FIREWOOD BECOMES ASH
“ Firewood becomes ash;
it can never go back to being firewood.”
I once worked for eighteen months in the Cambridge City Crematorium, as a Chapel Attendant/Cremator Technician. It surprised me how easily and quickly such an unusual work environment could become just what you do. Needless to say a crematorium for a Buddhist is never lacking in material for reflection. You just have to be prepared to peak out occasionally from under the duvet -‘ Ah ,yes, mortality, that inconvenient terminus where our body hits the buffers.’ The mortality of others is easy to recognise, yet all too easy to ignore in oneself. I walked a line, hour by hour, at the Crematorium, between insight and willful blindness. I saw how quickly the edge of receptivity was dulled by repetition. Daily I experienced the practical consequences of death; bereavement, funerals, cremations, the scattering of ashes – as a job. Occasionally I was told a bit about the person and what had lead up to their death. This could be quite sad or sobering information, occasionally it was uplifting and inspiring. But most days I was presented with a name and body in a box, which by the end of my work, was an urn full of grey ashes, with a self adhesive label on the top.
A cremation oven is pretty damned warm, around a thousand degrees. At Cambridge Crematorium we had four ovens. Each oven had a small peep hole, through which you checked the progress of the cremation. I have to admit I found this part of the cremation process fascinating, frequently pulling back the shield and having a peek. I’ll spare you the graphic details of what happens. It can all feel a tad ghoulish or inappropriate when put into words. Undignified and disassociated from feeling, it can end up reading like instructions for baking bread. Perhaps it helped me not to have known these bodies when they were alive and kicking. I did once cremate Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd ,but his fame only makes me a poor relation. Seneca stated that ‘In the ashes we are all leveled’, which even applies to somnolent rock stars So how would I feel if I knew the person being cremated ? Well, I’d experience my emotional attachment very strongly.
A cremation takes about an hour and a half, longer if the person is fat. With increasing levels of obesity cremation times are constantly on the rise. Once completed I'd rake out what remained into an open topped steel box In there fell a collection of pure white bone fragments, so fragile they'd crumble like a biscuit between your fingers. Mixed in with this are coffin staples, and all the large implanted bits of metal, such as hip, knee or shoulder joints and metal tubes used as drains for failing organs that look like strange primitive nose flutes. All these larger items are manually removed. What's left went into a Cremulator which breaks the remaining fragments down into a fine granular ash. I don’t know how it did this, but all the ashes end up in a plastic container on one side, whilst a few dozen coffin staples rattling around like spare change, was all that was left in the steel box. This could all seem slightly miraculous and uncanny.
Once I’d emptied this ash into its urn or casket, then the label or name plate on the front was the only means of identifying this as a particular individual. Some commonly asked questions about ashes are :- Do you get all the persons remains ? ( about 99%, but not everything ). How will I know these are the right ashes ? ( you wont, but they will be ) Actually there is precious little to define ashes as anyone specifically. Ashes weigh on average about 4lb. Generally, ashes of a male are heavy and large in quantity ,whilst ashes of a female are light and small in quantity. This is partly genetic, to do with height and build and partly to do with age, as bone density weakens as you get older. But really talking of ashes as being literally male or female in any kind of meaningful way is quite ludicrous. We are all literally leveled to ash. The connection between Grandma and her ashes is at best, associative.
Some favorite paragraphs from Dogen's Genjo Koan, concerning ‘firewood and ashes,’ did keep coming to my mind whilst I worked at the Crematorium :-
‘ Firewood becomes ash; it can never go back to being firewood. Nevertheless, we should not take the view that ash is its future and firewood is its past. Remember, firewood abides in the place of firewood in the Dharma. It has a past and it has a future. Although it has a past and a future, the past and the future are cut off. Ash exists in the place of ash in the Dharma. It has a past and it has a future. The firewood, after becoming ash, does not again become firewood.
Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again. At the same time, it is an established custom in the Buddha-Dharma not to say that life turns into death. This is why we speak of no appearance. And it is the Buddha’s preaching established in the turning of the Dharma-wheel that death does not turn into life. This is why we speak of no disappearance. Life is an instantaneous situation, and death is also an instantaneous situation. It is the same, for example, with winter and spring. We do not think that winter becomes spring, and we do not say that spring becomes summer. ‘ *
I know that’s dense stuff, and in no way to be read over a bowl of Honey Nut Corn Flakes, without a cup of coffee handy. But it is an profound expression of prattiya samutpada, it demonstrates how our body, consciousness and self-identity are conditioned things, appearing and disappearing like a breeze. In one instantaneous situation we are very alive. In the next instantaneous situation, the conditions have changed, and we are very dead. In the space of a moment our consciousness is parted from the body that was it's host, and all the flesh and bone is turned into ash. What Dogen is implying is that after death the destinies of the physical body matter body and the essence of consciousness separate, even though they once shared a life and are karmically linked.
