alternative to traditional burial

By Corinne Purtill

There’s an empty warehouse 20 miles south of Seattle that, if everything goes as planned, will soon be full of dead people.

The facility belongs to Recompose, the first U.S. company to compost human bodies indoors, through a process known officially as natural organic reduction. Washington state became the first — and so far, only — U.S. state to legalize the practice in May 2019. Recompose opens in November. It’s designed to hold the bodies of up to 10 recently deceased people at a time, each of them quietly decomposing into a loamy, nutritious soil, just as their previous owners wanted.

At the most basic level, decomposition is not a new technology; microbes have been doing it extremely well for just about as long as organic matter has existed. But it’s a part of death that Western funeral practices have traditionally gone to great lengths to evade: Embalming a corpse in chemicals with the goal of preserving a “natural” (that is, not dead) look; hawking expensive caskets that claim to seal out nature’s corrupting forces.

Recompose takes the opposite approach.

Against an attractive millennial pink background, the company’s website plainly explains the eco-friendly setting in which clients will decay. Instead of in a single-use casket, bodies rest temporarily in a reusable eight-by-four-foot steel cylinder, packed snugly in a cocoon of wood chips, straw, and alfalfa. For 30 days the dead human and living microbes stay in the vessel together, lying alongside fellow Recomposers in the warehouse’s hexagonal wooden frame, while the microorganisms slowly break down the corpse. At the end, after a brief turn in a curing bin to cool and dry out excess moisture, what once was a human body is now about a cubic yard of fertile, nutrient-rich soil, which can be returned to loved ones or scattered according to the decedent’ wishes. (The company will deliver all or part of the soil free of charge to Bells Mountain, a protected wilderness in southern Washington.) The service costs $5,500 — more than a typical cremation and service costs in the U.S., but about half the cost of burial. Some 275 people have already signed up for the service since reservations opened a month ago, said customer and communications manager Anna Swenson.

“There are a lot of signs and signals that are somewhat apocalyptic that kind of turn you back to your mortality.”

Why hack death? Cremation releases more than 500,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually in the U.S. alone, along with significant levels of mercury emissions. Traditional burial shoves truckfuls worth of metal, concrete, wood, and formaldehyde beneath the ground each year. Cities around the world are running out of traditional cemetery space, and preserving any unmolested open space is hard, even if you’re not trying to get permission to plant corpses in it. Human composting and its kindred green death technologies distill the body from a large, unwieldy, decomposition-prone state to one that is smaller, shelf-stable, and portable, with negligible environmental cost along the way.

There are existential reasons as well. As a pandemic rages and wildfires burn and a general feeling of doom pervades the air, “there are a lot of signs and signals that are somewhat apocalyptic that kind of turn you back to your mortality,” said Jeff Jorgenson, who owns green funeral homes in Seattle and Los Angeles.

“We look at what we’re doing and how disconnected we are from the earth and realizing that we’ve created this mess. We’ve allowed this to happen. And I think that informs decisions and perspectives on death.”

Recompose founder and CEO Katrina Spade was raised in a family of doctors “where it was fairly normal to talk about death and dying at the dinner table,” as she explained in a 2016 TED Talk. That frank approach to life and its end followed her to architecture school, where she became fascinated by a particular design question: How to dispose of her own physical body when she was no longer living in it, without — as she put it — “destroy[ing] the possibility of giving back after we die.”

She admired the example of green cemeteries, where nonembalmed bodies are wrapped in biodegradable materials and buried in a grave about three or four feet deep in which, over the course of about two years, tissues decompose into matter that nourishes the surrounding soil. (Bones can take up to 20 years more to fully disintegrate, according to the Green Burial Council.)

Green cemeteries are lovely places, with trees and plants growing freely without the austere manicuring of a traditional cemetery. There just aren’t very many of them. Only a few hundred of the thousands of cemeteries in the U.S. offer any green burial option, including many Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, whose burial practices traditionally forgo embalming and nonbiodegradable caskets. With composting, the body can go through the same process as it would beneath the soil of a green cemetery, even if there’s no open space for miles.

There’s also the question of one’s final resting place. A body placed in a green cemetery becomes, effectively, a part of that particular expanse of earth. One of the benefits of cremation is that the deceased or their survivors can dispose of the resulting “ashes” however they see fit: scattered in a meaningful spot, divided amongst children, even shot out of a cannon if that feels most appropriate.

Wouldn’t it be nice, Spade thought, to rot closer to home, to turn back into something that feeds the earth instead of takes from it, and to have a say in where the soil made from you goes?

Agriculture has been using natural organic reduction for decades to dispose of dead cows and other livestock on farms. For her master’s thesis in architecture, Spade laid out the idea for a facility where humans could be composted this way, indoors, in a setting that would be both dignified and sanitary.

