Sunday, September 18, 2011

Burial letter

BURIAL: A letter to those (or their relatives) about to be the dearly departed.

Dear Madam or Sir:

It is important that you understand that urban communities around the world face an unheralded disaster, which most likely will transform our sentiments about life and the consequences of death. We are faced with a burgeoning population and diminishing burial grounds. This warning may produce a pursuing of your lips or even a snicker, but the danger is real. There is legal pressure to disinter the dead and place them in common graves to make room for the newly departed. London is on the verge of requiring disinterment after seventy years in the grave. In various parts of Europe, they permit only thirty years of resting before digging ‘em up. And, in Venice, Italy, you hardly have time to get used to your new quarters when, after ten years the shovels start their mournful task of searching you out and digging you up.

It is clear that burial in caskets designed never to disintegrate will become a procedure of the past. But, your body will require some disposition and immediately you think (some of you with horror) of cremation. That should solve the problem of land use, but the reality is that cremation sends a huge variety of noxious chemicals and fumes into the atmosphere for us to breath. Because we live longer and have cared for our teeth, mercury is one of them. And, don’t forget carbon dioxide; we all know that problems that causes. Imagine if everyone were cremated; the energy bill would be enormous and who knows the incidence of illnesses breathing in the consequent miasma. Perhaps we could solve the problem with gas masks.

There are some who wish to mask the reality of cremation by enclosing your ashes in concrete balls and depositing them onto coral reefs. It is well known that such reefs are deteriorating and need support; and what is left of you in your cozy concrete would serve the oceans and humanity. That is a lovely thought and some with whom I have discussed the problem seemed enthusiastic. Still, it depends on skunky, smelly cremation. Inquiring minds wish to know: Why not use concrete balls to strengthen the reefs and eschew cremation? There is silence on that subject.

A proposed solution to the problems of burial and cremation is “natural burial.”
The remains are put into a cardboard box and buried in a shallow grave. The box and its contents will dissolve fairly rapidly. Such burial would surely save ground and after a year or so other bodies could use the same space. Headstones would not be permitted because they take space and imply ownership of the ground. And, who would be willing to return to the site and drag the marker away? For the bereaved, a simple stone could be placed at the grave, or directions be on a sort of pirate’s map. You know, walk 20 paces to the south. Find the hump of ground and from that go 50 paces east and dig up the loot. If that also sounds too cumbersome, there is experimentation of GPS devices. That surely would work. (I have recently learned that in some parts of India and in Israel, bodies are wrapped and buried. Still there are gravestones and ownership of the land.)

While “natural burial” would satisfy many concerns, it still takes up space. Commercial interests have come up with some possible solutions. You know how flowers turn brittle when immersed in liquid nitrogen. The same would happen with your body. A light tap with a hammer, or perhaps just vigorous shaking would do the trick; you would be reduced to a pile of tiny, frozen body mass and bone fragments. In case there is a compost shortage, such remains would be useful in satisfying the need, and like natural burial, you return to the soil. The energy cost and environmental cost would be considerably less than cremation or burial.

The final idea (that I know of) is to melt your body. That seems bizarre. A body of flesh and bone transformed into a liquid would seem to require a death ray brought here by malevolent aliens. No, it is doable and has been done. The results are safe and liquid you can be poured down a drain. I suppose water treatment facilities would require consultation and how would you like to have a nice drink from the tap of grandma. “So long, Uncle Charlie, join the fish in the seas. With our love, your nieces and nephews.” Still, for those wanting Uncle Charlie closer to home his fluid remains could be poured into the backyard. “Say, the grass seems much greener since you know what. Who has dibs on Aunty Harriet?”

Several of the above provide no final resting place. Perhaps the population of ghosts might increase with clankings and moanings about being lost souls. Alas, they truly would be lost, and ghost busting become a growth industry. And relatives who would visit grave sites. Where would they go?

I don’t much care what happens to my body but you never know about survivors preferences. Perhaps I had better make some changes to my will.

Sunday, September 11, 2011



There is no such thing. Things happen without our control and we invent things about them. Asians call fate Kismet, meaning when bad things happen the only thing to do is shrug and live your life. Fate implies that there is some mysterious force that operates in the universe that controls our destiny. It was a guy’s fate never to meet a decent woman is what people say about him, meaning that it was somehow ordained by the universe. Because that’s his fate, he’ll never find one.

Humans have huge egos. We easily develop the notion that the universe takes an interest in us or ignores us when it should not. So many things happen of which we do not approve and we bizarrely become upset, either bemoaning our fate or becoming angry when things go wrong. We miss the obvious; there is no rational reason that the universe should pay attention to our desires. We do not as separate entities exist in the universe; we are part of the universe as much as the earth we walk on or the stars in the sky.

How did we get here? Religionists insist that there is a determining part of existence that created the universe, IE god that created us. The thought seems to make some people happy, but at the same time left many people uncertain. Instead of accepting such received wisdom, they raised questions. That God created us did and does not satisfy. Human beings just a few hundred years ago began to understand the process of how we became . . . us: Evolution. Paying attention to that process makes it evident our transformations over time were natural events, a function of the state of the universe's interaction with protoplasm. No one knows how protoplasm got started. (There is some great research and it appears that we are getting closer to figure it out.) Some think it was in primordial oceans hit by lightening that made things that lived. Others think that spores of life, floating through space, landed on earth and survived. Some think that aliens seeded earth with life for whatever purpose they had. The red-hot research has to do with, get this, RNA. They are figuring out how RNA might have spontaneously formed, and that would be it. Many argue that God did it. The trouble with God explanations is that they stop inquiry and godly institutions, jealous of their perquisites, sometimes killed people who wanted more knowledge.

