The sudden death of my sister three years ago sent me reeling, into grief and deep questioning. She had long ago decided to be cremated and to forgo any religious or memorial services. I understood and honored her choice, but it prompted me to ask, What do I want to happen to my body when I die? This wasn’t an urgent question for many of my friends, who told me, rather nonchalantly, they had already bought cremation packages and weren’t at all interested in what happens to the body after death. Their lack of concern surprised me and sent me on a journey to discover why honoring the body in death mattered so much to me and what that meant for my “final wishes.”
According to Jewish tradition, from the moment you die until your body is returned to the earth, your body is never without a shomer, a guardian. The shomer’s task is to make sure that the lifeless body is respected, that is, not stolen or desecrated in any way, by human beings or animals. But the shomer is more than a guardian; he or she is also an ever-present companion to the body in the final hours of its existence among the living, keeping faith with the body, making sure it is never left, not even for a moment, without the warmth of human fellowship, without comfort. In the presence of the body, the shomer offers prayers and chants Psalms, songs from a heart laid bare.
Though I was not born or raised a Jew and I didn’t embrace Judaism until my 40s, the beauty of the living watching over a lifeless body was never foreign to me. It is my earliest memory. I was 3, a child of Dutch Calvinism, daughter and granddaughter of Pietists who had seceded from the Dutch Reformed church in the Netherlands and come to America to avoid persecution and devote their lives to the glory of God. My oma, my mother’s mother, suffering with stomach cancer, had been brought home from the hospital to die. But that morning, as I stood outside her bedroom door, I did not know this. I had come to visit her as I had many times before this moment, other moments that I would snatch from memory only long after she was gone—reading together in the sunroom, canning string beans in the kitchen, smelling her beloved lilies of the valley beside the house, feeding squirrels scurrying up and down a full-leafed maple, falling asleep to the sound of her thick Dutch brogue. That morning, standing outside her closed bedroom door, I knew something was different. On the other side of the door, someone was crying. Dust motes danced in the light streaming through the sunroom windows. Someone took my hand, opened the door, and led me inside.
The room was dark. Preternaturally dark. All the blinds had been pulled against the light. On the table beside the bed a candle was burning, casting shadows across Oma’s face. She lay on the bed, her eyes closed. My opa stood near her, holding a Bible, his finger marking the place where he had stopped reading. Around the room crowded all my aunts and uncles. My many older cousins were probably there, too, though I don’t remember seeing them. I was led close to the bed and the person holding my hand released it, leaving me to stand on my own. I didn’t move. Oma’s face was a sickly yellow-gray, her reddened eyelids veined purple and blue. She smelled wrong, too. Not fresh, with her scent of flowers and hope. Fetid. Oma opened her eyes and turned to me, smiling a smile of infinite sweetness. I felt her wrapping me in a mantle of love. She lifted her right hand and cupped my face in her palm. I don’t remember her saying anything. Perhaps she was too weak for words. Perhaps she called me by her pet name for me, the name my father always called me after she died, “popkop,” doll head. All I remember is her cool hand on my warm cheek, her love binding me to her.
Hands gripped my shoulders from behind and pulled me away from her, back into the crowd standing in the darkness. They didn’t handle me roughly. And I didn’t struggle or resist as they pulled me backward. A chasm was opening inside me, roaring and crumbling, everything falling away into nothingness. Me on one side, her on the other. A chasm that would take decades to bridge.
My grandfather stepped close to her and into the stillness began reciting the Psalms in Dutch. He was still reciting when I was taken out of that room, and he continued reciting as she died and for hours after as arrangements were made to bury her.
A husband reciting poems of love and faith to his wife—that is what I imagined when I thought of the shomer accompanying the lifeless body. I wanted that loving presence for my body. I didn’t want to be abandoned, cast aside to let insects, rodents, silence, and darkness begin eating away at my flesh. I wanted someone to stay with me to the end, hold a light around me, and sing me on my way.
