While stuck inside during the ice storm, I watched a video on this new trend in dealing with a person's body.
Turning them into compost.
I couldn't peel my eyes away as they explained the procedure. They would have a ceremony with the family where the body would be put in a cotton shroud. The corpse is covered with wood chips, alfalfa, and straw and put into a vessel for a month where the body breaks down into soil. Either the soil can be donated or be taken back by the family.
It isn't legal everywhere. Usually the crunchy, liberal types are the ones to whom it appeals. Others are often disturbed by the thought. This often fits into much of the current post-religious spirituality, into the present movement of rejecting the afterlife and resurrection and just wanting to return to Mother Earth. For many this is wrapped up in believing decay and rot is all there is after death and finding a way to try and make it sacred.
I don't know if YouTube knows me (I know the AI powering my activity on the internet knows me more than I would like), but such a thought-provoking video couldn't have come at a better time than being stuck indoors in the dead of winter while mentally preparing myself for Ash Wednesday.
Every Ash Wednesday while beginning to reflect on mortality, I remember one of my earliest memories of encountering the gruesomeness of death.
I was about 6, if I remember correctly. It was back in the 90s when moms sometimes went inside a store and left the kids in the car with cracked windows. Mom went into the Bible House when it was on Main in Searcy. I waited in the car and found myself turned around looking out the back window at the cars driving by.
I saw a motorcycle speeding past a truck. He didn't realize the truck was turning toward him, and the truck didn't realize he was speeding past him. The truck hit the bike, and my young 6-year-old eyes watched the man fly off like a rag doll and land on his neck. He was contorted a bit, and I thought I was going to throw up. He didn't move, and the paramedics came and immediately put him in a body bag.
Before they got there, mom came out and asked me if I saw what happened. I actually lied. Not because I was in the habit of lying, but I didn't know how to process what just happened, and I felt afraid. I felt like I had seen something I wasn't supposed to see.
I probably should have gone to therapy or something, but I said nothing and never talked about it, and again, this was the 90s.
I had an idea of death since before I can remember. Being a pastor's kid meant you went to lots of funerals. Waxy looking faces on fluffy pillows surrounded by flowers and people crying. Death was still rather formal and pleasant.
It also usually entailed good food at some point during the day.
I heard about people going to heaven and being with Jesus. You missed people, but you were taught to feel happy for them.
I had a new idea of death afterwards. I saw it happen in an instant. I thought before of people flying away and moving to a new place. After the accident, I thought of people breaking like a dropped toy or plate. Death felt much closer and people much frailer.
Dust we are and to dust we will return.
I personally never really cared for the waxy faces pumped full of chemicals, trying to preserve and put off decomposition for as long as possible. I don't have anything against it. I know people are comforted by this and the process of a funeral, and I know people in the funeral service who take it as a sacred task.
The composting idea doesn’t bother me, though. It is what happens to us anyway in the long run. For a good amount of human history and culture, people were wrapped in a cloth and put into the ground where the same process takes place.
I think it makes us uneasy to see that dirt, though. We don't want to see it or think about it. It reminds us of what our bodies came from and are constantly becoming.
If our bodies are always renewing themselves, then all the cells we had 7-10 years ago have already experienced death, even many sloughed off into dust. These bodies won’t just become dust eventually. They’re constantly becoming dust.
My idea of death, my relationship with it, has thankfully developed since I was a traumatized 6-year-old. A certain comfort has developed in me with death. It came first, believe it or not, from having that experience, and then second from the process afterwards of finding a deeper understanding and faith in resurrection.
This is where Christians struggle. It is much easier to believe in resurrection when we look at waxy faces on fluffy pillows and imagine them in glowing white robes. It is easy to imagine that body coming out and flying away when trumpets sound.
It is much harder to look at a more realistic vision of the full process of death and get to resurrection. Could we stand at a body decomposed into a pile of dirt you could use to fertilize your tomatoes and say with full faith we believe we'll see them again one day?
Not just encounter their soul floating around on some incorporeal field. Disembodied souls was never the gospel.
Could we look at that pile of soil and proclaim we believe in the resurrection of the body?
Could we really have faith in the One who created it all and intends resurrection, believing God isn't threatened by decomposition?
Such a credence takes a faith in God, an understanding of reality, even an understanding of the gospel, which goes a bit deeper than many are willing to tread.
Souls floating around and an earth that isn't renewed but eventually thrown away is much easier to accept.