Upon graduation, she began in earnest to make the business a reality. In 2018 she partnered with the Washington State University Soil Science Department for a study using six donor bodies to confirm that soil produced from human composting would be pathogen-free. The heat produced by the composting process kills almost all pathogens; the only people who will not be eligible for composting at Recompose are those who die with prion conditions, like Creutzfeldt–Jakob (“mad cow”) disease, as the proteins that cause those conditions can remain toxic in soil for years.

Recompose’s vessel is not the only relatively new advance in the disposal of human corpses. The law that made Washington the first (and so far only) state in the U.S. to legalize human composting also explicitly legalized alkaline hydrolysis, also known as chemical cremation.

The novelty of Recompose got more attention, as alkaline hydrolysis was already legal in more than a dozen U.S. states. But because the technology fits so easily into existing crematoriums, chemical cremation, which was also originally developed to dispose of dead cattle, may be the more accessible option at the moment for people without access to a green cemetery or reduction facility.

More than half of the people who die in the U.S. each year are cremated, a process that emits more than 500 estimated pounds of carbon dioxide per body. In alkaline hydrolysis, a body is placed inside a vessel containing a solution of water and the caustic base potassium hydroxide that’s then heated and pressurized. Over about three hours, the pressurized liquid dissolves the body’s soft tissues as fire does in a traditional crematorium. Because there’s no combustion, there are also no greenhouse gas emissions.

The end result of both processes is the same: Bones that are then pulverized into what are typically referred to as the “ashes” of the deceased. Traditional cremains are the color of gray sand. The remains of a chemically cremated body are the pure white of seashells.

Green death tech also expands to engineered materials that line coffins and wrap corpses, and that sell themselves as accelerating the conversion of the former, resource-consuming you into matter that feeds other life forms, the ideological opposite of traditional burial marketing.

“People want their deaths to mean something. They want their bodies to be useful in some way.”

These include the offerings of designer Jae Rhim Lee’s company Coeio, which sells burial garments laced with a mixture of mushrooms and other organic matter that claim to speed decomposition and break down the toxic compounds the body releases. (According to his wishes, actor Luke Perry was buried in one after his 2019 death from a stroke at age 52.) The Italian designers Anna Citelli and Raoul Bretzel created Capsula Mundi, a biodegradable, egg-shaped urn whose creators say should be buried in the ground, with a tree as a grave marker.

New technologies for disposing of bodies allow new ways of mourning the dead. Even before Covid-19 disrupted the ability to gather in mourning, it was a challenge to convene dispersed loved ones and choose a specific place to lay to rest a person who lived their life in multiple cities or countries. The share of people who identify with organized religion has fallen. Secular services that fill the need for mourning rituals have grown in their place.

Recompose is also a funeral home, and eventually, the business hopes to move to a facility large enough to allow for memorial services where loved ones can participate in the process of placing the body in the vessel. The company also plans to offer franchising opportunities in a few years. While patents are pending on the specific design of their vessels, composting itself is not a proprietary idea. In the future, rather than calling the church to organize a service, one may call the closest organic reduction facility.

“People want their deaths to mean something. They want their bodies to be useful in some way,” said Nora Menkin, executive director of the People’s Memorial Association, a Seattle-based nonprofit cooperative funeral home. Over the last six months, there’s been a jump in calls to the organization from people contemplating their mortality while riding out the pandemic at home. They want options, she said, so that “your last act on earth isn’t polluting it.”

The way we dispose of bodies says more about how we live. Embalming became popular in the Civil War, the first episode in U.S. history where people died en masse far from their homes and needed to be transported for burial. Cremation rates rose as the country became more mobile, and scattered families could not be convened fast enough for a burial. Today, more people seek options that don’t contribute to the environmental destruction we see around us, that allows our earthly remains to be shared by the people we loved or disposed of altogether. To embrace our final obligation, which is to return to the earth the substance that let us be ourselves.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Indians of all faiths commemorate the dead with food

An excerpt from ‘Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes’ by Shylashri Shankar.

By

Each February, on the lunar day my father passed away, I wake up at dawn, bathe and drive over to my mother’s house. I enter the kitchen and begin sorting the vegetables. I wash the spinach and soak it in salted water. The bhindi, I pat dry. I remove the mud clinging to the arbi, rinse the green chillis, ginger and coriander leaves. Then I make a cup of tea for my mother who is unwell, and sit at the dining table to choreograph my cooking moves this year. Sixteen dishes have to be made by half past ten when the priests will arrive. Four hours to wash, chop, chiffonade, boil, cook, simmer, combine, soak, grind and fry vada, knead dough for puris, pickle the mango, roast the arbi over a low flame for half an hour, make the rice, kheer and mango chutney. Everything has to be done from scratch – no preparations can be made the previous day. Even the vegetables have to be cut on the day.

