by Dana Hayne
NO! Not another funeral, my mind shrieks! You see, these days my social life is more about death and funerals than marriage and babies. For, I have finally reached what my sister kind-heartedly calls the ‘low side of old’— a growing group that many of us are being pressed into— willingly or not.
As a labor and delivery nurse and hospice volunteer, I am no novice to life’s transitions and have assisted many in the comings and goings to and from this world. But the growing trend to cremate rather than bury, with little or no one questioning the trend, disturbs me and I feel compelled to share a sober perspective.
You ask from what authority I speak. I speak from the wisdom of His Holiness Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a 120 year old mystic from Sri Lanka. I met His Holiness in 1973. Like so many other disillusioned Baby Boomers, I had dropped out of everything and became a professional globe trotter, looking for meaning. But in 1973, I returned, disheartened and in low spirits, not having found the longed-for enlightenment. Oddly enough, it was here in the United States where I met this wise man, who had been invited to teach.
I studied with his Holiness for the next thirteen years until his passing. Over those years, hundreds came asking question, among them world leaders, journalists, educators, and religious scholars. I was present for many of those interviews by notable sources such as Psychology Today, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Press, Time Magazine, and WBAI radio.
The Hindus called this centenarian, Guru or Swami. The Muslims called him Sheikh or His Holiness. For myself, I came to call him Bawa, which means father. Eschewing honorifics himself, this humble man, who referred to himself as an ‘ant man’, spoke in parables and extoled each of us to see all lives as our own, to acquire God’s divine qualities, and to die to the false self or to die before death.
What follows are reflections about cremation from notes, written while living communally in Bawa’s presence.
March 1974 – Tonight, Bawa sang a long, mournful song. “O God, what kind of world is this today that one has to pay to be born and pay to die?” As I listened, his mournful notes began to erode my youthful shield of immortality. When he finished singing, he explained that proper burial was essential to the journey of the soul and should be considered and upheld as an inalienable right due every individual, regardless of status. (Tell that to the funeral companies!)
He continued to pluck this tune about death and dying— a tune which was most irreverent to youthful ears. Soon, however, I recognized it as central to his teachings on both a spiritual and physical level. On a metaphysical level, he spoke about man’s need ‘to die before death’ to the false self or to the ‘I’ —a mere concept, constructed on the wisp of a thought. On a physical level, he spoke about the need for proper burial practices.
March 24, 1974 -Tonight, I was sitting in Bawa’s room. I was tired and nodding off—beat after a twelve hour shift, helping to deliver a reluctant baby. As I listened in between snores, Bawa told the story of creation, explaining how the soul needed to be physically ‘housed’ and how God requested of each of the elements a willingness to embody the soul, and how all the elements, except Earth, refused the duty. I shrugged myself, trying to stay awake. Next, he explained that man had a ‘debt’ to the earth for this real estate contract and that upon his physical death, man must repay the loan in full, that that earth must go back to earth; that is, into the ground.
What did he say? I gave myself another shrug and straightened up. He had my attention now and I thought to myself, So?? What about cremation? I mean really! It makes so much more sense than burial. No holding all that real estate hostage to dead bodies and all.
He continued the story and was describing Judgment Day and how each part of the body must stand before the Creator for an accounting about the good or the bad deeds they had performed. He explained that the tongue must be witness to what it had said (Ouch!); that the ears must declare what they had heard (Ouch!); The hands (Ouch!); and so on. I’m ouching in my mind as I recall all the bits of life that I thought I could mentally sweep into the trash as ‘didn’t happen.’ I had not realized that all those offenses sat there as future evidence, for only Purity could permanently delete the items in my Trash bin.
Bawa continued the story. Now he was talking about the moment of death. He was explaining that consciousness remained with the body until the body was interred, that the individual could not move or speak, as though anesthetized, but could feel and hear.
What! Now, I was not just mentally ouching, but screaming. What? Can hear! Can feel! I was shocked and appalled as the import of this explanation began to sink in. This was not unlike stories I had heard from near-death survivors, who described something similar. Suddenly, another disturbed listener squeaked, “But Bawa, what then of cremation?”
Graphically, Bawa blew all my ideation about the logic and practicality of cremation out of the water. Horrified, I listened as he described the crematory process in graphic detail and how the body essentially melted, with consciousness feeeeling each and every thermal spark and flicker. He described how as the flames worked their way up the body and reached the level of the chest, the heart would burst and the soul in its effort to escape the body, made the corpse jolt upright, hence the practice of weighting the corpse with logs. Next he described how as the fire reached the level of the head, the brain would burst and wisdom would depart.