We've skipped that pile of dirt, and we've wanted to just run into a warped vision of Easter, but you can't get to real resurrection without going through death.
To be honest, it still is a challenge for me. I believe it is a perfectly human struggle to grapple with the reality of resurrection, if one is really willing to wrestle with it. Perhaps standing at a pile of compost we would feel like Ezekiel in the valley. "Mortal, can these bones live?" Oh Lord, You alone know.
The ground is frozen outside, but I still hope for spring.
Ashes will be on my head Wednesday, a visible reminder of what my body is constantly turning into and will be completely one day, but I still hope for Easter.
I still hope for resurrection.
Allison Beaty was raised in Searcy, Arkansas where she felt called to ministry as a teenager. She attended SNU where she did a multidisciplinary in philosophy and theology. In 2013, she moved to Rome, Italy where she studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University completing a BST and then a MTh specializing in Patristics. She is currently the senior pastor at McCrory church of the Nazarene in McCrory, AR.
I’ve been spending a good deal of this summer underneath the blueberry bushes. After adding a bird net this season our bushes have been prolific with berries. We’ve received so many blueberries our kids have even, unbelievably, almost eaten their quota! I usually find myself out in the backyard picking in the heat of the afternoon because that’s when I have the time. In the rhythm of picking on these hot Tennessee afternoons, I’m beginning to see this as a spiritual practice. A place where I can just come and receive what nature is ready to give. Although I quickly have realized how much work is involved. We only have two bushes here in our backyard, but by myself, I can easily spend almost 40 minutes out there grabbing one berry at a time.
The thing about picking blueberries is that you have to use your fingers. It’s fairly precise work. That is if you don’t want to pick the other pre-mature berries with the good ones or make sure you’re not knocking a bunch on the ground in the process. It forces to you move with steadiness and intentionality. You have to move the berry from the tips of your fingers to storage in the palm of your hand. But you can only hold so many! In fact, the lesson one quickly learns, if you try to pick too many berries in one swoop, you just begin dropping as many as you’re picking. Lessons for life. The practice forces you to spend a patient moment in nature.
A moment to feel the heat on your neck.
A moment to taste a sweet juicy blueberry on your tongue.
A moment where you are literally on your knees to fill up your cup.
Crawled under the berry bushes this summer I’ve spent time listening. Thinking. Snacking. Praying. Songwriting. Podcast streaming. And especially thinking about some group of workers somewhere else in the world that does this for a living. Wondering…
Do they get paid well? Is this work generally fair-trade?
Do they get to keep a percentage of their pick?
I bet they’re a lot faster at this than me.
What’s the blueberry industry like?
I think about what it would be like to live off the land. To be in such a special relationship with the land that it feeds you all year round from your yard. (Obviously, much work is required here!) But there is certainly something ancient about the relationship between a human’s hand and the ground… and the loving reciprocity and fruit that can be produced from that care.
Earlier this summer we discovered we also have a mulberry tree in our yard. After clearing a lot of brush last winter, this tree apparently found room enough to fruit! It was there the whole time, all these years.
Along with the mulberries, for the first time this summer, we’ve eaten wild raspberries growing at the bottom of our yard. Bright and delicious! And after transplanting a few canes of tamed raspberries and blackberries back in the fall, we enjoyed quite a hefty first-year harvest – which I’m still quite surprised by!
But the berry adventure doesn’t just stay in the backyard! The past few seasons I’ve been allowing this vine to creep up the old steel front porch supports on my house. Recently, I found myself looking out my window only to see what looked like a small cluster of grapes forming. I couldn’t believe it! Could these really be grapes appearing on my front porch now? The jury is still out on this one as the birds seemed to have eaten everything that was growing there!
Perhaps if there is something I’m learning in this season of “berrydise” it's that creation today mostly seems to exist as a brief glimpse of what it could be. If the jungles, marshes, and rainforests teach us anything, it's how this world has been created with the capacity to fruit, produce, and multiply! If stewarded well, the earth is more prolific than we imagine.
How might we be a people who foster this growth? Who is more interested in serving and keeping the land rather than our greedy version of subduing it? Could we become more interested in planting than mowing? Could we measure success in the number of bees and berries rather than “yard of the month” aesthetics? What would it look like for us to be faithful in the soil first, knowing that without that gift all other gifts cease to exist? How might we find ourselves loving the whole world, because that’s what we're created to do?
The Lord God took the human and put the human in the garden of Eden to serve it and keep it.