Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Hindu Funeral

I walked past this structure several times when we were at the beach a few weeks ago without paying it much attention.

Later, Sabby (our driver) walked by with me once and casually said, "Ma'am, this is for Hindu funerals." Stunned that it wasn't some sort of picnic pavilion remnant, I made sure I had heard him correctly, "Do you mean that this is where people cremate bodies?" Indeed, that is exactly what he meant. My Western sensibilities had just assumed cremation took place inside a building that had a closed incinerator. Fascinated by my lack of knowledge, the entire branch started teaching me about Hindu funerals.

After much animated debating between themselves, this is what they decided I should know:
1. When someone dies, they are cremated within a day - the quicker the better.
2. The relatives and friends wrap the body in a sheet, cover it with flowers, and walk in a procession down the street to the nearest cremation center.
3. Sometimes there is a lot of crying and emotion in the procession (which is mostly men).
4. Someone with an offering walks in front.
5. The family stacks loads of wood to make a base (considerable debate about which type of wood - I think pine might have won...).
6. The body is placed on the wood base with most believing that you took the sheet off to view the face during cremation - a kind of good-bye moment.
7. More wood is piled on top.
8. A family member lights the wood (no agreement on who gets to do this) and everyone stands back to watch. They all vehemently agreed that standing back was VERY important because the brain will 'pop' and you don't want to be a part of that (vigorous head wagging).
9. After the body has finished burning, the ashes are gathered and carried to the nearest body of moving water. It seems they prefer rivers but any water that isn't stationary will do. This is the reason all cremation areas are built next to rivers or seas.
10. The ashes are scattered over the water - none are kept in a vase or container (I asked and they thought it was the most backwards suggestion - who in the world would want to keep ashes in a container in their house?!? That idea was so ludicrous to them that they couldn't think of anything to say (a first) nor find the strength to wag their heads). Oddly, no one seemed to mind the fact that in addition to all the excrement and garbage already polluting their water, there were also human ashes (lots of them!) in the mix.

Armed with my new-found knowledge, I started noticing cremation sites all along my normal route. The beige building in both pictures is the same one from different views. I have seen this so many times and never knew what it was.


Some neighborhoods do use incinerators - their tell-tale narrow black smoke stacks can be seen all over the city (now that I know what to look for). The first one is a very popular one.

And sure enough, off to the side about a half mile down the road from one, there was a procession.

Without Sabby, I'm fairly certain I would have missed all of these things. To people in India, it is a normal part of their lives - they think nothing of it. They were surprised at my ignorance and amused at my curiosity and I am left wondering about what else I'm missing. One more down, about a hundred left to go!


  1. Those pavilions look like they would burn down! Very interesting stuff. And what is that giant goat-looking animal tied to the fence? India is so fascinating.

    1. That, my friend, is a holy cow. Right next to the cow covered in tarps are portable worship shrines. A group of street people live there and make money from people wanting to "worship" on the go. People will pay a few rupees to feed the sacred cow some holy grass or to offer something (money, flowers, or food) to one of the idols in their portable shrines. Besides being located next to the cremation site, it's at a very busy intersection with a long traffic signal allowing them the opportunity of knocking on your window. I think they have all visited mine at some point :)