I begin the dance between the tasks like a Sufi dervish, meditatively and fluidly. These were my father’s favourite dishes – keerai, kootu, rasam, puris (we used to compete over how many puris we could eat), bhindi fry, crispy arbi with rice flour and spices, the mango and gur boiled in its own juice, and the mint chutney. These dishes were made on the tenth day after his death, and each year my mother and I make these dishes on his death anniversary. As I cook, I also think of others whom I loved who have passed away – my aunt who lived with us and was famous for her coconut barfis and chikkies, my perima who made the most delicious chutneys, pickles, papads and pastes and sent them to us from Shimoga every couple of months, my favourite uncle who was born on the same day as me and who lived a simple and contented life. I remember the things they did, and what we shared. There is a sense of calm, of peace, of unhurried movement. I salt and spice by instinct, not by taste. I cannot speak over the food, and I cannot taste it – it would be polluting. The priests arrive. After a short chant, they are ready. I serve everything course by course, on a banana leaf. They eat everything and take second helpings. I cook only occasionally, so you’d think the spices would be off, but instinct serves me well on this day. Or is it the emotions and memories infusing the cook?

Research shows that rituals can help in relieving people of their grief and other feelings that torment the spirit. A ritual, whether it is a religious one or something you have made up, helps to restore a sense of control to the mourner, control we have lost in the unexpectedness and the suddenness of the tragedy. A ritual involving cooking returns that control to you as you decide when the coriander seeds have been roasted enough, when the vegetable is done to a crunchy bite, and when the chana is cooked.

It is not surprising that many traditions contain rituals where the person who has passed on is remembered through food. The bereaved are comforted by other mourners who bring dishes like fried chicken, biryani, sandwiches and so on. The Koran, for instance, discourages the family of the dead from cooking but urges the community to bring food to the family. In Hyderabad, Muslims bring biryani, haleem, kebabs and dahi baday. Across the pond in Sri Lanka, visitors dressed in white deliver food to the mourners and the monks. The Buddhist ceremony, Daane, involves eating parupu (dal), kiri bath (rice and coconut milk) and gotu kola sambol. Pitru paksha of Hindus observed during the dark half of the lunar calendar uses food to commemorate the dead. So do similar festivals in other parts of the world: All Souls Day in Italy and Sicily where marzipan delicacies are crafted in the form of fruit and vegetables, and the Day of the Dead in Mexico where sugar skulls, candied pumpkin and mole negro are prepared for the souls of the dead.

Why are these dishes and not some others used in the formal rites? Is it because they create a sense of calm, some succour to the grief-stricken mourners? Is it ethnicity, religion or the geographic location that makes a dish or particular ingredients comforting to a mourner? In India, religion plays a key role in deciding whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian foods can be served to a mourner. Unlike Muslim and Christian mourners, Hindu mourners eat vegetarian meals even if chicken and fish are part of their daily diet. Why? It could be because death is involved in the act of eating meat (dead animals) since in Hindu culture a person is both bodily and morally what he or she eats.

But in a study of mortuary rites in Benares, Jonathan Parry highlights how some aspect of the deceased is symbolically digested not only by the ghost but also by the ‘chief mourner, by the impure Funeral Priests (a specialist subcaste known as Mahabrahmans) and by the pure brahmans’. Parry points out that in some instances, as in the funeral rites of the Raja of Nepal, the Funeral Priest was fed the deceased’s ground-up bone in a preparation of kheer (concentrated milk and sugar), and was laden with gifts and banished from the kingdom. By digesting the deceased, his pure essence is distilled and translated by the digestive fire of the stomach to the other world, while his impure sins are eliminated. The ghost is converted into an ancestor, or pitr. The food served to the group consists of rice boiled without salt but garnished with milk and horse bean lentils (urad dal).On the thirteenth day, the mortuary feast is prepared.

Nirad Chaudhuri narrates an incident where a wealthy relative had to rubber-stamp the backs of peoples’ hands to prevent them from eating twice, many having trekked over 50 miles to attend the feast. It is not just the wealthy who have to feed hundreds of people to mark the end of mourning. The poor have to do it as well, and usually incur high debts as they sell their bullocks and grain and borrow at exorbitant rates of interest to meet the expense of feeding the village. For the Gonds and the Bhumias, the death feast is the most expensive ceremony.

