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Friday, July 8, 2011

Funerals Are For Both The Living And The Dead

While funerals are not something I commonly attend, usually sticking to the visitation or memorial service, there’s always the contemplation in the back of my mind about my own funeral, hopefully very far in the future around…2082 or so. Tibetan Buddhist funeral practices especially appeal to me, though I’m not sure if I could get it done in America, considering the nature of them which I’ll discuss later.

Satanists are one of the most commonly misunderstood religious groups along with neo-pagans and Wiccans, though I’d hesitate somewhat to call Satanism a religion except in the sense of tax purposes or a community. It reflects more of a philosophy, similar to Buddhism’s dual status of religion and philosophy in academia. Satanism in the form founded by Antony Lavey is known, appropriately, as Laveyan Satanism. This distinguishes it from theistic Satanism, which believes Satan is a real entity to be revered. Laveyan Satanism, in contrast, is atheistic and affirms that we are our own gods in the sense of self determination. It shouldn’t be confused with egotism, where no one else deserves any consideration, but Satanists do try to enforce something of a merit based system of respect; you earn respect, you don’t get it automatically.  There’s much more I could get into, but the focus of this article will be on Cimminnee Holt’s study which was published in a religious studies journal in Canada. It centered on discussions with Satanist’s about their views on death and how one might be said to survive one’s death even if you don’t actually survive through a soul.
The notion of real survival after death centers on the existence of a soul, some indestructible and immaterial essence of a human’s identity that persists after the brain ceases to function. The common idea of a soul is something like a ghostly substance (ectoplasm?), but people who want a more sophisticated explanation suggest that the soul is one half of the whole of a human, which also includes the physical body. Of course, there’s little need to get into details about all this, but it can serve as a transition to the Buddhist idea of “survival after death” which has a certain parallel to the Satanist notion I’ll visit.

With Buddhism, the survival after death is not that of the individual, since one of the marks of existence in Buddhist teaching is anicca, or impermanence, which when coupled with the teaching of anatta, or non-self, communicates a significant, but cryptic, idea about what happens to the mind and consciousness after death. 
Anatta isn’t about the questions people would have about reincarnation or rebirth in Buddhism, but what the self we experience consists in and whether we can really grasp it. The basic constituents of the experience of self we have are called the skandha, or aggregates. They are, in order of sequence: form, sense, perception, judgment and consciousness. Each of them leads to the next and what results from the bundle of all five is our self as we commonly understand it. And when one dies, this cycle is broken, so we return to matter and form in an organic sort of way.  The parallel to Satanist ideas of “immortality” is that Buddhism could say that we ourselves don’t survive our deaths, but only remain through the memories people have of us. If I were to die suddenly, people might remember me as someone who loved to read, enjoyed Japanese culture, was prone to thinking out loud a great deal, etc. Similarly, with Satanism, the importance is in making an impact on the world through charismatic behavior and general demonstrations of memorable acts. Of course, one can say that this is only “virtual immortality” but it is certainly an intriguing approach to an area of thought with atheists in general. When people speak of atheists at a funeral, they say it is depressing that someone could believe that your life ends at death, or at least one’s individual consciousness. But that simply isn’t true: while I might not be world renowned after I die, I will be remembered by people in my interactions with them and the memories they retain of me as an individual. Of course, the Satanist ideas of being very ambitious and asserting oneself as the master of one’s destiny might be said to contrast strongly with Buddhist ideas, especially anatta, which says that our selves, along with everything else in the world, is not really something we can grasp as a possession. But I don’t think Satanists wish for permanence in their lives or in their virtual immortality after they die. From what I understand, they accept that things are meant to pass on, but nonetheless strive to leave a mark on the world so that people will remember them, if only for a time before they are potentially lost to time. To quote the Kurgan, the main villain in the film Highlander, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,”  In this way, the parallel sticks. Both Buddhists and Satanists believe we survive through others and not ourselves as spirits.

Some might say this pursuit of “virtual immortality” is a pointless venture, since in the universe’s overall span of time, you’re a ripple in the water. But this tries to make all actions and their importance dependent on how long they last. But in that case, even such things like the idea of God will be lost to time as humans become extinct in the far future. But our actions now should be considered just as important, if not moreso, as the impacts we leave on others and the world when we die. If you celebrate the transition of the person to some afterlife that we cannot verify or have any real experience of, but merely believe in it to feel the sting of loss less harshly, then you appear to be celebrating the person’s death over their life. Any actions they did in this life would be like dust in the wind, whereas anything they do in heaven will somehow be more significant than providing for family, expressing love and sympathy for friends in their times of need, or making a difference in some way in this world. To celebrate life is not to hope for life everlasting, but to accept life’s shortness.
In conclusion, I’ll elaborate on my own desires concerning a future funeral, however hasty this might seem for someone in their mid 20s. The practice of sky burial, well known in Tibet, is intriguing, however mortifying it might be to many. The long and short of it consists of ritually preparing the body through dissection, leaving it to the vultures and such and giving up what is essentially an empty vessel back to nature. I’m surprised this isn’t more advocated in America by the neo-pagan community, though I have heard of green burials, where you are buried in eco-friendly graves that naturally decompose along with your body. To go into significant detail seems unnecessary, but I feel that while Augustine of Hippo was right in saying in The City of God that funerals are primarily for consoling the living, not making the dead pass on in a dignified fashion, I think it is important to consider the wishes of the departed more than we tend to. Many times, the family just goes along with what they think the person would want. I think it’s  important to keep a document around like a living will, but focused on what my funeral should be, within some basic parameters. In this way, the funeral would satisfy the dead in some limited sense, and also be able to let the living continue on in the place of those who have already passed on. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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