Guarding the body is only one of the Jewish rituals of death. Soon after a person dies, their body is washed and dressed by members of a chevra kadisha (holy society), men and women who prepare themselves through fasting, study, and prayer to come into contact with a dead body. The chevra kadisha begins the purification (tahara) of the body by cleansing it of dirt, bodily fluids and solids, and anything else on the skin. Next, they immerse the entire body in a mikvah (ritual bath) or pour a continuous flow of water over it. Once the body has been purified, they dress it in plain white linen or muslin shrouds (tachrichim) and a kittel, a white robe many religious Jews wear in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Each Jew is dressed identically in shrouds and a kittel, symbolizing equality before God and recalling the garments worn by the kohen gadol (high priest) when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. For burial in Israel and green burial in the United States, the body is then laid directly in the earth; for burial outside Israel, the body is laid in a plain pine box before being buried. At the grave, mourners cast handfuls of earth onto the body lowered into the ground.
Like the shomer’s guarding, these Jewish death rituals, too—all completed within 72 hours of the animating breath departing the body—awaken a yearning deep within me. I long for my body to be washed by human hands, as a baby is washed by its mother; to be purified in living waters—relieved of the weariness and dirt of the journey, lovingly prepared for leave-taking, fresh and naked as the day I arrived; to be dressed and housed after death exactly like everyone else, in witness to human beings’ fundamental equality—a value I held dear first as a Christian and then as a Jew. “To God alone the glory,” chant the Calvinists, insisting that we’re all equal in our nothingness before God and our dignity as the image of God. “What is our piety?” ask the rabbis of the siddur, the prayer book. Their answer: “Compared to You, the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent, the wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason.” Any insistence on distinctions among persons after death seems as silly to me as the rules airlines enforce for boarding planes—first class and elite passengers lining up on one side of a retractable rope, coach passengers on the other, divided like the sheep and the goats at the End of Days. I also long for my body to decompose, slowly, naturally, returning to the earth from whence I came, dust to dust. I like to imagine myself turning into fertile soil for seeds that will grow into mighty trees for birds to find a home in.
It was these longings, born of love for my body, my most constant, most faithful companion in life, and my desire to honor that loving companion, that drew me to the Jewish practices of death. How this love arose, I do not know. I cannot tell how that love for my body, pure and undivided, slipped past my mother’s disturbing fascination with bodies and constant denigration of mine, how it shook off the Christian tradition’s uneasy truce between the body as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19) and the “body of death” (Romans7:24), or how it escaped my culture’s daily disparagement of female bodies. Perhaps it’s as simple as a childhood spent swimming, first in Lake Michigan and then in the Atlantic Ocean, my nearly naked body welcomed and embraced—wholly, physically, unconditionally—by the world in which I lived, a deep memory of joy that refuses to be dislodged. Whatever the mystery of this love, it led me to adopt the Jewish traditions in death. Though I hadn’t bought a burial plot in a Jewish cemetery, instructions to follow Jewish burial practices have been in my will for decades.
Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder. Should I be cremated? Could I be burned rather than buried, and still honor this body I love? Many of my friends, Jews and non-Jews, have already bought cremation packages. Two years ago I spread the ashes of my only sister in a Pennsylvania creek. She was as definite about being cremated as I once was about being buried. If I were cremated, I could donate my body to science. Wherever in the world I died, a team would come to claim my body and take it away for research, mining my entire body, not just my organs, for saving knowledge, knowledge that would help save the lives of others. When they were done, my body would be cremated, but the findings from their examination would be added to our knowledge of human health and disease. In death my body would continue to be of service to the body of humanity. Isn’t that a way to honor the body, too, the body of humankind?
Cremation makes a lot of sense, financially and logistically, which is probably why 54.6% of the U.S. population chose to be cremated in 2019 and cremation is projected to be the choice of 79.1% of Americans by 2035, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Whether it makes sense ecologically is an open question. Being burned rather than embalmed and buried in a coffin inside a concrete vault doesn’t contaminate the soil with concrete or formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. On the other hand, being buried without being embalmed, in a pine box that decomposes naturally, or simply in a shroud in a green burial, might be better for the environment than the 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit of cremation fires, which produce alarming levels of carbon dioxide and pollutants.
Still, with so many people being born and dying, where will we bury all the bodies? Creative answers abound. Stack the bodies. Bury the bodies upright. Bury them, free of embalming fluid, in biodegradable bags with seeds and let them grow into trees. Compost them with wood chips and straw—legal in my state, Washington, as of May 2020. Liquefy them with alkaline hydrolysis, a process called resomation, and send the liquid to water treatment plants to be transformed into drinking water. Shoot the remains into space.
