A Beautiful Belief
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of a conversation between Ashley Makar, author of You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile, and Buddha-killing Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero, for his class on Death and Immortality, on May 1, 2014. You can read the essay being discussed, Communion on Chemo, and much more of Ashley’s work here. And from now until April 11th, receive a free copy of You Were Strangers when you make a recurring monthly donation to Killing the Buddha.
Stephen Prothero: One of the things that comes up in “Communion On Chemo” is that you’ve seen a lot of death, even as a young woman, in your family. Could you say a little bit about how those experienced may have shaped you in terms of death and the afterlife?
Ashley Makar: Yes. I think I’ve always, having been raised in the Bible Belt where Christianity is all over, in the water, in the grocery store, whatever, I always have had a belief in heaven. But it’s even strange to call it a belief, because it was part of my psyche before I knew otherwise. So I’ve always gone around with this idea, belief, whatever you want to call it, that there is an afterlife, and it’s very good. And better than anything that one could imagine. And that it involves being with God and being with other people that you love.
Before I encountered deaths in my family I thought heaven was just this comforting thing in the background. But when I started losing people that I love and seeing them suffer, it became a lot more urgent for me to believe it in a much more passionate way. The first death in my family was my aunt Judy who died of ovarian cancer. I was maybe about 25 when that happened. With her and with other deaths in my family, it’s been this sense of like, “I must see you again.” In two senses, both I want to see you again, I long to see you again, but also, it can’t be that I will not see you again. And that second part is not necessarily rational, but that’s where the belief comes from.
SP: So there’s a line in the essay about how you don’t want to die young, but if you do you want to surrender. We’ve talked a lot about models that various exemplars in different religions offer for how to die, Socrates and how he dies in this kind of stoic manner, how he rushed the women out of the room cause he didn’t want crying beings around him, he wanted this nice rational death. The Buddha similarly dies serene, stoic, delivers his last words about impermanence. And then Jesus is a very different story, he’s on the cross, he’s dying in agony, and he has a lot of different last words depending on what you read, but at least in a couple of Gospels Jesus is quoting from the 22nd psalm, “why have you forsaken me?” So …what’s a good death? Is a good death going out defiant, is it stoically accepting impermanence…or is it something else?
AM: I can’t say what a good death is for anyone else. The kind of death that I want is peaceful, but not I wouldn’t say the sort of Socrates-Buddha equanimity model; it’s not some sort of polished thing. Death is messy, and I think there’s something really beautiful and sacred about the loss of faculties … the basic thing is stopping breath. And I don’t want to struggle and fight against that physically, first because that sounds like it would be painful, and I am terrified of physical suffering. I’m not afraid of death but I’m afraid of the suffering that might precipitate death.
SP: So the surrender is a kind of physical surrender, surrender to what’s happening in the body?
AM: Yes, but I wouldn’t even separate it into physical and spiritual, I don’t even know how to talk about it except to make a gesture of surrender. I mean you’re just letting what is happening happen, physically and spiritually.
SP: In the same paragraph, you talk about how you want to surrender and how you don’t believe in bodily resurrection. And your family members who have died are all buried after a fashion, but you say you want to be cremated. Isn’t that not what Christians are supposed to do, or why do you want to be cremated?
AM: Well, before I talk about that, I want to say that I actually do believe in the literal resurrection of the body now. I didn’t when I wrote this. I started to believe in the literal resurrection of the body after my father’s death, which was maybe the sixth or seventh death of someone that I love, but it was the most important death
SP: Since you brought that up, let’s do that now, because that’s kind of why you’re here. [Our class talked about] Caroline Walker Bynum’s essay about the resurrection of the body, and I think it was a day later when I saw Ashley, and you said, “Oh I believe in the resurrection of the body.” And I said “What? You never believed in that, I never knew you to believe in that.” I was just kind of dumbfounded, how did that happen? And you told me you just decided. And then I was even more dumbfounded, because I never thought about this as something you can decide. I thought they were just things you think about forever and it never really goes anywhere. But for you, you thought about it and that was it.
AM: So I probably misspoke about it being as simple as just deciding. I don’t believe you can just will yourself to believe something. But if I’m deeply ambivalent about something, and I want it to be true, I have just decided to believe it. Again it’s not purely rational, it’s similar to what I was saying about having that sense when someone has died that I have a dire desire to see them again. But I also have a sense that—I don’t know where it comes from, it feels very intuitive and natural to me–it is just not possible that I won’t see you again. I don’t believe that strongly in the resurrection of the body. I don’t believe that it is not possible that my body will not be raised, or that the body of my father will not be raised.
But I think it is a beautiful, amazing belief. I think it is something that gets really at the heart of what I have grown to love about Christianity, and so I believe it. Now I think I understand my theological development through stories, more than rational working things out. So I know I decided that I believed in the literal resurrection of the body, within a few months of my dad dying. My curiosity is why. Why my dad, if this is the seventh death, why is it that it made me think about the afterlife?
My dad being the doctor that he was, I don’t think he believed in the resurrection of the body. I never asked him point blank, but he didn’t really believe in supernatural miracles. The [Egyptian Coptic tradition [that Ashley’s father grew up in] is very miracle-oriented. There are all these stories of the saints moving mountains with prayer. And my dad would sit around in Alabama and talk about them and laugh and say “Bullshit! It was an optical illusion, that the mountain moved.” He was a scientist.
SP: So would he call bullshit on your resurrection belief now?
