Witness to a cremation (National Public Radio)

Announcer: When commentator Ted Rose moved from New York City to the Shambhala Mountain Center, a Buddhist retreat in the Colorado Rockies, people talked about the meditation schedules and the communal eating. No one mentioned the center’s open-air crematorium.

Ted Rose: The invitation I received to watch a corpse burn on a funeral pyre came as a complete surprise. I wasn’t in a foreign country and had no connection to the deceased. I had assumed the unusual ceremony was just for family and friends. In fact, I was told it was open to the public.

I walked by Shambhala Mountain Center’s funeral pyre often. It is located just a few hundred yards away from the beat-up old trailer I’ve lived in for the past year, since trading my New York life for one at this Buddhist retreat in the Colorado Rockies.

The pyre is a simple structure: a concrete slab with room at the bottom for wood and a grate near the top for a body. It looks like an oversized barbecue pit, which is precisely what it is. Despite our religious diversity, we Americans tend to treat our dead bodies quite similarly. When my grandfather died, my family left the details to professionals. I took only about five seconds to commune with my father’s father, lying in his casket at a home. And within a couple hours, I was standing on some AstroTurf at the cemetery, watching a shiny wood box descent into darkness.

The whole idea of an open pyre ceremony made me uncomfortable, so I begged off attending that first one. Then a pioneering Buddhist psychologist and teacher named Ed Podvol succumbed to cancer and his cremation was scheduled. This time I did not have an easy out. The center employed me as its resident shrine keeper. I would witness this cremation on the clock.

The day of the event was windy and cold. The crowd gathered on a meadow. A truck pulled up and six pallbearers reached inside. They emerged with a body wrapped in a white shroud. Ed Podvols’ hips dropped slightly and his knees rose as they moved him. He looked less like a corpse and more like a newborn baby. I wasn’t witnessing as much as gawking.

The scene felt a little like a civil ceremony, but it was also like a car crash where some guilty curiosity was being sated. A teacher introduced the ceremony and led the assembly in some chanting. Five minutes into the service Shambhala‘s head fireman lit the dry wood. The pyre erupted. There was no avoiding the scene. If I closed my eyes I still heard the wood crackling. If I plugged my ears I still smelt the condensed butter fat used to fuel the fire. If I pinched my nose, the cold dry air still pounded my bones.

The scene felt undeniably foreign but I couldn’t figure out why. Americans have plenty of opportunities to see dead bodies. And these days corpses are cremated all the time. I suspect it was the unusually blunt combination: an import from the Indian subcontinent designed to acknowledge the finality of the situation — the end of this human life.

At one point a white stick jutted out from the pyre. It was a remnant of Ed Podvol’s right arm. I experienced a minor freak-out. I was watching a human body burn, I told myself, so of course it is a little messy, just as a human birth is messy. This neat rationalization made some sense, at the time.

I don’t know whether I’ll attend the next cremation. I’m no longer the shrine-keeper so I’ll be free of that obligation. On the other hand I recently joined Shambhala’s fire crew. The next time the center has a body to burn, if the head firefighter needs help, he may end up asking me.

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