As disturbing as these solutions may seem at first, couldn’t we see them as ways to honor the earth, which, after all, is a body, too—a mass of matter distinct from other masses. Our bodies are parts of that large organic body. And isn’t it long past time we stopped focusing on the fate or future of our individual bodies to the neglect of the fate or future of this heavenly body we call planet Earth?
But until these alternative practices catch on, cremation remains the choice of most people, and that choice has long met resistance within religious communities, and from me.
Over the past decades, in response to increasing ecological concerns and changing funeral practices, some Jewish and Christian leaders have reconsidered their traditional taboo against cremation and debated whether cremation is permitted. Though cremation is still strictly forbidden in some Christian traditions, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, the weight of tradition and theological objections have been challenged in many denominations. Many Protestant churches began accepting cremation after WWI and the 1918 flu pandemic. The Roman Catholic Church, which strictly forbade cremation and denied Christian burial to those who were cremated, lifted the ban on cremation in 1963. That year Pope Paul VI changed the Code of Canon Law to read: “the Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (that is, as a denial of the resurrection of the body). Three years later, the pope permitted priests to officiate at cremation ceremonies.
More recently, the Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative movements of Judaism have also reconsidered the traditional taboo against cremation and the burial of cremated remains in a Jewish cemetery. In 1986, the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement adopted a report, written by Rabbi Morris M. Shapiro, that acknowledged that there is no explicit source in the Torah or the Talmud that forbids cremation, but concluded, nevertheless, that cremation is against the Jewish tradition and that families should be advised of this. However, acknowledging that some Jews may choose cremation for “psychological” reasons, they determined that rabbis are not absolutely forbidden to perform funeral services for a Jew who has been cremated, and that cremated remains may be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish tradition against cremation stems from two Talmudic texts. In Sanhedrin 46b, after a lengthy discussion, the conclusion is reached that it is a religious obligation to bury the dead, and when cremation takes place this obligation has not been fulfilled. Not only is it a mitzvah, a commandment, to bury the dead, it is a chesed shel emet, an act of true lovingkindness. The Talmud (Hullin 11b) also teaches that it is forbidden to mutilate a corpse. When a dead body is buried, decomposition takes place as a natural process, whereas in cremation, the human remains are intentionally destroyed; therefore, cremation is not permitted.
Other reasons are given for the Jewish tradition for burial and against cremation, as well. For those Jews who believe in the resurrection of the dead, to cremate a body is to reject the faithful God “who resuscitates the dead.” For others, cremation is discouraged or forbidden because of its association with the crematoria of the Holocaust. For many rabbis, at least at present, the ecological argument in favor of cremation seems to carry little weight, since Jewish burial practices are eco-friendly, and Jews are such a small portion of the population.
For me, as a Jew, there is no definitive legal or theological reason to choose being buried and reject being burned. I love the Jewish tradition and am committed to it. But the question I’m asking is not one primarily of tradition. I’m not asking, What does my religious tradition require of me? Is being buried the only acceptable way for Jews? Is being cremated forbidden? Does the law or tradition trump ecological concerns, or does the moral imperative of ecology win? My question is one born of love for my body: Given the faithful witness of tradition and the plight of the earth, how do I keep faith with my body when it dies? How can I honor my body in death?
Cremation was out of the question for me until several years ago. As I sat in services on Yom Kippur morning, following along as the annual account in Leviticus 16 of the atonement sacrifice to be brought by the kohen gadol, the high priest, was read, the nexus of atonement, burnt sacrifice, and death gripped me as never before. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is often called a “dress rehearsal for death.” In the days preceding, we visit graves. For Yom Kippur services, many wear a kittel, the white robe they intend to be buried in, or white linen garments. We confront death in communal prayer, asking “Who shall live and who shall die?” For 25 hours we act as if our bodies no longer exist: We do not feed it food or water, bathe or wash it, anoint it with perfumes, or adorn it with jewelry or leather goods; we do not have sex. Our body is dead to us, that our spirit may wake.
