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To hold that the spirit is annihilated upon the death of the body is to imagine that a bird imprisoned in a cage would perish if that cage were to be broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the breaking of the cage. This body is even as the cage and the spirit is like the bird: We observe that this bird, unencumbered by its cage, soars freely … there is no greater paradise for the grateful birds than to be freed from their cage.
As I’ve aged, I’ve come to accept and welcome death, and in fact I now look forward to the breaking of my own cage. Death will come in its own time, of course, and I love being alive in this plane of existence, so I’m in no hurry. When it does arrive, though, it will no doubt slake my intense curiosity and anticipation about what awaits my inner being in the next phase of life.
But sadly our culture, it seems, increasingly looks at death very differently. People not only fear it, they want to stay young forever, deny the existence of death, and erase its traces by completely eliminating the bodies of the deceased. The rapid increase in cremation, experts say, illustrates that denial.
The Washington Post recently reported, in a wide-ranging exploration on the subject, that “The stunning rise of cremation reveals America’s changing idea of death.”
The statistical facts back up that conclusion. In the United States, more people are choosing cremation than ever before. In 2020, the Post reports, “56 percent of Americans who died were cremated, more than double the figure of 27 percent two decades earlier …” and these “rapidly shifting views about disposing with bodies have also led to changes in how we memorialize loved ones — and reflect an increasingly secular, transient and, some argue, death-phobic nation.”
So in this short series of articles about our physical deaths, I’m impelled to examine this trend, debate its merits and demerits, and make the best argument I possibly can, with the Baha’i teachings in mind, for burying our bodies rather than cremating them.
When My Parents Died
Recently, on a long-distance drive during a beautiful spring day from my home in the forests of Northern California, I got hungry. I stopped at a small take-out restaurant along the way, ordered some food from a walk-up window, and sat in my car to eat lunch.
As I ate, through my windshield I had a side view of a large, well-kept old house in a residential neighborhood across the street, surrounded by mature trees and manicured grounds. At the rear of the house, I noticed a large chimney, and could see waves of heat rising from it, which made me wonder – why would anyone have a fireplace or a furnace going on such a warm, sunny day?
Puzzled, I put my half-finished lunch down, got out of the car and crossed the street to walk around to the front of that curious house. No longer a residence, like it had obviously been at one time, the sign in front said Lakeside Colonial Chapel Funeral and Cremation Services. As soon as I saw the sign, I realized what the heatwaves coming from that smokestack were. I went back to car, no longer hungry, threw away the rest of my lunch, and left.
As a war veteran I’m not squeamish about death, but that fiery crematory pyre reminded me of the painful passing of my mother and father a few years before. My parents were both cremated, and although I tried to talk them out of it when they were alive, they both insisted on cremation as the cheapest and simplest option.
I regret their decision, not because my family and I can’t visit my parents’ graves, or because I want a more physical reminder of their earthly presence to exist somewhere, but because I fear it may have made the progress of their souls more difficult in the next life.
The Transition between this Life and the Next
If you believe that our lives come to an end at death, then incinerating your no-longer-breathing body might seem to make sense. But what if life doesn’t end when your heart stops beating? What if the human soul goes on to a higher spiritual existence, just like all religions and metaphysical philosophies promise? What if that process is a gradual one, with our spirits detaching from our bodies slowly?
What if death really is a second birth?
If that’s the case, and our first birth from the womb of our mother wasn’t an easy transition, then wouldn’t it make sense that moving from this material world to the afterlife in the spiritual realm might also represent a jarring passage for the soul?
Many who have had near-death experiences – who have been declared clinically dead and then were resuscitated and came back to life – report that their consciousness continued, but that separating from their physical bodies wasn’t easy or quick. We tend to think of our bodies as our “selves” – but when the self and the body part ways at the end of our material existence, we obviously learn that’s not the case. We are not our bodies – instead, we have human consciousness, an everlasting reality that some call the soul.
So when the door to freedom opens, the bird, accustomed to only that constrained and familiar environment, may feel inclined to stay there in the confinement of its cage – but at death, we don’t have that choice.
RELATED: Where the Dying Go
As soon as we exhale our final breath – the fated moment that will, sooner or later, come for every one of us – our souls begin their journey to the next world. The teachings of all the great Faiths have assured us, forever, that our inmost spirits are immortal, destined to go on in a continuing and eternal existence. In his writings Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, made the same clear and explicit promise:
And now concerning thy question regarding the soul of man and its survival after death. Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter.
The Baha’i teachings say that all people will take that spiritual journey to the next world, and that what we do in this world will determine our everlasting life there. Baha’is do not believe in the existence of place called hell or purgatory, and understand that each soul will inevitably enter the heaven of the next existence. Abdu’l-Baha wrote: “… the souls of the children of the Kingdom, after their separation from the body, ascend unto the realm of everlasting life.”
Because of the nature of death and the spiritual flight path it entails for everyone, the Baha’i teachings ask us all to practice a gentler, more careful and gradual regard for the transcendent journey our spirits make when our bodies expire. In fact, those teachings offer wise guidance and instructions for how to best ensure the smoothest and most peaceful passage from the physical realm to the spiritual one. They also take into account something few people consider when they think about death – the important impact of the disposition of our physical bodies on the interdependent web of life, nature, and the environment.
In the next essay in this series, we’ll begin examining that guidance, and try to understand its wisdom.