Fertile Soil, Revisited
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This past Friday I was invited to attend a funeral with Rev. Changwe Hopkins, the training manager for TEEZ. This was my first funeral in Zambia. Ever since living in a self-contained old-age community in India I have been drawn to witnessing and trying to understand burial rites. While in that old-age community I learned that the class divisions that exist in life carry through to the funereal and burial rites, for those rites are still enacted within human systems of power and privilege. When one of my beloved ammachees or appachens died, laborers would handcraft a simple casket from cheap wood, we would have a small service in the small chapel, and we would place the body into vault. Over the year the body and casket would slowly slide down a chute in the vault into a mass grave. When a wealthy person died, on the other hand, the body would rest in state in the person’s home for days’ worth of prayer vigils and then there would be a burial with extensive pomp. I know that such disparities exist in the United States, where funerals have become a major for-profit industry with services stratified in much the same way as airplane seating. I have learned that Zambia is no exception. Coffins, burial plots, and hearses are all up for sale with varying degrees of luxury depending on the price. I suppose the Pyramids and grand Moghul tombs stand as timeless testaments to this phenomenon of classified and stratified burial rites. There are of course deep religious and cultural reasons for such monuments and rites which should by no means be ignored. This funeral on Friday reminded me, though, that after all is said and done the earth accepts our bodies without discrimination.
As I threw dirt on this ornate coffin several meters down I was tempted to stray into the psychological spiral of the Ecclesiastes teacher—Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless! All that we do, even up to and including the residue of our earthly treasure being spent on burial props, is covered over by handfuls and then shovelfuls of dirt. But then something new and remarkable to me happened. Youngsters kept piling dirt until there was a healthily sized mound on top. Elders then stepped up and smoothed out the top and the sides. Finally, one by one family members and those closest to the deceased came forward and “planted” flowers in the soil. Yes they were cut flowers, but the symbolism was perfect. I was taken back to Ash Wednesday. Remember you are fertile soil, and to fertile soil you shall return. Maybe the sum total of our individual actions are scientifically meaningless in the grand scheme of the cosmos. Yet, we are all part of God’s beautiful and beloved Creation. Even in our deaths we play a role in ensuring the continuation of that Creation. Imagine if we started going back to simple wooden coffins and then planted flowers and trees on the grave plots. This would at once be an act of resistance to destructive consumer capitalism and a celebration of all that we are as God’s children. What better tribute to the all-purposive and shared meaningfulness of all human life could there be?