Reuters blog archive
Death need not be a grim affair, especially for the living. At a new columbarium in Singapore, the deceased can depart, rock concert style. Unlike most traditional Buddhist funeral ceremonies that follow cremation, there is no incense and no monks offering prayers at the Nirvana Memorial Garden columbarium, where the urns holding the remains of the dead are stored.
Instead, curtains draw automatically to reveal the deceased's urn which is placed atop a pedestal, machine-generated smoke fills the prayer hall and a booming recorded voice, accompanied by chants, speaks words of comfort and talks about death.
There was a report last May saying researchers had found incense was a mind-altering substance. Now comes news of another scientific report saying it could cause cancer. Given its ceremonial role in several religions, this attention to incense is made for a blog like this one.
These reports leave an interesting question unanswered, however -- why are scientists studying this now? Is there an upswing in incense burning around the world? Could this be linked to the Catholic Church's plans to revive limited use of traditional liturgies? It's hard to imagine that scientists would be watching religious trends. Is this just a coincidence?
Ask any altar server or visit any busy Chinese temple and you can smell for yourself that incense can be overpowering. But is it a mind-altering substance? A kind of drug that puts the faithful at ease and fosters feeling of peace and togetherness? And if it is, why aren't more people flocking to services where clouds of incense billow up out of swaying golden thuribles, rise from joss sticks lit by the faithful or fill the air at other religious rituals?
The incense-as-a-drug thesis comes from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. Their FASEB Journal has published a paper arguing there could be a biological basis for the use of incense because it seems to have the effect of a psychotropic drug that helps relax people.