But that year, the unsettling similarity between the Jewish rituals of death and the burnt offering made by the high priest took hold of my imagination and would not let go. The high priest’s ritual clothing, so carefully detailed—linen tunic, linen pants, linen sash, and linen turban—did not appear to me as they always had, as priestly vestments symbolic of purity; I saw them now as tachrichim, the white linen shrouds dead bodies are dressed in for burial. Immediately disturbing questions engulfed me. Are burial shrouds sacral vestments? Could we, ordinary Jews, be priests making atonement with our death, as we are taught to do with our life?
After the second destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the rabbis radically reconceived atonement. The Talmud recounts how Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai consoled his fellow mourners by teaching, “There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness,” for it is written, ‘Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice’” (Hosea 6:6). (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 11a) That creatively faithful response to an act in history became essential to rabbinic Judaism, the dominant tradition that emerged after the first century CE. Without a temple, without an altar, to atone meant ordinary women and men acting with lovingkindness toward the living, not priests killing animals and sprinkling blood on behalf of the people. Who, after 2,000 years of this “new” tradition of life, would want to challenge it by reintroducing the notion of death and sacrifice into atonement? But try as I might to subvert it, the question gathered force and sharpened its point: Just as we offer deeds of lovingkindness while we live, could we offer our bodies as atonement after death? Could cremation be seen as a burnt offering?
As the last question formed in my mind, I recoiled. I saw bodies thrown on heaps. Piled in gas chambers. Burned in ovens. No. The Jews who were tortured and murdered in the Holocaust did not atone for the sins of Israel, whatever certain rabbis teaching a theology of reward and punishment might say.
Shoving these images of horror away, I returned to the Torah’s description of the high priest’s ritual preparation for the sacrifice. “And he shall bathe his body in water before putting them [the vestments] on.” But wasn’t this tahara, the ritual purification of the dead body before it is dressed in the linen shrouds? I couldn’t avoid the resemblance, and the unwanted question returned: Could cremation be performed as a sacred offering?
No, I quickly reasoned. Similarities easily lead one astray, and the differences here were overwhelming. The high priest does not offer his own body or the body of another human being as a burnt offering—ancient Israel condemned human sacrifice—he offers a ram (plus a bull and two he-goats for the sin offering). And he offers two burnt offerings, one for himself and one for the people. Good, I thought. No comparison here. Just my hyperassociative imagination. No reason to think about offering burnt bodies in atonement for lives lived; better to stick to offering our living bodies in acts of lovingkindness. I breathed a sigh of relief and closed the High Holiday prayer book.
When evening came, I broke my fast and returned to my body and the world of the living. But the association of death, atonement, and burnt offering stayed with me. As did the question of whether cremation could be seen as a way to sanctify the body rather than as a desecration of it. I remembered the words of the Vidui, the confession Jews make just before they die. After asking forgiveness for the sins committed during our life, we say, “May it be your will to heal me. Yet if You have decreed that I shall die of this affliction, may my death atone for all sins and transgressions which I have committed before You.” And I began to wonder, could one, could I, as a member of the “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), think of my death in this way, and offer my body to be burned as a priestly gesture, an act of sanctification and a symbol of the atonement in death that the Vidui speaks of? Could one be both priest and burnt offering? Could one be accompanied by a shomer, washed by the chevra kadisha and dressed like the kohen gadol, with psalms and prayers and God’s name uttered around one, and then, instead of being laid in the ground in a pine box or simply a shroud be presented, by that same chevra kadisha, holy society, members of a kingdom of priests, as a burnt offering?
Could offering my death as an atonement be enacted in this way? Not as a way to say, “I’m having my body burned to wipe out or make up for the sins I’ve committed,” instead of doing the hard work of making teshuvah, repenting, turning my life around here and now in this living body. No. No cheap grace. If I were to offer my burnt body in atonement, it would be to say with Job, “I repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) To say, “With these ashes of my burned body I bow in humility before the unfathomable and untamable Creator of all. I confess that I am but a speck in creation, nothing but dust and ashes.” It would be to say, “At the end of my life in this world, with these ashes, I offer my whole self, without remainder—all that I have been and not been, all that I have done and not done, all that I have loved and failed to love—to the One who brought me into being. With thanksgiving and praise I offer these ashes of my life to the Giver of every Good Gift and True Judge.”
Even with all these qualifications, the thought of my body, any body, as a burnt offering shocks me. I struggle against it. It feels offensive, transgressive, and I want to erase it, from this essay, my thoughts, my imagination, and start over, hoping for less distressing questions and a gentler ending.