One consequence of the concept of re-birth is that a past life, is necessarily cut off from a future life. There is obviously some sort of link on the level of conditioning, between one life and another – though it is not possessed of a distinct identity – your Grandma doesn't become your Grandma in the next life. It is similar to the link between rain, steam, water, snow and ice, the basic atomic structure of H2O doesn't alter, but it does manifest in different ways dependant upon the environmental conditions it finds itself in. The re-birth of consciousness is not dissimilar to this. The basic constituent elements that will combine to make a human life, come together and part like waves on an ocean rise and fall, only to break on a beach and then run in millions of tiny rivulets back into the welcoming mass of the ocean. Dogen describes the operating mechanism of how human life happens and then doesn't happen. He cannot confirm for us what the difference between life and the after life will be like, because there he's aware that there will be no 'us' to make that comparison. This side of death we are necessarily blind. Only a profound insight into prattitya samutpada will enlighten us. Increasingly I find myself coming back to this, as something to reflect on, read and think further about, I know I've yet to fully grasp this emotionally, let alone spiritually. At the same time I sense this is something of great importance for me to grasp, so my imagination returns to it repeatedly, like one would to a particularly belligerent koan.
Another part of my job was ‘witness scattering’, where I'd scatter the ashes of a deceased person whilst family members were present. Now, how families chose to approach this varied quite widely. Some still believed the ashes were literally their recently deceased. One lady rang up the Office distraught at the idea of scattering her husbands ashes on the lawns of the crematorium. The lawns obviously would need regular cutting and wouldn’t that mean his ashes would get hoovered up by the lawnmower and redistributed, nay mixed up with other peoples?
Other families were perhaps more associative and wanted the ashes scattered under trees, because ‘ she never liked strong sunlight’ or amongst beds of roses because’ he was a keen gardener’ or down in the woodland area because the deceased ‘liked being in touch with nature’ Some struggled to see these ashes as anything to do with their dearly beloved. So they devised their own rituals or ways of making a connection. Such as spelling out the persons name with the ashes, placing a picture on the spot, or later planting a tree or a rose bush complete with a name plate. Anything to remind them of a living person, or at least a living memory. Cut off from the past, and cut off from the future, the experience is of an absence in the present. All these approaches attempt to fill an empty space. By use of family talismans, the spells and oracles of old memories, they invoke magically, for a brief moment, the shadow of the deceased in the present moment.
I found the scattering of ashes the most moving part of the job, and felt it an extraordinary privilege to be a contributor to this parting ritual. At this ‘instantaneous situation’ of scattering the ashes, the ashes look to all intents and purposes like concrete dust or cat litter. It can seem bizarre that people personify them so much. I came to see this is an understandable stage in bereavement, the ashes at this moment are a symbolic repository for unprocessed emotion. They were an alive person, who became momentarily ‘firewood’ in the cremation oven, they are now ash. On some unconscious level we do know this ash is neither the person, nor the ‘firewood,' that this amalgam of wood and bone dust, high in magnesium and potassium ,cannot ever replace the person we loved. So scattering ashes across a green sward, becomes a final ritualised demonstration that the person we once knew has gone. After all, they were never an unrecognizable square of gray dust. A subtle illusion falls away at this point - you can see something dawn across even the most stoic or impassive of faces.
We all have unanswered doubts and questions about what happens after death, after the ashes - what next for the deceased ? Dogen tells you what it's not and only hints at how it might be. It’s not ‘no appearance’ or’ no disappearance’, life doesn’t follow death, something follows but its not the rebirth of a specific individual, there is and isn’t a connection between past and future lives. There is only this ‘instantaneous situation,’ which is all Dogen is prepared to be remotely categorical about. He understood the human tendency towards being literal minded. How we can tweak re-birth and make it sound like reincarnation, turn the after life into a repeat series of that long running soap opera which is ourselves.
Our memories and imagination maintain connections with the deceased. Some search out spiritualist mediums, hoping for messages from them. Something has permanently shifted out of our cosmos. Things cannot return to how they were. Their absence can never be filled. We keep alive our memories. The ashes we know had a past, the ashes we know have a future, however unfathomable. What happens to consciousness after death also remains unfathomable, which maybe a justifiable reason for keeping our heads buried under a duvet.
* From Shobogenzo Vol 1, translated by Nishijima & Cross, publisher Windbell.