Compost and Ash
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.
This blog is a collaborative effort from a great cloud of witnesses to creation care. All contributors are from Nazarenes embodying earth care in their own lives.