“My co-workers’ reaction to this incident pushed me to examine my own attitude toward suffering.”
EARLY THIS YEAR (2002) law enforcement officers, acting on a tip, visited the Tri-State Crematory on sixteen acres in Noble, Georgia, owned by the Marsh family. When police found a skull and a torso floating in a lake on the property, they kept looking and eventually unearthed more than three hundred bodies in various states of decomposition. For many years, the Marshes had accepted bodies for cremation but had instead dumped them, still in body bags, into shallow “graves,” heaped on other bodies. The gruesome sights rivaled the worst horror movie and traumatized workers and family members of the deceased. Many witnesses to the gory scene needed extensive counseling. The story touched a nerve with my usually placid co-workers. Sympathizing with the deep grief of family and friends of the deceased, many were incensed and spoke out with anger.
Every day the news media bombard us with so much violence and human misery that we tend to become desensitized to others’ suffering. I know I am. But my co-workers’ reaction to the incident pushed me to examine my own attitude toward suffering, and to consider my responsibility to share relevant, compassionately applied spiritual knowledge as I’ve learned it from Shrila Prabhupada. Generally speaking, I see that uninformed people, lacking knowledge of the eternal soul, fear death and don’t know the purpose of life. This cloud of uncertainty surrounding life and death causes unnecessary anxiety and misery. Ironically, to live joyfully and peacefully, we must know what death is, and understand how to die.
The Tri-State Crematory news made me think that although many people in the United States rate themselves high in their standard of living, they score low in their knowledge of death, as shown in their rituals for death, which reinforce their illusion. As soon as a person dies here, the body is whisked away to a funeral home to be prepared for viewing. An artificial, cosmetic process makes the body appear as alive and as beautiful as possible, perpetuating the myth that we are the body. Because we ignorantly think our self (soul) to be the body, we want our body to look good even when it’s dead. Although materialistic culture does not give much stock to the next life or the eternality of the soul, costly, lavish funerals can exploit people’s sentiments. Funeral eulogies by the minister or the family—a good chance to help people understand death—are usually merely flowery, sentimental words meant to make people feel good. Unfortunately, Western culture hides, denies, and disguises death. This life is taken to be everything, so there’s no use worrying about an unproven afterlife. Confusion about death underlies the sterile, superficial, and impersonal rituals, whether at burials or cremations.
I’ve seen that Hindu ceremonies for death in India are a different story. They still follow ancient edicts from the Vedic scriptures. Traditionally, dead bodies are carried in procession to a burning place, usually a ghat at a holy river, with all the loved ones of the deceased present. Seeing the body burn and then placing its ashes in the river shows participants dramatically that they must develop detachment for temporary, material things (like the body), that they should connect instead to the soul and focus on the permanent spiritual objective. Another reason for burning the body (instead of burying it) is to benefit the so-called deceased. Some souls stay attached to the body even when it’s dead and refuse to leave it (remaining as ghosts). The Vedas inform us that ghosts are tormented souls living in their subtle, or astral, body, without the benefit of a physical body. Some people can sense ghosts through eerie feelings at graveyards or in old houses, or in others ways. Burning the body can help the soul move on to the next life.
Unfortunately, we tend to forget our impending death soon after witnessing a cremation. In Sanskrit this is called smasana-vairagya, or the temporary feelings of renunciation at the crematorium. To learn and remember these spiritual truths, we should repeatedly hear them from advanced holy teachers. Shrila Prabhupada reminds us not to forget the inevitability of physical death. Thinking about death is not “morbid,” as some would say. Rather, it’s meant to remind us where our real shelter lies—with God—and not with the temporary. Death is a doorway between lives. We must prepare for it by absorbing our life in pursuing spiritual truth. Our actions and motivations will determine what happens to us at death. Will we have to accept another material body, or will we return to God in His spiritual kingdom? The Bhagavad-gita (8.6) says that what we primarily focus on because of our attachments will carry us to the next life at the time of death. What we do in life is tested at death.
Justice And Compassion
As I try to empathize with the victims of the Tri-State Crematory—the grieving family and friends—I remember that in my own father’s death I was more fortunate then they. Even though he took his own life, in my sadness I was at least able to sprinkle his ashes in the holy water of the Ganges River. Knowing that such an act, done with sincere prayers, would benefit him, I felt at peace. I did as much as I could for him in life, and then, at death, I was able to feel closure with our earthly relationship. I wonder how I would have felt if I’d discovered that my father’s so-called ashes were some other substance, and that his body lay decomposing in a shallow makeshift grave? I’m sure I’d feel angry at being cheated, and disappointed that I hadn’t helped my father leave this world. I’d want to see someone punished. My indignation would have support.
The Vedas say that civil laws and their consequences, though imperfect, help to lessen a person’s karmic reaction for wrongdoings. In addition, punishing a guilty person gives some consolation to the victims. To feel shock and outrage when we hear about reprehensible behavior, and to seek punishment for the guilty, is natural. But we must be careful to hate the sinful mentality and not the person. Otherwise, our heart will become closed and unable to feel compassion, an important spiritual quality.
Loving Krishna includes loving His children, which we show by teaching them essential spiritual knowledge. That makes us dear to Krishna. But if we don’t care about others, how will we want to give them spiritual solutions? In the Chinese language the symbol for danger also means opportunity. A dangerous mentality is an opportunity for spiritual growth. In the face of increasing inhumanity, insensitivity, and violence among human beings (and toward animals), as well as our own tendency to be lethargic and uncaring, we can decide to think and act differently. We may not care as much as we’d like or act with great compassion, but we can pray for compassion and the desire to help others in distress. We can also become inspired by studying the saintly qualities of pure devotees, and by hearing about the lives of great compassionate devotees like Shrila Prabhupada, Prahlada Maharaja, and Haridasa Thakura.
When we’re with those in pain, we can sympathize and let them vent their distress. Then, according to our relationship with them, we can share the truth of the soul and God, the key to becoming free from suffering. Krishna reciprocates with our sincere desire. We must be committed to acting with kindness and compassion as an important part of our spiritual practice. If we do so while we seriously follow the principles of spiritual life given by Shrila Prabhupada, we’ll make spiritual progress and develop the good qualities of the soul. Krishna consciousness is the process of converting our illusory bodily consciousness—the cause of our suffering—into our original blissful spiritual nature. Lord Chaitanya came five hundred years ago to teach us how to do this practically by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra and living a pure life. Chanting the holy name and giving the rare treasure of the holy name to others are practices of real compassion, and the best contributions we can make to suffering humanity.
Reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine Volume 36 Number 06, 2002 © BBT International; all rights reserved.