The Ben Ish Chai, a great Sefardi rabbi, used to save strands of his hair and beard. When they fell out, he plopped them under his turban and kept them there till nightfall. Then he collected them in a box, stowed them away in a special place throughout his life. When he died, he was buried with them.
The Ben Ish Chai wasn't alone. Many Jewish wise men did the same thing, collecting pieces of themselves as their bodies tried to lose them.
Now, I can relate to this type of behavior. I still have my third-grade class journal, the souvenir yarmulke from the first Bar Mitzvah I attended, the case from a mix of songs that my best friend made me, though the mix itself is long gone. All these things still sit in a drawer of my desk, together with a hundred things that no longer serve a useful purpose.
I remind myself that Jewish burial is the exact opposite of the ancient Egyptian burial, where a pharaoh or a local macher would be buried with his riches, his favorite toys, and his not-quite-dead-yet servants and family members. In our tradition, when you're in the ground, the only thing that keeps you company is you -- your body, some clothes, your tallis (also a thing, once living, that is composed of wool, which will decompose along with the rest of you), all stuffed into a simple wood box. It's pretty environmentally friendly. It's also pretty efficient. A few years from now, you'll be back to being dirt, none of this pesky physicality left to hold us back.
I don't mean to belittle our religion's environmental cred, but I think it's also representative of something deeper. All this simplicity and lack of ornate-ness makes a body decompose faster, which seems to indicate that your body is not the you of you. After death, our souls have more important stuff to worry about.
But while we're still here on Earth, there's this whole physical thing. Our bodies. Our hair. Our toenails.
Nails and hair are not alive. They're a vivid reminder that we're human, and a warning that we won't be human forever.
I don't know why the idea of nail clippings is gross to us -- any grosser than fingers. Both come into contact with every manner of sticky, smelly, slimy, putrid and/or disease-ridden substance over the course of an average day. But nails and hair are not alive. They're a caustic, vivid, and all-too-physical reminder that, yes, we are human, and they are also a warning that we won't be human forever.
The opposite of this raw, honest and mortal human condition is angels. The word for angel in Hebrew is malach – messenger -- and that's all they are: they receive God's word and they pass it on. They can't eat. They follow God's instructions to a T. They're clean, pure, orderly and boring.
Angels are also incapable of creative thought; when God tells an angel to do something, the angel does it. There's only one real example of the legions of angels questioning God: When God says to them, "Let us make Man," the Midrash says that the angels protested: why, they asked, do people get more spiritual bonus points than angels do? Why are they ranked higher in the importance of Creation, and what about them is so special?
And God tells them: Because you have to do whatever I say and follow My will, but people are going to have a choice. You live in Heaven, and you only know goodness and Godliness and do holy things, but these humans are going to be around some of the nastiest refuse that the world can dish out. Angels are surrounded by Divine light, but people have the Divine on one hand and the scum of the earth on the other. With our bodies, we create refuse and, one day, our bodies themselves become dirt.
And they'll still be capable of creating goodness.
At funerals, I'm always struck by how we wear our cleanest and most pure clothes, and we talk in the most formal language possible, when we're gathered to witness the most physical of all acts, short of giving birth. It's the ultimate separation of body and soul. But we also have this gift, maybe even a power, that humans are composed of both a body and a soul. So we're never too far away from praising and admiring God's creation...and we're never too far from a reminder, whether brilliant and inspiring (like a sunset or a really good book) or icky and physical (like a hangnail) that we're a part of that creation, too.