The formal rites also involve other offerings in the soul’s passage from being a ghost to becoming an ancestor. Hindus offer rice or flour balls known as pindas. Some castes leave these pindas outside and hope that a crow will eat it. If it does, the ghost has become an ancestor. In Mysore, some middle castes throw three balls of butter at the idol beseeching it to open the gates of heaven (vaikuntha samaradhana).

Death need not be only of the body. The death of a relationship can be quite brutal. In mourning for the ‘we’ that has died, you may turn to your favourite dishes and binge-eat day after day. Well, don’t. In randomised trials of over 45,000 participants, London-based researchers discovered that eating meals high in vegetable and fiber and cutting back on junk food eased depression. But not anxiety. Also these meals worked better on women than men. They are trying to figure out why. NIH research has found that enhanced recovery from depressive disorders is delivered by oysters, mussels, seafood and organ meats, leafy greens, lettuce, peppers, cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli. Now we have an Antidepressent Food Score, a nutrient profiling system to give dietary recommendations for mentally ill people.

What about foods that can increase and worsen depression? These typically are sugar-rich foods – cookies, doughnuts, red meats, fried chicken and soft drinks – that create a high followed by a crash. But dark chocolate, thank god, enhances the mood by releasing endorphins to the brain and promotes a sense of well being. I tested it over a two-week period of nibbling two slices of chocolate after lunch. Godiva’s 78 per cent cacao made me perky while Cadbury’s Crunchie left a claggy sensation in my arteries. Either there is some truth to it or I may be exhibiting the recency effect – remembering best whatever I have read or encountered most recently.

The moral of the tale is to treat grief as a natural phenomenon and address it through rituals, simple or elaborate, and eat foods that produce equanimity.

Complete Article HERE!

This ‘Living’ Coffin Uses Mushrooms to Compost Dead Bodies

This ‘Living’ Coffin Uses Mushrooms to Compost Dead Bodies

Hendrikx with the ‘Living Cocoon’ coffins.

by Becky Ferreira

For tens of thousands of years, humans have developed funeral rites and burial practices that reflected the attitudes of their particular time and place. These traditions of honoring the dead continue to evolve into the 21st century, as people seek “green burials” that are more environmentally friendly than standard coffins. 

One of the newest examples comes from Loop, a Dutch biotech company that recently unveiled a biodegradable coffin made of fungus, microbes and plant roots. Called the “Living Cocoon,” the coffin is designed to hasten bodily decomposition while also enriching soil around the plot.

“Normally, what we do as humans is we take something out of nature, we kill it, and we use it,” said Bob Hendrikx, founder of Loop, in a call. “So I thought: what if we humans start moving from working with dead materials toward a world in which we work with living materials?”

“We would not only become less of a parasite, but we could also start exploring super-cool material properties, like living lights, walls that are self-healing, and that kind of stuff,” he added.

Hendrikx was inspired to develop the Living Cocoon while presenting a living home concept at last year’s Dutch Design Week. While houses are obviously for the living, Hendrikx got to thinking about adapting the concept into a coffin powered by mushroom mycelium, which is the filamentary vegetative part of the fungus.

“Mycelium is nature’s biggest recycler,” Hendrikx said. “It is continuously looking for dead organic matter to transform into key nutrients.”

Developed in collaboration with Delft University of Technology and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Living Cocoon contains a moss bed packed with mycelium, plant roots, and a lush ecosystem of microorganisms. It is already on the market in the Netherlands, and has been used for a burial at the Hague.

Initial tests of the coffin indicate that it degrades in soil over about 30 to 45 days, and the Loop team estimates that bodies within coffins should be composted after three years. Mushrooms can also remove contaminants from soil, so the researchers have a “bigger vision” to use the coffins to purify dirty environments.

“We have a dream of having super-new natural funeral-based concepts in which we go to different cities and search for the most dirty soil and start cleaning that up,” Hendrikx said.

“We already have this product launched on the market, but what we want to really know is how long does [decomposition] take exactly, what does the decomposition phase look like, and also—this is super-important—what kind of chemicals can it absorb and in what amounts,” he added.

The Living Cocoon is one of many emerging concepts that aim to reduce the environmental tolls of current mortuary norms. Right now, both caskets and cadavers are treated with chemicals that leach into soil over time, potentially contaminating groundwater.

Green burials are exactly not a new phenomenon, as Indigenous cultures around the world have practiced environmentally friendly mortuary practices for thousands of years. For instance, “sky burials” that expose bodies to high altitudes where they can be scavenged by birds and animals, are still practiced in the Himalayas today.

But more novel funeral technologies such as “water cremation,” in which bodies are broken down in water and potassium hydroxide, are attracting the interest of people who want to tread lightly on the planet, even after they no longer live on it.

To that point, the Loop team thinks that the Living Cocoon will help people access the right end-of-life experience for them.