I was done. Fried. (sorry) I had so much to think about. You see, at this time, I was a budding Florence Nightingale and this ‘capital D’ thing was just dogging me. I had so many questions. What about transplants? What about artificial insemination? What about test tube babies? What if all these brilliant scientific innovations were built on similar ignorance?
It’s a wonder how so many of us, even the most articulate, are rendered mute when it comes to expressing intimacies. It’s as though we’ve been gagged or our tongues have been surgically removed. If we’re lucky, those confidences break their bund before our loved ones depart so that healing can occur.
About two weeks before my mother died, (Who knew it was to be only two more weeks?) I was perched on the edge of her bed, when the damn broke.
“Dana, did Chris (my father) ever hurt you?”
Ok, I didn’t see this coming and was certainly not prepared. It just seemed such poor timing to open this wound on the home stretch. But I guess, better late than never.
”You know, Mom. What’s done is done. Dad’s gone. And I’m Ok. Let’s leave it there.” I looked over. She’d closed her eyes, and I thought, Whew!
Relieved that she seemed willing to take her finger off the fire of this topic, I sat there lost in my own thoughts. I’d always wondered if she’d suspected ‘things’. Somehow that she braved asking me about it seemed enough. Certainly, we weren’t going to find ease with each other if I held her somehow accountable at this late stage in the game.
But she wasn’t finished. “Dana, what did Bawa say about cremation?”
Now she asks me!!! Why now? Oh, she had timed these questions so spectacularly to get my attention. In all my years with Bawa, she never once asked me anything and, basically, chose to ignore my relationship with him. Furthermore, she had already made it clear to each of her children that she wanted to donate her organs to medical science and that her remains should be cremated. That being said, I had also learned long ago that it was useless to plead any cause, let alone this one, before this dynamo, who back in 1945 was dubbed a ‘Fair Portia’ by the Supreme Court of South Carolina when she was the first woman lawyer to plead a case in that court. So now that she’d dropped the bomb, I was hesitant to answer.
“Oh, Mom. He said so many things, most of which are a matters of faith and with which you may or may not agree like about the soul and Judgement Day and the questioning. Whether you believe any of those things or not doesn’t concern me because I know your goodness. But one thing he said that does concern me was that when cremated, one feels the fire, and if that’s at all true, I certainly would not want that for you.”
So it was that Mom was buried.
So dear reader— THE DOOR. We must all pass through that door one day. We can be certain of that. Other things we cannot know with such certainty. For my part, I surely hope I’ve created doubt in some of your beliefs about the efficacy of this thing called cremation.
No matter what you choose, my friend, be kind and dare to speak and most certainly, forgive, for it is law that each of us will take our turn in that bed.
I leave you with a poem that hopefully will offer happy thoughts and make for a joyous exit.
I’ve waited many babies their entrance into this world.
Some, who were willing and eager,
Came swift and squalling into this roil called life.
While others, who were fearful and resistant,
Slowed and slipped,
Came halting and languid.
And all the while, excited voices urged their progress,
“You can do it! Come on! Come on! We await you!”
And now, scores later, I sit here still, waiting and watching,
As friends, now ripened and spent,
Crawl and slither the dark passage from here to there.
Swift is not so common the pace at this transition.
Not certain that Mother waits their arrival on yonder shore,|
Most seem to stall their progress,
To bargain yet another breath,
Willing to barter every physical comfort for another pulmonary puff or sputter.
Oh, how to assure these wary travelers that maternal instincts do joyously await their arrival,
That as they slip this earthly chrysalis, holy ones do wait to wrap them in celestial wings of love.
Rest, dear traveler, and know your journey done.
Be not critic of your own show,
For Providence sees with vastly kinder eye.
Go now, weary one.
Push off with that bargained, last breath
And trust the wave to wash you into waiting arms|
That chant not funeral dirge, but feliz anivesrário.
About the author:
Dana Hayne is a retired labor and delivery and maternity nurse. She received a bachelor of science in nursing from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, graduating magna cum laude. She continues to assist individuals in their healing journey as a medical tour guide to the Casa de Dominacio Healing Center in Brazil for the spiritual healer, John of God. She also volunteers with the chaplaincy and hospice services in her community hospital. Dana lives with Rodger, her husband of more than forty years, in the suburbs of Philadelphia where they enjoy their two sons and three grandchildren. Learn more about Dana and her newly published book “GPS for the Soul: Wisdom of the Master” by visiting GPS4TheSoulBook.com.