After my mother-in-law’s recent funeral, my husband Bob and his two sisters, Bonnie and Val, took her ashes to the bank of her favorite creek and sprinkled them in. They hiked back with ash-dusted hands.
“I hate to wash,” said Val, rubbing her mother’s powdered body into her palm. “It’s Mom, you know?” I could see the dusty gray ash on her knuckles.
“Were there any big pieces?” I asked. “A few chunks,” she answered, as she turned toward the sink.
Val teaches veterinary medicine. Her sister is a nurse like me, and none of us is squeamish. We do things at work that most people find hard to imagine, and all of us wash our hands with great frequency. I work with cancer patients. Not infrequently, people ask, “How can you stand your job?” They mean different things by this question. Some mean the pain, the deaths, but many simply mean the bodies, the bodies themselves—sick and weak bodies, and all the fluids bodies produce and we try so hard to hide. Part of my job is to help people deal with matters we are all trained to think of as intensely private. I know that bodies leak and smell; I know that bodies fall apart and turn to ash in our hands.
As Buddhists, we work to accept the impermanence and inevitable decay of the physical body. But it’s not enough to accept it as a fact; we can believe in this and still not want it in plain sight. Nagarjuna said, “Change makes all things possible.” It is only because of change that suffering can end—and it is because of change that our bodies fall apart, like all compounded things. We cannot have one without the other, but we try.
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