We talk sometimes within Buddhism, of ‘going into the cremation ground’. In India this was, and still is, a spiritual practice; to literally go to the cremation area surrounding your town or city, and contemplate the stages of decomposition of a corpse. In 21st Century Europe, cremation, along with most aspects concomitant with death, are removed from daily view or access. Working in the Crematorium, obviously, brings me into regular contact with the bereaved, with death and the process of cremation. Since December, when I went full-time, I’ve found it has demanded more of me emotionally than I ever anticipated, disturbing the murkier sediments of my dream life, and unsettling my usually buoyant and stable equilibrium.
In India, you would go to the cremation ground only for brief intense periods. It required the development of some degree of mature spiritual practice and warm, positive regard towards ones self. You’d also be able to walk away from it should it become too much to handle, or simply back off in order to gain renewed perspective or reflect on your experience in less intense surroundings. Now, what I do is a job, I’m paid to do this, this is, after all, a slightly different set up. Nonetheless, I do try to make some kind of practice from it. I attempt to remain aware as my moods change, hour-by-hour, minute- by- minute, as they shift from ease - to tenseness, from noticing the nature and form of my distress - to feeling myself emotionally drifting into alienated autopilot. I cannot walk away from a cremation oven and the body burning within, just because the blackening skull and eye sockets of the deceased stare forbiddingly back at me, every time I turn the peephole to check on a cremations progress. I have to stay with it, and with everything that results from it. Lately, there has been some disharmony between the Staff and our Managers, and I have, in addition, been struggling with my own irascible internal conflicts. There have been times when the job has felt like it really was too much, that I was on the very edge of what I could cope with physically, mentally and spiritually.
I know, as a Buddhist, this job creates slightly different difficulties and emotional challenges, than it would have for my fellow Chapel Attendants/Cremation Technicians. This week I’ve been reflecting that working in a ‘cremation ground’ does require some degree of spiritual perspective and resilience, and you have to feel free to step away from it. If I struggle, then how do my fellow workers, who don’t have this perspective cope? Well lets just say each has developed his or her own way of handling it, that in some way deadens or damps down the emotional impact.
It has become clear this week that, as much as I’d like to believe otherwise, I am only just keeping ahead in negotiating the turbulence emerging from my psyche. How much longer before I get thrown overboard? I don’t believe physically, mentally or spiritually it would be beneficial to commit to being here in the longer term. My body and mind are already echoing my unconscious rebellion and desire for spiritual sustenance.