“I think people are ready for this,” Hendrikx said.

Complete Article HERE!

Medieval pandemics spawned fears of the undead, burials reveal

A 16th-century drawing by Hand Baldung Grien depicts a German mercenary speaking with Death. As pandemics swept Europe, stories of hungry and vengeful undead grew in German-speaking lands and may be reflected in burial practices.

By Andrew Curry

In 2014, Swiss anthropologist Amelie Alterauge was just a few days into her new job at Bern University’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland when she was called to investigate an odd burial in a centuries-old cemetery that was being excavated ahead of a construction project. Of some 340 burials in the cemetery, one stood out: a middle-aged man, interred face-down in a neglected corner of the churchyard. “I had never seen such a burial in real life before,” says Alterauge.

Excavators found an iron knife and purse full of coins in the crook of his arm, positioned as though they had once been concealed under his clothes. The coins helped archaeologists date the body to between 1630 and 1650, around the time a series of plagues swept through that region of Switzerland. “It was like the family or the undertaker didn’t want to search the body,” Alterauge says. “Maybe he was already badly decomposed when he was buried—or maybe he had an infectious disease and nobody wanted to get too close.”

The discovery set Alterauge off on a search for more examples of face-down, or prone, burials in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Though extremely rare, such burials have been documented elsewhere—particularly in Slavic areas of Eastern Europe. They are often compared to other practices, such as mutilation or weighing bodies down with stones, that were believed to thwart vampires and the undead by preventing them from escaping their graves. But Alterauge says no one had looked systematically at the phenomenon of prone burials in medieval German-speaking areas that now constitute modern Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.

Now, in a new study published in the journal PLOS One, Alterauge’s research team reveals their analysis of nearly 100 prone burials over the course of 900 years that have been documented by archaeologists in German-speaking Europe. The data suggest a major shift in burial practices that the researchers link to deaths from plagues and a belief among survivors that victims might come back to haunt the living.

A medieval burial in a Berlin churchyard reveals a man buried face down. Prone burials increased in the later Middle Ages and may be a reaction to deaths resulting from the plague.

During the early and high Middle Ages in Europe (ca 950 to 1300), the few bodies that were buried face-down in regional graveyards were often placed at the center of church cemeteries, or even inside the holy structures. Some of them were buried with jewelry, fine clothes and writing implements, suggesting that high-ranking nobles and priests may have chosen to be buried that way as a display of humility before God. One historical example is Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father, who reportedly asked to be buried face-down in front of a cathedral in 768 as penance for his father’s sins.

Archaeologists begin to see an increase in face-down burials in Europe by the early 1300s, however, including some on the outskirts of consecrated Christian burial grounds. This shift coincided with devastating plagues that swept across Europe beginning in 1347, killing millions across the continent.

“Something changes,” says Alterauge, who is also a doctoral student at the University of Heidelberg.

As diseases killed people faster than communities could cope, the sight and sound of decomposing bodies became a familiar, unsettling presence. Corpses would bloat and shift, and gas-filled intestines of the dead made disturbing, unexpected noises. Flesh decayed and desiccated in inexplicable ways, making hair and nails seem to grow as the flesh around them shriveled.

Decaying “bodies move, they make smacking sounds. It might seem as if they’re eating themselves and their burial shrouds,” Alterauge says.

A 14th-century drawing depicts the burial of plague victims. German tales tell of nachzehrer (loosely translated as corpse devourers), and wiedergänger (“those who walk again”), which may have been inspired by mass deaths resulting from the plague.

As medieval Europeans tried to explain what they were seeing and hearing, they might have seized on ideas about the undead already circulating in Slavic communities of Eastern Europe: “We don’t have [the concept of] vampires in Germany,” Alterauge says, “but there’s this idea of corpses which move around” that is imported into western Europe from Slavic areas to the east not long after the first plague outbreaks take place in the mid-1300s.

A logic behind the undead

Before the 1300s, medieval stories in German-speaking Europe described helpful ghosts returning to warn or help their loved ones. But in an age of epidemics they took on a different shape: revenants, or the walking dead.

“This shift to evil spirits takes place around 1300 or 1400,” says Matthias Toplak, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who was not involved with the study.

Turning to medieval folklore for clues, Alterauge and her co-authors found tales of nachzehrer, loosely translated as corpse devourers: restless, hungry corpses that consumed themselves and their burial shrouds, and drained the life force from their surviving relatives in the process.

“Historical sources say nachzehrer resulted from unusual or unexpected death,” Alterauge says. “There was a theory someone became a nachzehrer if he was the first of the community to die during an epidemic.”

In pandemic-era Europe, the legend had a compelling logic: As the victim’s close relatives began developing symptoms and collapsing within days of the funeral, it must have seemed as if they were being cursed from the grave.

