Death. A Reprise

Manikarnika Ghat, Kashi
Manikarnika Ghat, Kashi

I wrote “Poison – II” a few days earlier, and I want to write this post to start a closure protest. The subject of death, the infamous Fourth Horseman, is a subject of intense interest to me. You shall see more of this, but not in a depressing manner.

My first real, upfront, experience of Death took place when I was 17. I had just turned 17, in fact. An 18 year old in our engineering college drowned one night. We used to go swimming at midnight, because we did not want to pay the semester charges of the pool. One night, he drowned and died. To cut a long story short, it was decided to cremate him in Kharagpur, where we were studying. The priest, I believe, was not very good at his job. We sat through the night by the pyre as he burned, and we could see the flesh dripping into the flames. At one point, I was sitting by his skull when it exploded, and I saw his brains drain into the fire.

In our traditional system of cremation, we are brought close to death. To fast forward to more recent times, I dressed my father for his cremation. I had to crack his skull when the body was on the pyre, and the next morning I walked barefoot in the smouldering ashes to collect his ashes and bones. I carried his last remains with me to Rishikesh, and immersed them into the Ganges. Despite the emotion around his death, the intellectual part of me knew that the body was an empty shell. Not the emotional side of me.  We live in the dichotomy of the emotional and intellectual sides of ourselves.

There is death, and death. My father’s death was a quick, peaceful one. There is living death, where people live out the last years of their lives as empty shells of their previous selves. Slowly, we forget how they were in their prime, and the memories that remain are often those of the shell of the person who was once strong and proud.

There is death, and there is death. Between the ages of 18 and 24, I saw four more people. One was lying dead between railways tracks in Calcutta, as people went on with their lives. Another, in Bombay, was chopped into four or five pieces, and the parts of his body were being shovelled into a handcart.

The third was alive. He was lying on the platform, his feet chopped off at the ankles, as the blood oozed from his trousers. His life would have become a living hell.

The fourth was alive as well. She was a pretty beggar girl, who I used to see everyday. She disappeared one day, and returned after a month. A hole was where her right eye used to be, and I could see through to the white of the skull.

Images like these don’t disappear. They fade, but they live in memory, with the persistence of lessons that will not be denied.

When I put up the video of the sky burial, after the initial shock, I realised that the people feeding the corpses to the vultures seemed to be going about their ceremony (if I call it that), or ritual, with respect.

Yet, we have a history of torture in our species. We have been inventive in the way that we design ways to kill other humans. It is strange that we talk of people behaving in a bestial manner. Beasts – animals – act in the manner that is defined by their nature. Is it ours, to take pleasure in death, or to design painful ways of bringing this about?

While I often thought of death as man’s last adventure, our leap into the unknown (I am not suicidal, by the way!!), we seem to have lost the sanctity that many of our ancestor’s had, for life and death.

This, of course, is not true for all of us, but it is true for far too many of us.

Do we need to reclaim that part of our nature that we seem to have lost? It maybe a question that we need to ponder over.


  1. I just went back to your other post, which I had not managed to catch up with yet. I didn’t watch the video….but it seems as good a funeral as any to me. I would find it very hard to do as you have done with the funeral pyres. Your posts are very interesting and thought provoking, thank you so much for sharing your experiences.

    1. Thanks a lot.. I think that, in our cultural environment, we do get used to this sort of thing. However, with the spread (slow spread) of electric crematoriums, I don’t know how future generations will perceive these traditional customs

  2. My only experience with death was after my daughter collapsed and died from what was probably a pulmonary embolism. She lay on the floor for several hours before the funeral home came and picked her up. This gave us a chance to say our goodbyes and achieve a sense of closure that seems more difficult to achieve when you don’t have time to spend with the body. It was a very sad experience, but in a strange sense it was also fulfilling, to have that proximity with the body immediately after death.

  3. OH my gosh! You saw a body chopped up? I read a book my Mother Teresa and she was telling of this finding people dying on the side of the road! I can tell these scenes and death events made a huge impact on your life! I think this is what makes you full of so much to share, sifting through all the thoughts to bring them to a conclusion! wonderful post! Hugs to you! 🙂

      1. Thanks. This is the Manikarnika Ghat, and what you see is a body burning. Benares/ Varanasi/ Kashi is the city of Shiva. He is the most complex of all our gods, and in one of his aspects, he walks the cremation grounds. To be cremated in Kashi is considered to be a blessing.

  4. Dead or Alive, Man ‘and’ Beast, Deserve Respect, at the Least. And We seem to be losing all that. Have to Return to the Centre. Regards, Rajiv. Good post. Kudos. 🙂

  5. Your experience of death is shattering!

    My only experience of death is watching my grandpa close his eyes while muttering “hey ram, hey ram” after he was brought home (the doctors had lost all hopes, and he had strictly asked us not to let him become a vegetable). We had left our hometown long ago and he wished to die there, it was very unnerving to see him struggle to breathe in the ICU-on-wheels just to get a glimpse of his hometown. He even raised himself to watch our home from afar for one last time. And he passed away within 30 minutes of being brought home. Thinking about it still gives me bad dreams.

    I am sorry men in our culture have to go through with looking their loved ones on pyre. It must be immensely painful. I remember my dad quiet for one whole day after grandpa’s cremation. I know he couldn’t sleep properly for days.

    If just watching him pass away gives me goosebumps and longing for him to return, I cannot even imagine, how it must be to watch him burn.

    Strength to you Rajiv. This post was very thought provoking!

  6. What powerful experiences, Rajiv. Death is so much part of life yet something still so mysterious.
    But yes, many people have a complete disregard for life and kill for no real reason – animals don’t mindlessly kill.

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