Yet even if this line of wondering is completely wrongheaded, following it has opened my mind to the possibility that burning the body, reducing it to ashes, may be as sanctifying a ritual act as burying the body, returning it to dust. It has made me wonder if the Jewish and Christian traditions, in acknowledging the prevalence of cremation and simply “permitting” or “accepting” it instead of pursuing new ways to understand it, are missing a theological opportunity. The task is to understand, in our religious traditions, how this act, too, may be interpreted as a choice for holiness in death, a choice not just permitted in special circumstances or for expediency’s sake, but a choice sanctioned as a way of honoring the body, honoring life, honoring the Creator and the creation, and hallowing death.
The mystery of death presses down on us every moment, discomforting us. Perhaps that is why, as the poet-philosopher Fernando Pessoa writes in The Book of Disquiet, we let ourselves be seduced by the power of analogy and talk as if we know what happens after death. “We generally color our ideas of the unknown with our notions of the known,” he says. “If we call death a sleep, it’s because it seems like sleep on the outside; if we call death a new life, it’s because it seems like something different from life.”
But seeming is not knowing. How can we know what we have no experience of? “Death doesn’t resemble slumber,” Pessoa says, “… and I don’t know how death can resemble anything at all for us, since we have no experience of it, nor anything to compare it to.”
A century before Pessoa, the Reformed Church theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher made a similar argument in The Christian Faith. The way the final redemption will occur, he reasoned, including the survival of personality and the resurrection of the body, is part of a prophetic, imaginative picture of the future that lies altogether beyond human experience and for which we have no analogies. Because such a life is a matter of visions and hope, we can have no definite knowledge of it, and whatever ideas we form of it will suffer from “indeterminateness.” We can only, therefore, remain agnostic about the details of eschatology, “the last things.”
This eschatological agnosticism is why the common Jewish practice of burying the body with the feet facing the entrance to the cemetery, which opens in the direction one would travel to Israel at the resurrection of the dead in the messianic era, is not compelling to me. And why I do not believe that to choose to be cremated is necessarily a rejection of the resurrection of the dead, if that is central to what one believes. For both this burial custom and hope for resuscitation of the dead, as it is commonly understood, assume details about what happens to our bodies after we die that we cannot know.
Seeming is not knowing; seeming is believing. The figures we use for death—sleep, rest, annihilation, new life—are just that, figures. They cannot give us definite knowledge of what will be. They form a bridge between what we know and what we do not know, a bridge built of hope, faith, trust—whether secular or religious. Regardless of whether we believe in resurrection, reincarnation, ongoing spiritual existence, or extinction after the end of the body’s biological existence, these are but our imaginings of what death means for the future, our way of taming death so we do not have to live fearing its ineffability, its wildness. They help us bear the chasm that death opens in our world.
This much we know: Whatever we imagine about life after the death of our body, at death the person we have known, the body we have known—“my body,” “his body,” “her body,” “their body”—ceases to exist, for us and for those who survive us. What remains takes a new name, “corpse”; it becomes “the remains.”
But not immediately. The transformation from a living body present among others to a corpse, a body removed from the human web of relationship, takes time. It passes through a liminal space in which a body that is no longer living and not yet a corpse becomes a different body, a body left behind. The body left behind disturbs us. Like a house that stands vacant. Absence urging a presence. Perhaps that’s why we spend so much time worrying over what to do with the body left behind. Bury or burn it? Place it on a raised platform for birds to consume? Mummify it? Place it in a cave or tie it to a mangrove tree in the river delta? Encase it in an indestructible bronze coffin or a “living coffin” made of fungi fiber? Freeze it or fling it into space? Keep it on ice, perpetually on view in a glass case, like Ho Chi Minh? Perhaps that’s why we fuss over how to house what remains, in a casket of carved mahogany lined with ivory satin or stainless steel with purple velvet, a hand-thrown ceramic urn or a silver embossed one? These concerns for the body left behind may be funereal fussing, masks of sympathy that hide our fear of the absence of one we have loved or our own death. But they are more than that. They are ministrations performed in that liminal space between a living body and a corpse, care given in a time of present absence, to a body left behind in the presence of others. We kiss those bodies. We hold their hands. We talk to them. We wash them, sing to them, pray with them. We stay by their side, do not leave them unattended. We tend to details of their leaving us and the shape of their absence from our world.