“The background of all these supernatural beliefs must be the sudden deaths of several individuals from one society,” says Toplak. “It makes sense that people blamed supernatural spirits and took measures to prevent the dead from returning.”

Equally feared at the time were wiedergänger, or “those who walk again”—corpses capable of emerging from the grave to stalk their communities. “When you did something wrong, couldn’t finish your business in life because of an unexpected death, or have to atone or avenge something you might become a wiedergänger,” Alterauge explains.

The new study reveals an increase in the number of bodies placed face-down on the edges of Christian cemeteries between the 14th and 17th centuries. The researchers argue that, in this part of Europe at least, burying people face-down was the preferred way to prevent malevolent corpses from returning to do harm.

Other archaeologists say there could be other explanations. In a world ravaged by deadly pandemics, burying the community’s first victim face-down might have been symbolic, a desperate attempt to ward off further calamity.

“If someone got really sick, it must have seemed like a punishment from God,” says Petar Parvanov, an archaeologist at Central European University in Budapest who was not involved in the study. “Prone burials were a way to point out something to the people at the funeral—somehow the society allowed too much sin, so they want to show penance.”

The next step, says archaeologist Sandra Lösch, co-author of the paper and head of the department of physical anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Bern University, would be to look at the face-down burials to find if there are clearer links with disease outbreaks. By analyzing the ancient DNA of individuals in prone burials, for example, it might be possible to sequence specific plague microbes, while isotopic analysis of victims’ bones and teeth “might show traces of a diet or geographic origin different from the rest of the population,” offering another explanation for their out-of-the-ordinary burials.

Because local excavation records are often unpublished, Alterauge hopes more evidence will emerge in the years to come as archaeologists re-examine old evidence or look at unusual medieval burials with a fresh perspective. “I definitely think there are more examples out there,” she says.

Complete Article HERE!

Pa’s Smile

Jaimal Yogis’s dad explained his final wishes: “I’ve gotten so much from Buddhism for good living, I’m not going to pass up their tips for good dying.”

by

The first and only time I bought dry ice, the grocery store clerk asked if I was going camping. “No,” I muttered, then managed to stop myself from saying it was for a body. The ice really was to lay my father’s corpse on.

An air force colonel who was skeptical of organized religion, my father, who we call Pa, wasn’t sure the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of leaving the dead undisturbed for three days was necessary. But, as he said after being diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, “I’ve gotten so much from Buddhism for good living, I’m not going to pass up their tips for good dying.”

As if summarizing Socrates in his famous pre-execution speech, Pa often said he had no idea where he was going. ‘If the lights go out, it’ll be a good rest,’ he’d say. ‘And if there’s more, it’ll be a great adventure.’

These three days are not unique to Tibetan, or more accurately, Vajrayana Buddhism. Irish wakes often last two or three days while a soul departs, and Jewish Midrashic texts say a soul hovers over the body for three days (or seven) until the body is buried. The idea behind the three days in Vajrayana Buddhism is that as the breath and heart stop, our gross level of consciousness dissolves but more subtle levels of consciousness remain in the body for up to about seventy-two hours. During that time the subtlest stream of consciousness is said to leave, a transition known to go more smoothly if the body can chill—in Pa’s case literally since under California law dead bodies have to be kept on ice.

“Otherwise they tend to smell like dead bodies,” our hospice nurse informed us.

“Right,” I nodded. “And where do we get the ice?”

“Grocery store.”

“Of course.”

As if summarizing Socrates in his famous pre-execution speech, Pa often said he had no idea where he was going. “If the lights go out, it’ll be a good rest,” he’d say. “And if there’s more, it’ll be a great adventure.” Still, he’d reasoned his way toward the three-day death plan. In addition to reading up on how Vajrayana Buddhists use strict tests to prove they’ve found reincarnations of former teachers, he’d read the work of doctors like Sam Parnia of NYU Langone Health. Dr. Parnia has meticulously catalogued data on people who’ve died clinically, sometimes for hours, before being resuscitated. These briefly dead folks often report vivid dreams after waking, sometimes ones in which they correctly recount what doctors had been saying—“Going to the game later?”—when the patients had no heartbeat. “That’s enough evidence for me,” Pa said. “Don’t poke or prod me for a few days.”

As the actual death part of the three-day death plan approached, we—his family—wondered if having Pa’s cold body steaming on carbon dioxide in the bedroom might intensify our grief. And might it be a little creepy? It turned out to be just the opposite.