Some religionists argue that everything in the universe is exquisitely balanced so as to make life possible. If the earth were too hot, or too cold, we could not survive. Too much or too little radiation would make us unfeasible. If Planck's constant were was a fraction different would have forestalled our existence. Thus, they argue, that the universe must have been created so we would have a place to live. Idiotic! They miss the point that however, life started it would have gone no further had it not fit in. There is no knowing how many times some form of life appeared but could not live in the environment as it was. All sorts of changes happened to the protoplasm and most died out; only our strain survived. When the environment changed, we adapted. But, sometimes adaption was not possible and huge species died. The dinosaurs could not make it after the giant meteor hit the earth. Our mammalian forebears did. Of course, they changed to meet the new conditions and over eons, we changed and changed and changed to meet new environments. Nothing about the universe was designed for us; adapt or disappear. The fossil record attests to that.

We all face the problem of how to live an acceptable life in the face of an intractable universe. By far, the great bulk of humanity reacts with emotions that have no relation to the problem. A patient described how, once, he shook a fist at the sky in outrage for something or other that had gone wrong. What's the point? Yes, he said he felt better after doing so, but it had never occurred to him that he could feel better by accepting loss as part of life and to continue to strive to enjoy his life. “I can't be happy unless the universe does such and so,” is the lament. Humbug, sheer, unadulterated humbug. But prayers are made urging God to change the rules and most prefer not to notice when he, she or it doesn't pull it off. After all, at least there is somebody there listening and making decisions on a master plan that we cannot comprehend. Yeah.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Some people become pissed, others bewildered at the ideas below. They try to figure out how I'm wrong, but I bet you can't do it.


That, of course, is a silly question. Those who are reputedly evil don't need it, they already have it and some surely enjoy it. No, it is not them, it is the rest of us because the more we find others evil, the more virtuous we believe ourselves to be. It is truly reassuring to find that others are of that sort because three existential problems become resolved.

The first: Once someone becomes identified as evil, nothing more about that person is relevant. The hard work of understanding them is avoided. Knowing someone is evil is the ultimate and only meaningful truth; nothing else is relevant. And, because the person is evil, dispositional concerns are simple: kill, incarcerate or exile. Whew, no moral ambiguity there.

The second: Once the other is defined as evil, we immediately assume moral superiority and do not have to think about our own behavior. No matter how badly we may act, that the other is evil makes our transgressions pale in comparison. The evil Germans killed prisoners because Germans are evil. American soldiers did the same thing; but because of the exigencies of war and thus are good guys. We are off the painful hook of self-contemplation and live a self-congratulatory life.

The third: We can join with others in decrying their evil outrages, sort of form a brother/sisterhood, supporting each other in our superior morality and feeling the warm glow of comradeship. We joyfully unite in destroying those who are evil; it is an easy way to forget they are human beings.

You see, we need the concept of evil to make our daily lives a bit more comfortable. But, from this, it is obvious that the notion of evil is a psychological trick we humans have invented to make ourselves feel better. And, the question remains, whence the idea?

As far as I understand the notion, it is purely religious and perhaps only significant in the Abrahamic religions. How is it we believe in the concept of sin (sinners after all are evil)? In the good book, there is no uncertainty; sinners are killed by God. For about half the American population, the devil is a reality and churches have active exorcists to drive demons out of possessed bodies. We are told daily that evil exists and must be fought everywhere. The church that pickets funerals of dead soldiers is convinced our country is evil and they do what they can to thwart it.

If we give up the pleasures of believing in evil, we can get a better understanding of the human animal.

First, there is no such thing as a superior human being. We are all born with the same passions and lusts that are part of our human nature. Civilization has striven to curtail them with commandments and laws, but with almost no success. Everyone hates war, yet how is it that the history of humankind is a history of each group bound and determined to destroy the other. We are all common clay. Or, more crudely, we all fart.

Second, a significant part of our nature is that we make mistakes. Essentially, we do things that make our lives worse and it is not only caused by our passions. Our brains are not computers. Advertising and politics everyday fool us into thinking A is really B and vice versa. Science tells us we are somewhat mentally clumsy and hell, who wants to admit that?

Three. We have laws that designed to punish evil doers. If you can't do the time, don't do the crime assumes a rational thinking person who opts to be a law-breaker; no doubt that's why children are sometimes prosecuted as adults. It was a long legal struggle that determined that mentally retarded people are not competent to defend themselves in court. How humane we have become. Contrary to religion, our legal system and common misconception we are not responsible for ourselves. Mistakes and foolishness clutter our lives and we learn to take such seriously.

We have had enough of religious declarations of evil with its freedom to punish evil doers. Nonsense, we are creatures of our genetics and our history, neither for which are we responsible. Yes, we should have a legal system to protect society from criminals but that is a shorthand way of saying we figured out that a stable society is best. Killing people for their crimes is not getting rid of an evil person; and there is little evidence to support the notion that it deters others.

It is better to accept the wisdom, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Or, how about this rule: All people should be treated kindly regardless of their actions.” Or, as my aunt Rose used to say, “People are not for hurting/”

If we get away from “evil,” we become more humane, surely, that is a worthy goal.