I accept that I will become a corpse. I have no desire to speculate on my existence after death. Still, I care what happens to my body when it dies, to the body I leave behind, before it is removed from the presence of others and becomes a corpse removed from the body of humankind. I care because I want to honor my body in death, as I have tried to honor it in life. I want to give it thanks for its loyal service, faithful friendship, unconditional support, brutal honesty, and unfailing wisdom. My body has been a rare and dear friend to me. My oldest, dearest friend. And it remains so at death. Not a discarded lump of clay, a castoff carapace. Not yet a corpse. My body, my friend. And just as I want any friend of mine to be acknowledged and respected in death as well as life, I want my body, too, to be honored. It has been my close companion all these many years, and for it to be ripped away without mourning, without thankfulness, without ceremony, feels disrespectful. One would not lay the love of one’s life to rest without marking the loss and the gift. So I would not have death part me from my body without praise and thanksgiving. It is out of great love for the body, my body, this 5-foot-9, 130-pound, brown-eyed, white-haired, long-limbed, strong-thighed, high-energy corporeal force, this ever-renewing, ever-decaying flesh that has carried me so well, so far, for so long—it is out of love for this body that I want to honor my body in death.
Love for another body, too, bids me honor the individual body in death: the body of humankind. Like “the body politic” for the nation and “the body of Christ” for the church, “the body of humankind” is a metaphor. Metaphors are not resemblances that allow us to move from experience to the unknown; they are, as Robin Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue in Metaphors We Live By, a way of knowing: They “allow us to understand one domain of experience in terms of another,” enabling us to “extend body-based meaning and inference into abstract thought.” What I understand by “the body of humankind” is that the human species, like the individual body we experience, is a whole composed of diverse and complex members, all depending on one another for health and survival. We are inextricably linked to one another through our bodies: We share a unique morphology and an evolutionary past, present, and future. As a species, we form one body, in which each of us participates. In respecting one member of this body, we nurture respect for the entire body and all its members, the living as well as the dead. By making sure dead bodies are not thrown onto garbage heaps, mutilated, desecrated, or treated thoughtlessly in any way, and by calling attention with rituals to the dignity of the body in death, we reinforce this awareness that we belong to this shared body, the body of humankind, and that the health and integrity of that body depend on our actions toward each of its individual members, the living bodies we move among every day as well as the bodies that lie dead before us.
Though I now respect cremation as a way of honoring the body, when performed thoughtfully, still I hesitate to be burned rather than buried. I can’t articulate why. Convenience, cost, ecology, and reason pull at me. Jewish tradition directs my thoughts. Childhood experiences of genuine piety move me. And a deep theological conviction that affirms the goodness of the body guides me. These I can identify. But other, equally deep, currents pull at me, too, sensitivities I may not even be aware of. Perhaps I’m like those wives and husbands who, having lost their beloved to death, can’t bear to give away their belongings or rearrange the furniture right away. Not eager to cast off all presence of them immediately, they instead linger with the physical signs of their beloved, the smells and sights, for a time before letting go. Not to hasten grief seems more natural to me. I don’t want my body to be ripped away suddenly. I don’t want to expedite its extinction.
This teaching from the Talmud, as recorded in Chaim Nachman Bialik’s and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky’s The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, helps me understand why: “We have been taught: For a full 12 months the human body remains in existence while the soul ascends and descends to join the body. After 12 months, the body ceases to exist, and the soul ascends [to the treasury of souls] and descends no more.” This is a story, not biology or theology. And it’s the story-truth that speaks to me. The soul keeps coming back! Out of love. Such love that even heaven and all the angels cannot make it hasten its goodbye to its faithful companion, its beloved. Out of love for the body, the soul keeps returning to bide with it a while longer; out of love it chooses to delay its final ascent to dwell with God. Twelve months, a month, a few days, a year—the amount of time doesn’t matter. Out of love it keeps returning until the bond that binds them is no more. Who would rip them away from each other before that time?