Death leaves you in a dreamy shock. You don’t know if you should wail or drive all night to Mexico or finally get to writing your own will. When Pa stopped breathing on a warm summer evening, dressing him in his aloha shirt and favorite Christmas socks, then adorning his room with flowers, was just the beautiful busy work our reeling minds needed. Reading Jane Hirshfield’s “It Was Like This: You Were Happy,” a special request from Pa, while he was actually there in the room felt more heart opening than reading it again while scattering his ashes. And as we sat with Pa each of the three mornings while reading him The Tibetan Book of The Dead—a text meant to help us navigate the space between lives—it felt as if we were on a kind of spiritual tour bus with him, visiting the realms where awakened beings are born from lotuses and truths are whispered on the breeze.

Perhaps most surprising was how much the three-day death plan helped before death. As Pa was starting to show signs of getting close to the end, my sister Ciel and I asked if he would like to hear a Medicine Buddha ceremony that is often done for the sick and dying. “You don’t have to bother with that,” Pa said, continuing his usual stubborn quest to keep us from doting. But we argued that the ceremony would be a good warm-up for when he was down for the count and we were reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which Tibetans actually call The Great Liberation for Hearing in the Bardo. Since this made it sound like the reading was for us, Pa agreed.

We sat around his bed, switching back and forth between botching the Tibetan chanting and reading the English translation. The ceremony took about an hour, and we thought ­­Pa had slept through it. But at the end, he sat up with tears in his eyes. “I am so honored you did that for me,” he said. “And now I’m going to get up and see the sky one more time.”

“We’ll get the wheelchair,” Pa’s wife, Margaret, said reasonably.

“No,” he said, “I’m going to walk.”

Pa had already fallen behind the toilet in such a precarious position we’d needed the fire department to come dislodge him, and he’d been bedridden for days now. But charged up by the chanting, Pa managed to lumber slowly to the back porch, rasping with every breath.

We opened the door. Pa turned his face up bracingly to the blue. He looked so pale, I half expected him to croak right there. Instead, he then looked down at a few small stairs he would have to navigate in order to be fully outside. “Take me back,” he whispered. “I want an easy death. Not to fall off the damn steps.”

We laughed. Finding humor in the face of hardship was one of Pa’s great gifts. But we hadn’t heard zingers with gusto like this for a few weeks. And I think, in addition to the power of the ceremony itself, knowing that his family would be there for three full days—botching more Tibetan chants around him—was a great comfort, a lightening.

Philosophical aspects of the plan were helpful too. In hospice Pa occasionally felt unsure of where—even who—he was. One day he called himself King Henry and my aunt the queen. “You wouldn’t believe what’s happening,” he told me. “It’s like I’m disappearing.” This was scary, but Buddhist wisdom for conscious dying gave Pa a place to put his fears.

According to Vajrayana Buddhists, our gross consciousness is where we construct our version of reality through our senses. This construction is like a video game in our heads in which we are the most important character, the one whose suffering matters most, the one who should win all the gold coins because, as our senses (falsely) tell us, we exist separately from the rest of reality. The more we let go of this illusory separation from others, the more room there is to experience our true blissful and compassionate nature. Vajrayana Buddhist teachers say this true nature is most easily accessible at death because, as opposed to meditative glimpses beyond the veil, in death the gross levels of consciousness drop away automatically. So, when Pa was scared or disoriented, we could remind him that losing a mere idea of himself was not just natural, it was part of spiritual awakening.

In his last hours, Pa’s brow was furrowed and his body appeared tense. He looked like he was trying desperately to remember something. Ciel, Margaret, and I were taking turns sitting with him, and fittingly it was just when Margaret was singing him Nat King Cole’s, “When I Fall in Love,” a song they’d danced to on West Cliff Drive above the sea, that Pa finally let go. As he did, his brow smoothed completely, making him look instantly younger. A distinct half-smile appeared on his lips. A Buddha smile. And whether it was Pa’s newfound bliss, rigor mortis, or some combination of both, that smile remained perfectly serene for all three days.

Complete Article HERE!

Humans in the Near East Cremated Their Dead 9,000 Years Ago

Archaeologists found the charred bones of a young adult in the ancient Israeli village of Beisamoun

The charred shoulder blade of a young adult who was cremated in northern Israel some 9,000 years ago. The bone contains the embedded point of a flint projectile.

By Alex Fox

Some 9,000 years ago, a young adult in what is now Israel survived a spear or arrow to the back, recovering from the injury only to die under unknown circumstances some months or years later. Shortly after the individual’s death, their body was arranged into a sitting position and burned in a pit at Beisamoun in Israel’s northern Jordan Valley.

Now, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz, archaeologists have identified traces of this ancient funerary rite as the Near East’s earliest evidence of cremation. The researchers’ analysis of the remains, which date to between 7031 and 6700 B.C., are published in the journal PLOS One.

