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The dead deserve a better sendoff, surely

May 16, 2013 10:27 IST

Despite all views about afterlife and such, it matters little to the dead how he or she is disposed of, says Mahesh Vijapurkar

It is not often that one comes across improvements in crematoria. The last was perhaps setting up of electric furnaces for quicker, more efficient burning of bodies. The new thing is that in some crematoriums in Mumbai, piped natural gas will replace wood as the fuel because it is a cheaper and cleaner option.

There is reportedly a ‘tepid’ response to this change in two crematoria in Mumbai and only unclaimed bodies are being disposed of using natural gas. But undeterred, the city’s civic body plans to use this option and the people, like they did in the case of electric furnaces, would get used to it. If electricity could be an alternative, gas needn’t be a taboo.

Despite all views about afterlife and such, it matters little to the dead how he or she is disposed of. To their kith and kin, who attend to the task as a last gesture to the person, the place’s upkeep and the manner of disposal should matter for it involves the use of non-renewable resource. Wood has some negatives that include the high cost of ferrying, storing and the smoke.

Actually, few think of their own inevitable death, much less how they would be disposed of, or even where. Nor do the kith and kin, who, when death strikes a household, start wondering about where the body should be taken. They even wait for neighbours and some do-gooders to help. It suddenly becomes, perhaps rightly so, a community affair.

Few think of the crematorium and the kind of places they are, where the finality -- in the manner of being turned irretrievably into ashes -- arrives. The place may be well, fairly or even poorly kept, but to the dead it should not matter in the least. Only those who have attended several funerals in different crematoria would see any difference between them.

Often times, one feels like having a thorough bath, not so much as a ritual but to rid oneself of the feeling of being physically unclean, as if to leach the body of its grime collected. I often wonder at funerals whether I too am destined for such a messy place, with ash floating around as colloidal suspension.

They stick to the skin, they have to be scrubbed away.

Of course, I am talking of the Hindu crematoria and the rituals. Every time, the feeling is that the dead did not get a dignified departure; the body is just laid out anywhere till it goes on the pyre or into the furnace. Suddenly, it is all over, and then start the other funerary rights. These of course are choices -- they can be done or avoided.

Crematoria are not always owned and operated by the local bodies. Of the 194 crematoriums in Mumbai, only 61 are owned by the city government and the rest are managed by trusts or local committees. They lack adequate facilities and any sense of elegance.

The whole exercise of cremating a body is aimed at just getting the process done with. These crematoriums have a place for the pyre, a nominal washing place and nothing more, not even a shade against the sun and showers for mourners.

I have attended the funeral of a senior journalist where, since the power supply was unavailable, the family had to wait for furnace oil to be fetched. The wait was uneasy. Elsewhere, it is a haggle for the wood, both price and quantity. In some places, especially villages, it is just an open space; everything is make-do.

I have also known of a body waiting for its turn to be consigned to an electric furnace, waiting for the other body already in it to be turned into cinders. This happened despite a time for the funeral being fixed. The family, in utter unease, had to wait with the dead in the corridor, standing guard.

Funerals involving cremations vary from place to place and the range is amazing, to say the least.

In Varanasi, where the dead are brought from far, some bodies are even half-burned and pushed out into the Ganga. The fire has to come only from the Dom -- a person, akin to Raja Harischandra’s duties -- for a fee which is variable and whimsical. Or the dead body remains stuck.

In Kerala, they have devised ways to cremate and clean up in the soggy soils of the backwaters.

In Gujarat, an efficient way to burn the body has emerged. Cast-iron or latticed steel containers with only three sides -- the bottom and the two verticals on its either side to contain the wood -- are used. The space beneath encourages better burning with the passage of air, ash falling to the ground.

Varanasi is by far the most amazing, the wood being economically consumed, perhaps less than what others do. They are placed on the pyre, lit, and then pressed deeper into the burning flames, like at a barbeque. The intent apparently is also to speed up the process, so the queue of bodies can move quicker. It is gory and it is undignified, sometimes the body is bent by the downward push of the attendant’s rod.

Faith works there and the indignity is set-off by the presumed assured passage to heaven. In 1980, I had even seen that city’s local body’s neon signs proclaiming how Manikarnika Ghat was the gateway to that desire. No wonder bodies are brought from far afield, some even slung on the bar of a bicycle. Even the mandatory four pall-bearers are unavailable.

But who can quarrel with faith and the hold of the priests and the traditionalists who make the entire process of cremation not just a ritual but a mindless one? Has one ever bothered to question the ritual or has a priest been able to explain why a particular thing is being done? It is just done, that’s it. That is, however, another issue.

Making crematoria better places is certainly the need of the hour.

Mahesh Vijapurkar