AM: I don’t know what he would say. So I’m still figuring out why it is that that precipitated my believing in the resurrection of the body, and I think a lot of it has to do with our family story being largely about bodies, and bodies that have been with morbid diseases, and seeing those bodies get very sick, and seeing people I love die, long before I knew that I had a fatal illness.
My dad was a cardiologist and a lot of his work had to do with resuscitation, shocking people back to life whose hearts had stopped, bringing them back to life in a medical-miracle kind of way, not a supernatural miracle. So I think there’s something about that being his vocation. He would tell stories about shocking someone’s heart back seven times, and the person surviving.
SP: You said that when people died, it was important for you to see their bodies after they died. And that you did that with your father, did you do that with your aunt as well?
AM: I did that with everyone.
SP: And this is sort of Southern, southern tradition.
AM: Yeah. Very open casket.
SP: But can you say something about the physicality of that…about your own experience with those bodies, because I think it’s very much related to this resurrection of the body question.
AM: Very much so. It actually surprises me in retrospect that it has been important for me to see the body after death, especially when my notion of the afterlife was just your body rots and your soul goes to heaven and there’s just a body, a separation between body and soul and that’s fine. And yet it surprised me the times that I have been with the corpses of people that I love—it doesn’t even feel right to call them corpses because I think of them as them—their bodies, their bodies that have died. It has been really important to me, especially both one of my aunts and my grandfather I saw within hours of their death, like in the morgue, and I really felt like I was they were still there.
And I’m not saying that god was making me feel that way, that’s just how I felt. And I felt that was a very sacred moment. And I remember I surprised with this, I touched my grandfather’s forehead, and it wasn’t like I was thinking about it, I just did, and I felt like I was touching the cusp between death and life. And I’m not saying I felt it like in that colloquial way like when we say “I felt like,” all I can say is that I felt it, it was an emotional feeling, I can’t say that it was like an objective reality, but that’s what I felt.
SP: And you say you felt they were there, can you explain more about that?
AM: Yeah I think part of it is it’s hard to conceive of someone that you have known in the bodily form that they are in, without that body. So if the closest I can get to someone who has died, and I’m still at this point probably in shock that, no, it can’t be that this person is dead, this is that person. So there’s a little bit of suspending disbelief that might be happening that. But this conversation …is making me understand the implications of my feelings about a dead body, as well as my belief in the resurrection of the body, what that means for what I believe a person is. That I do believe a person is an embodied soul. And that body plus soul, some sort of amalgamation of the two, is the person.
But that’s not a belief that I sat around and was like “ok, I believe that, so then I must believe in the resurrection of the body,” or “then I must believe that my dead grandfather is actually still there, and I’m touching his forehead, and I’m touching his departure from this world, and I’m touching the cusp between life and death.” I had those experiences, and then it wasn’t until, oh two days ago, when I’m thinking about this conversation.
I’m trying to understand the Walker Bynum essay, which I think is fascinating but also a little tedious, and she talks a lot about Thomas Aquinas, and I was talking to my friend who knows a lot about Thomas Aquinas, and he was talking about this body plus soul identity, and basically the human person from this view, which you’re calling the psychosomatic model, is that the body is essential to a human person, an individual. I am not only my soul; my soul is included in my identity. So this is a new thing that I’m thinking about. But that is the implication of that kind of interaction with dead bodies.
SP: I remember when we were talking, you said you didn’t even know that Christians believed the body would be resurrected?
AM: Yeah, I didn’t know until I was 25 that Christians believe that all bodies—I’m going to say all bodies, some Christians limit the bodies, but I’m going to say all—all bodies are going to be raised from the dead. I thought the resurrection only referred to the resurrection of Jesus. I didn’t know until I was 25 that was even a Christian doctrine. And then when I did, I was like oh that’s weird. That’s kinda crazy. It wasn’t even important to me at the time.
SP: So what does this body look like, what is your father’s body going to look like, when it’s raised?
AM: I don’t know. I want it to be a body without illness. I don’t want him to all of a sudden look like Tom Cruise or anything, my vision of bodily perfection. I want him to be him, and to have what a poet would call sort of the “inscape” of his body. But I don’t want to see him in physical distress. I want to see him well and happy and able to move.
SP: So he’s going to like you saw him when he was alive?
AM: Yeah, but not the last few years of his life. I don’t know, I’m saying what I want.
SP: Why do you want to be cremated?
AM: Because to me ashes are—and this is I am not speaking any kind of Christian doctrine, I am a very nontraditional Christian—ashes are a sacrament of transformation. I actually love watching embers of ashes. So I see that as a model for the ways that God can transform things. So for me, cremation is like wow, you can burn the flesh, grind down the bones, and then it’s something materially different than the body, and yet… In and of itself, that is fascinating that that happens. And then how much more amazing if God can reconstitute that as a body. I don’t know if God can or does, but I believe that.
Because I want it to be true.
But there’s also a much more practical reason, which is that I have several places where I want my remains to be. So I want some in Alabama, some near where my mom’s going to be buried, some near where my dad is buried, which is different places in Alabama. I want some near my home in New Haven, and I also if this can work out logistically, I would like some in South Sudan. Because I really pray for peace and just a completely transformed society in South Sudan. I have a lot of friends who have suffered a lot from what has happened there and what is still happening there.
And also, I read somewhere that ashes are really good for bulbs, for plants, to nourish new plant life. So for me it’s also not just the transformation of the ashes, but then what happens with those ashes, the life that ashes can nourish, and that mixture of death and life is really beautiful to me.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.