Burying the deceased underground was the dominant funerary practice for millennia, says Fanny Bocquentin, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, to Michael Marshall of New Scientist. Prior research suggests Neanderthals buried their dead as early as 70,000 years ago.

The advent of cremation may have signaled a shift away from ancestor worship, which encouraged the living to care for “the dead for a long time,” according to Bocquentin, and house their remains nearby. Comparatively, cremation was a faster, less involved process.

“This is a redefinition of the place of the dead in the village and in society,” says the archaeologist in a statement.

Bocquentin and her colleagues excavated the U-shaped burial pit, which measures 32 inches across and 24 inches deep, in 2013. They unearthed 355 bone fragments, the majority of which were charred, reports Laura Geggel for Live Science. Per the team’s analysis, the cremation reached temperatures of around 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

The shards of scorched bone all appeared to come from a young adult whose sex and cause of death could not be determined. A half-inch-long sliver of flint, likely the point of a spear or projectile, was embedded in the skeleton’s left shoulder blade. It would have caused “severe pain but not necessarily impaired function,” according to the study.

The researchers found ash from the wood that fueled the funeral pyre but couldn’t ascertain whether the body had been placed beneath, on top of or inside the stack of wood, per New Scientist.

As Bocquentin tells Brooks Hays of United Press International (UPI), the emergence of cremation in Beisamoun is indicative of a cultural shift.

“In the periods prior to our discovery, funeral practices are often spread out over time, the deceased is buried, waited to decompose and then the grave is reopened, the bones are reorganized, the skull is removed, sometimes a face is plastered with lime on the dry skull, then the skull is re-buried in another grave with other people,” she explains.

Cremation, on the other hand, is quite efficient. “You don’t even wait for the decay process,” Bocquentin tells New Scientist. Reducing the time invested in interring the dead “could reveal a new relationship of the living with their dead, [and] of the living with mourning, too,” she says to UPI.

The archaeologists plan on continuing excavations at Beisamoun in hopes of better understanding this cultural evolution. To date, they have found 33 additional burials at the site. According to Live Science, some of the graves predate the remains detailed in the current paper. They showcase an array of interment styles, including single and double burials and “secondary” cremations that occurred after the corpse was dried out. Comparatively, the cremated young adult was burned before their body had begun to desiccate and decompose.

Beisamoun is the oldest known instance of cremation in the Near East, but evidence of the practice predates the newly cataloged site by some 2,500 years. In 2014, researchers detailed an ancient cremation in Alaska, where a dead child was lit aflame around 11,500 years ago.

Complete Article HERE!

Sacred Crossings

– Reclaiming the Lost Art of Death Midwifery and Healing Ritual of the Home Funeral

Death Midwifery returns death to its sacred place in the beauty, mystery and celebration of life. A Sacred Crossings Death Midwife shepherds individuals toward a conscious dying experience; guides loved ones in after-death care of the body; and empowers families to reclaim the healing ritual of a vigil and funeral at home. They offer compassionate support to individuals and their families from terminal diagnosis to final disposition.

“As a culture, we deny the natural process of aging and death,” remarked Olivia Bareham, founder of Sacred Crossings. “Learning how to die consciously with grace and acceptance is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and those we love.”

Many people are unaware that they have the legal right to care for their dead at home before burial or cremation. Sacred Crossings offers education and guidance to families who wish to create meaningful funerals at home. We teach them the ancient ritual of bathing, anointing and dressing the body, laying the body in honor for a 3-day vigil and decorating the cremation casket. Inter-faith ministerial services include near-death prayer/meditation vigils, grief support and funeral celebrant services.

Sacred Crossings founder Olivia Bareham is a death midwife, home funeral guide, ordained inter-faith minister and funeral celebrant. She is a member of the National Home Funeral Alliance http://www.homefuneralalliance.org and serves on the board of the Center for Conscious Creativity. Sacred Crossings is owned and operated by certified death midwives.

About Sacred Crossings:
Sacred Crossings is changing the culture of death and dying – through death education and an alternative funeral home. We offer an environmentally friendly option to traditional funeral industry practices and the opportunity for families to have a vigil and funeral at home. The Sacred Crossings Institute offers workshops and classes in conscious dying, home funerals, end-of-life planning, and a certificate program in The Art of Death Midwifery. The Sacred Crossings Funeral Home, owned and operated by certified death midwives, offers a full range of services including home funerals, cremation, conventional burial, green burial and full-body deep sea burial. For more information, contact Annemarie Osborne, publicist at 949.237.2906 or by email annemarieosborne7@gmail.com or Olivia Bareham at 310.968.2763 or olivia@sacredcrossings.com or visit http://www.sacredcrossings.com.