Saturday, November 8, 2014

Why Are We Tying Up the Cat?

There was a cat who lived in the monastery, and made noise and caused distractions during evening meditation. To keep the cat calm and prevent it from disrupting meditation, the teacher decided to tie the cat to a pole in the middle of the sanctuary. This worked and the practice continued, with the cat always being tied to the pole before meditation began.

Years passed, and the teacher died. They continued to tie the cat to the pole during meditation. Later, the cat also died. They couldn't start meditation without tying a cat to the pole! So they brought another cat to the monastery, and tied it to the pole to begin meditation. 

Centuries later, descendants of the teacher wrote scholar treatises about the spiritual significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

As you've probably inferred from what I've said about weddings, I believe that as a society we do a a lot of tying up the cat while following wedding traditions. And when it comes to weddings, in particular, blindly following traditions can not only not actually be meaningful, but actually cause harm by promoting the infrastructure that developed the tradition in the first place.

There are other times when there may not such a negative history related to the tradition, but I still find it odd that we continue to uphold things as important rituals. I've never been one to really enjoy anything ceremonial. Maybe if there were more rituals involved in our lives, beyond a scattered few important events, the sense of ritual and meaning would feel more important, but as it is they just seem like antiquated remnants of a now-irrelevant time.

For example, yesterday I was at the memorial service for my great-aunt who recently passed away. Now, part of the rituals for her included a Catholic mass, since she was Catholic. And while I certainly find some of the rites there odd (such as sprinkling holy water), I understand they're based on deep-held religious beliefs. Whether or not I think the underlying belief is reasonable or true, those who follow it doe indeed have a rationale for doing it that goes deeper than "we've always done it this way". Her daughter and their community believe the blessings and other rituals over her body will ensure that her soul makes it to heaven, so it's understandable that they partake in those rituals for that expected result.

But after mass we had a graveside service. And we stood in front of the embalmed body, in a sturdy casket. We saw the coffin be lowered into the ground - that aspect deeply affected her daughter, and that makes sense to me, to watch the body literally be removed from our sight, is to help process the person leaving our life. But it was not just being lowered into the ground, but lowered into a vault in the ground; the lid to the vault was sitting next to the gravesite. Why put the body in a concrete vault? Why put it in a coffin? Why embalm it?

I don't think that even Catholics believe at this point that an intact body is required in order to fulfill any spiritual expectations. So why are we so attached to preserving the body? What psychological, emotional, or spiritual healing is aided by preventing the body from rejoining the earth? I imagine there were at one time practical reasons, but I can't imagine they could be rationally upheld today. We've simply taking up resources to literally preserve bodies that no longer serve a purpose. 

How do you feel about rituals and ceremonies? What makes them meaningful to you?


  1. I've heard that at one point, it was believed that at least a significant portion of the body needed to be preserved and held ready for the final resurrection (Christianity). (That's where the skull and crossbones comes from, actually--because eventually the skull and thighbones were regarded as the minimum necessary.) Anyway, I've actually looked into different options that are more earth-friendly than embalming and a giant coffin. I'm currently enamored of the idea of being buried in a shroud. :-)

    1. Interesting. I thought there was at least some aspect of that, but from a (very little) bit of looking into it, I wasn't sure how much that's still believed. (Primarily, found that Catholics now don't promote, but I guess allow, cremation.) Skull cause it contained your brain, but why thigh bones?

      Being buried in something like a shroud/wrap or plain wooden box is appealing to me. For a long time I've been inclined towards cremation, but there are issues with that, too, so I guess allowing natural decomposition in some way is definitely best!


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