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  • Nathan Riley, MD

Save the Planet: Bury Me Nude




Birth and death, the two events shared by all human beings...


In our handling of the former, we are increasingly willing in Western medicine to traumatize women through coercive language and a dismissal of basic rights of autonomy while turning a blind eye to the sacred experience of birth. In the handling of the latter, we have cultivated a culture in which we fear death above all, and we have long been determined to defy its inevitability until we've "tried everything" to keep the heart beating, even if a beating heart may be prohibitive to this otherwise beautiful transformation of spirit.


These two very over-pathologized, over-medicalized rites of passage have unreasonably attracted the purview of medicine over the past several centuries, since Re Descartes and other philosopher scientists of the 15th and 16th centuries set us on the path of scientific reductionism.


I should clarify that even though I've sat with death on more occasions than I can count, this doesn't mean that I'm going to be "OK" with dying. I'm still fearful in many regards of what's to come, though through various medicinal journeys and from accounts of those who have had near-death experiences I carry hope that it will be rapturous. But still...what if I'm wrong? In the very least, it saddens me that this human experience will eventually come to a close given just how rich it is becoming in my personal life of late.


Our apprehension in talking about our own death is reflected in our struggles with accepting medical prognoses and our unwillingness to complete advance directives. Death is inescapable, but many of us are shockingly underprepared. For example, some studies estimate that only about one-third of all Americans have completed a living will, which is a legal directive that documents in advance a person's wishes at the end of life in the event that they are not able to voice them at a later date (hence the term "advance directive"). Perhaps the sentiment is that if we don't talk about it, we'll never have to face our mortality?


Our culture is rife with examples of this unwieldy fear - the management of infectious diseases like SARS-CoV-2 is a perfect and timely example - but even after we pass away, we struggle to accept our biological finality. In the United States, most people are buried in lead-lined boxes and in concrete tombs. We can't bear to reason with the fact that we would be rapidly composted if we didn't protect our bodies posthumously in these ways. On deeper reflection, what this suggests is that maybe our fear of dying is actually a fear of acknowledging our very nature itself. "Lie in a ditch and wait to become worm food? What am I, an animal?"


I encounter this problem daily on very deep levels. As an obstetrician, I occasionally see babies die in-utero or after birth. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence, but in coping with the devastating nature of these events, the woman is left to carry the blame for what should be correctly seen as a natural part of the order of a species. Some babies will die. As a hospice physician, I have seen countless well-to-do people carry the blame of "allowing" their family member to "give up the fight against cancer". The death of a human in our culture remains the ultimate failure, whether this "failure" takes place in the womb or after one hundred rich years, yet the potential demise of our species due to an inability to think critically and act globally is seen as just another challenge yet to be solved by technology.


We are ubiquitously afraid of what's to come after our death precisely because we have become so invested in this physical form as part of our self-ascribed special excellence. As such, while we are alive we deny our nature and sacred connection to the Earth, and this is reflected in our accumulation of wealth, as if we will never have to part from this world, as if we are some anomaly with the tools to defy the natural state of the universe.


We have seen "nature", the archetype of Mother Earth, as the enemy for thousands of years. Antibiotics, the "fight against cancer", and the virus du jour, SARS-CoV-2, are just a few examples. The issue is that in order to fully appreciate the sacred nature of Earth's ecosystems, we must reckon with our own nature, and this means accepting our mortality.


Throughout our lives, we are encouraged - consciously and unconsciously - to invest into the narrative that "I'm in this alone". Self-help books are more popular than ever before, and every Instagram star seems to have the next big trick for improving your income or productivity. Over the long haul, this pans out in a funny way. It translates to social isolation and the accumulation of stuff. We buy so deeply into this narrative, that it becomes exquisitely painful to consider that our personal timeline will eventually come to a close, yet this is, in fact, against our very nature.


As biological organisms, our death will come, but in an effort to push this inevitable event further down the road, we have created an enemy in death, an enemy out of nature Herself. This has propagated as a new, more dangerous narrative: that humans can bend the laws of nature altogether. I have good and bad news. The good news is that you are, indeed, not in this alone. You are an important piece in the ecosystems of Earth. The bad news is that to merely preserve the natural world for "the benefit of our grandchildren" is to inadvertently pay credence to a false hierarchy atop of which humans are determined to reign supreme.


Since abandoning the requisite interspecies balance required of a functioning ecosystem likely 10,000 or more years ago, we have reasoned that human beings - given our ability to reflect on the "bigger" questions of the cosmos - were separate and that our survival had priority over other species. We have acted as the patriarchal "King" of the various kingdoms of biological and non-biological matter on earth. As a result, we tear down trees and exterminate wildlife to make space for what we unapologetically have termed "progress". We clear forests and pollute the oceans to make room our garbage in the name of "sanitation". Imagine during 2020 alone, the year of SARS-Cov-2, how much extra waste we created through personal protective equipment or the consumption of potable water in mass production of hand sanitizer. This has all been carried out in the name of protecting humans from a single virus among the likely hundreds of thousands if not millions of viral strains that have coexisted with us over the ages. And now, as we find ourselves being overcrowded by one another, there are talks of abandoning the planet altogether in favor of brighter pastures elsewhere in the solar system, as we are finding that the resources of this previously rich planet are inadequate to sustain our unchecked population growth.


Uninhibited growth is not permitted by the laws of ecology - nor is immortality -, yet our primary motivation of preventing every human death and preserving every human life at whatever cost necessary is dangerous. This may sound like an unfair and privileged remark, but that doesn't make it any less true. As a herd grows, its resources dwindle, which leads to a blunting of the growth curve and a decrease in the herd's numbers. This allows the resources to be replenished, with a resultant replenishment of the herd's numbers. This waxing and waning of each of the billions of biological species' populations on Earth is important for ecological balance. What humans fail to realize is that the harmonious balance of nature is critical for our own survival, not just that of Mother Earth Herself. Put another way: the selective survival of species within an ecosystem naturally throws off a delicate balance required for all organisms to survive.


We are organic beings entrusted with the endowment of spiritual bodies, and, in my opinion, the fact that we will die one day is part of what makes every moment precious. The inevitability of our death is preceded by the heartbreak that comes with losing our loved ones, each offering a practice round to sit with loss in anticipation of the ultimate loss: your own life. You don't get a vote as to if you will die. You only get a vote as to how the time from now until then will look. If the path forward continues as a separate story altogether from that of Mother Earth, then we are aiming our missiles at ourselves, as we are an integral part of this ecosystem. We are on this path, and perhaps this is the order of the universe. Even so, major changes must take place if we are to preserve humanity.


When I die, I insist that you bury me nude. Forget the lead-lined casket or the concrete tomb. Forget the trinkets and shiny metals that I've amassed over the years. I was born of Mother Earth, and She will know best what to do with my remains. She will recycle me within Her ecosystems, permitting me to shed my material remains and for my soul to be repurposed onto a new path of healing. Only with the adoption of a less than species-centric narrative can we right this ship. Acknowledging the impermanence of human life is not only helpful in curbing the shame and guilt that we carry collectively when human souls pass on - whether that of a baby or centenarian. This acknowledgement is requisite to our healing the planet and our collective conscious about what it means to be alive.

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