It is this fierce love for the body that makes me wonder about the dismissal—by contemporary religious and secular people alike—of the resurrection of the body as a remnant of a myth-drunk age and an affront to reason, a comforting fantasy for those immature souls who can’t let go of their loved ones. Why not consider hope for the resurrection of the dead, which Jews, Christians, and Muslims have practiced for millennia, as a sign of this love? A love that rejoices in the fundamental goodness of the body. The human being, ha-adam, the creature formed from earth (adamah) and sculpted “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) is pronounced, along with all creation, “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This love for the human body extends not only to the present life on earth, but to the imagined future life. When a human being dies, the body isn’t thrown off in disgust, like a leprous garment, or set aside like an ill-fitting suit, never to be worn again. Instead, one mourns the separation and longs for the return of the body at the end of time, for the reuniting of body and spirit by the One who created them to be together, to be one.
To hope that the body will be reunited with the spirit, then, is to reject Manichaeanism and other metaphysical dualisms, which assert that the body is evil, the work of an evil creator god, and that only a different god, the good redeemer god, can free the pure spirit from the evil of matter. To trust that the body and spirit belong together, always, is also to counter Platonism and other spiritualisms, which judge the body to be a hindrance to the spirit and a fount of temptation, something to leave behind forever. To hope for the resurrection of the body—however it may be pictured—is to bear witness to the glory of matter and the goodness of the body, our life-giving, inescapable, intimate union with matter. To hope for the resurrection of the body is to profess abiding love for the body, love for this frail, vulnerable, decaying matter—a love that is stronger than death.
If I could arrange burial at sea, wrapped in a canvas bag, I would choose that. I love the idea of returning to Mother Ocean, where I feel most at home. I am drawn to a vision of my individual human existence becoming part of a larger whole, held in the gaze of transcendent nature, as I sink deeper and deeper, like the sailor Gusev in Chekhov’s story of that name. In Constance Garnett’s translation, Gusev’s end reads this way:
He went rapidly towards the bottom. Did he reach it? It was said to be three miles to the bottom. After sinking sixty or seventy feet, he began moving more and more slowly, swaying rhythmically, as though he were hesitating and, carried along by the current, moved more rapidly sideways than downwards.
Then he was met by a shoal of the fish called harbor pilots. Seeing the dark body the fish stopped as though petrified, and suddenly turned round and disappeared. In less than a minute they flew back swift as an arrow to Gusev, and began zig-zagging round him in the water.
After that another dark body appeared. It was a shark. It swam under Gusev with dignity and no show of interest, as though it did not notice him, and sank down upon its back, then it turned belly upwards, basking in the warm, transparent water and languidly opened its jaws with two rows of teeth. The harbor pilots are delighted, they stop to see what will come next. After playing a little with the body the shark nonchalantly puts its jaws under it, cautiously touches it with its teeth, and the sailcloth is rent its full length from head to foot; one of the weights falls out and frightens the harbor pilots, and striking the shark on the ribs goes rapidly to the bottom.
Overhead at this time the clouds are massed together on the side where the sun is setting; one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors. . . . From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-colored, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-colored. . . . The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colors for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.
This is the gentle image of death I want—my lifeless body embraced by the ocean, whose salty waters have delighted my living body time and again, healing, purifying, refreshing, renewing me.
But even sailors cannot count on being buried at sea. Death comes where and when it will, in flagrant disregard of our freedom, rudely waking us from our dream of immortality. “And God saw all that he had made and behold it was very good (טוב מאד).” According to R. Meir—as my friend Rabbi Jim Ponet pointed out to me—playing on the words “very” (מאד) and “death” (מות), we should read the verse this way: “And God saw all that he had made and behold death is good (טוב מות).” (Genesis Rabbah IX:V.1-3) Is death, too, good? I don’t know. I do know that my body is good, very good, and that it has been good, very good, to me. I do not long to be rid of it. I am not eager to be separated from it. But when it is left behind, a present absence among the living still on the way to becoming a corpse, I hope it will be attended by love. With the freedom that is yet mine, this is what I choose when I die, a green burial: to honor my body by being buried in an ancient Jewish way, to commit my washed, linen-shrouded, wool tallit-wrapped body, with praise and thanksgiving, directly into the ground, to return my body to that childhood joy of being welcomed and embraced—physically, wholly, unconditionally—by the world in which I once lived.
Mary Lane Potter is a theologian and writer whose books include the novel A Woman of Salt and the story collection Strangers and Sojourners.