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On Decorating a Dead Body

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Although Truth is beautiful, it may also seem stark, and be disconcerting by challenging our misconceptions and illusions. The analogy of decorating a dead body at a funeral, frequently used by our spiritual master, Shrila Prabhupada, may seem insensitive or gross. However, I hope you will see that this view is only a matter of perspective which comes from seeing a person as their body. The fact that we are all eternal spiritual beings temporarily associated with our current body is considered the ABC’s of spiritual life. At the same time, it isn’t easy to apply this truth from realization, even for transcendentalists who accept the theory of transmigration of the soul. This is the case because real comprehension only gradually occurs through spiritual practice, combined with the grace of God. Spiritual knowledge and truth go against our material education and conditioning, or the status quo of conventional civilization, so we need a powerful process of spiritual awakening like Krishna consciousness, or bhakti yoga, to awaken us from the dream of bodily identification.

This example of a decorated dead body is very charged due to the fact that most people fear death, and consider the body as the self, and sacred in itself—otherwise, why decorate the body after the life force has left? We lament over a loved one’s death, as we miss them, and are not convinced if there is an afterlife, or if there is, what it is like. Decorating a dead body with valuable clothes and jewels and taking it on procession (as is done in some places in India), or laying the body in a casket for “viewing” full of preservative chemicals, and often with a created smile, is meant for lamenting relatives and friends, but has no benefit to the person who has died, or “left their body”. This is the point of the analogy.

The advancement of modern materialistic culture, has no benefit for the soul to realize or remember its nature, and thus is compared to the decoration of dead body. (Utilizing material resources to serve the cause of the soul and God is their proper use.) If truth be told, the body is a dead machine, which only appears alive due to the life force coming from the soul, which is an eternal conscious spark of God. From this perspective, what is really important in the world? We, the soul are most important, because it is the soul who is the experiencer, without which the whole world would be dead and lifeless. Our body, family, relationships, possessions, house, car, and profession, are all important because the soul invests itself into material paraphernalia. The soul extends itself into the things of the world by identifying with them, and thus we say, it is “my” body, wife, husband, children, house, country, religion—my, my, my. Our “I” in the material world is defined by our “my”. “My-ness” runs the material world, and continues the soul’s stay here.

In the Bhagavad Gita (2.22) the material body covering the soul is compared to a garment, that when it becomes old and no longer usable, is discarded, and a new one is obtained. “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” Although we do associate a person with the type of clothes they wear, everyone knows the person is what gives clothes their value. We don’t think, “O, the clothes are moving”, we know that the clothes only appear to be moving due to the body being within them. In the same way, our body is like a foreign dress for the soul, which only moves due to the soul’s presence.

When a person dies, all their possessions, including their precious body, are left behind to be dealt with by those who remain. I experienced this with my mother who “died” last year. While she was alive, her possessions belonged to her and were very important, but when she left her body behind at death, her possessions became our headache, and much of it entirely lost its value and was only garbage to be disposed of. Therefore, all of us need to cultivate spiritual knowledge and engage in self-realization practices, like those of bhakti, and chanting the holy name. Then we can realize what is actually (spiritually) our own, and what is only temporary decorations, of no lasting value. True value is the love and service attitude we have for Krishna, since we never lose that. Eventually our soul completely awakens, and this enables us to return home to the spiritual plane of loving, joyful service. Actually, when we love Krishna, or obtain prema, we are in the spiritual world wherever we are.
Govardhana Lila