The Dispatches Of Hira Singh – Jim

Death Makes Angels Of Us All…” ……. Jim Morrison

My father died two years ago, plus a few months, and my uncle died about ten days ago. 

In the Hindu tradition, they were both cremated. 

My uncle went through an electric cremation, and my father went through the traditional one, in the wood fire. The electric one is considered to be more environment friendly. However, having said that, I felt that there was, for me, a different reaction to both processes, in how I responded to the death. 

I will also dsicount the fact that, as a son, I will be more emotionally affected by my father’s death than I will be my uncle’s death. 

In an electric cremation, after the ceremony is performed and the prayers offered, the body is pushed into the furnace, and once the furnace door is closed, you leave. There is nothing more to do. 

I accompanied my cousin that afternoon, to collect the bones and ashes. One of the crematorium workers brought them to us, washed them, and drained the water into a drain. As in all cremations I have attended, when I saw the bones, I thought to myself, is this what we come to in the end? Bones, ashes and memories? Memories that live until those who remember the dead, die themselves. Then, memory dies and only the effects of the deeds live on in the living. 

When my father was cremated, we stood around during the cremation. I pushed a hole into my father’s skull using a pole, and then flung the pole over his body. This is said to release the soul, and also prevents the brains from smashing through the skull. 

I went the next morning to collect the bones. This time around, I had to get into the cremation pit, barefoot. It was still hot, and while the priest doused the embers, I hopped a bit, as the heat burnt it’s way through my soles. With the help of the priest, I collected the bones, and then he washed them. 

In both cases, the bones were put into an urn, before being released into the rivers. Rivers carry with them, the memories of the past, and those who have gone before us. When we defile rivers, not only do we defile nature, but we also defile the memories of our ancestors, and our connections with our heritage. 

My experience of the ceremony was very tactile. I could feel the memories of my father’s life in the bones that I collected from the cremation ground. This stays with me even today, and while I encourage the march of technology, I think we need to be in touch with our essential spirit and nature. 

Do we, as people, lose touch with the spirits that surround us in the onward march of technology? 

Perhaps, that is something that we need to think about as we progress from being ‘savages’ of the past, to being the technologically aware citizens of the future. 

How will we stay in touch with ourselves? 

34 Comments

  1. My condolences on your loss, Rajiv. I have never witnessed a cremation. Your description of it gives me the impression that it is truly an intimate, soul baring experience.

    1. It is. The first time was when I was 17. My senior drowned, and for some reason, the parents did not cremate him. We college fellows did. That was somewhat gruesome and surreal at the same time.

      The cremation started at midnight, and the priest was not so good at making the pyre. While I wont go into all the details, I remember the sight of his flesh, and his brains, dripping into the flames.

      You never get to see this in a well prepared cremation pyre. The body is well covered. But, the memories of that first cremation all those years ago has stayed with me, and I am sure it has stayed with a lot of my classmates

      1. I’m sure it has stayed with everyone, such an awful thing to experience. You’re strong for being able to participate again after that. I hope you’re bearing up well and will feel better soon.

      2. Oh… I have seen some rather horrible sights in India. I shan’t tell you what all I have seen!

        But, read the post again… Read about the connections. And, the loss we feel with connections if we rely too much on ‘technology’

  2. Very humbling when you see the cremated remains. If my husband dies before me I will have him cremated and keep him until my end. Then the children will have me cremated and our ashes will be put together then buried.
    But we are more than those ashes we are soles that are released into a whole new dimension.
    Leslie

    1. Well, in my father’s case, we kept him in the morgue overnight. I had help, luckily, in dressing him up for the cremation. The army men who helped me dress him, treated him with a lot of dignity when he had to be dressed, and I am thankful to them for that.

      We release the ashes into the waters. I don’t know the exact significance, but I think It helps release the spirit

  3. I’m so sorry for your losses Raj. I’m so amazed how much more connected you are with the process of cremation than we are here. It’s foreign to me and scary but it’s just not something I’m familiar with. Thank you as always for sharing your culture in a very real way.

      1. That is very true…. I grew up in the hills, so I love the mountains and rivers… for instance

        By the way, when I say hills, I mean that school was 6,500 feet above sea level!

  4. My mother was cremated (as you call it, an electric version). But, here, you don’t get the bones, just the ashes. They were buried in the same plot with her late husband. Me, I wish to be cremated also and have my ashes scattered over the nearest large body of water — a symbol of becoming one with the Great Ocean and being recycled to something useful/nourishing. I’m not sure how I would have coped in your shoes re your father’s cremation.

  5. Touching, and very informative. That there is a ritual even for the electric cremation keeps one in touch with tradition, even though the traditional ritual is more compelling. Cremation in the US is so sterile by comparison to Indian cremation. Thank you for sharing. You taught me something new.

    1. Thanks… I wonder how India will be if it ever turned sterile. Sometimes, we miss the sterility of the West… In the sense of hygiene and public cleanliness.

      However, with the influx of immigrants from across the world, I think that the West will become less sterile over a few generations.

  6. My condolences, Rajiv. We all of us, no matter what society we belong to, build up our traditions over hundreds of years until they take a form that works for us. In the case of the rituals of passing, they serve to help the survivors over the grief of loss. We discard them thoughtlessly, as technology takes over, at our own risk.

  7. Hearty Condolences over Your losses, my Dear Rajiv! Thank You for sharing.

    But does technology really make that much of a difference? Think of the ladies, who, as far as I know, do not attend cremations. So what difference did technology make there?

    Regards.

      1. Oh! Do not have Much experience about that, of course, and also, here in the South, I do not see them doing that.

        Anyway, my point stands, does it not?

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