At the end of last year (2017) and beginning of this, my wife Lisa and I spent some weeks in India, on a pilgrimage of sorts. It was a journey that left us enriched and deeply impacted, and will take a long time to process. I intend to share here some of our experiences.
The first one is concerning a front-row experience of a Hindu funeral in Varanasi. Also known as Kashi, Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India. Just like orthodox Jews hope to be buried on the Mount of Olives, so Hindu believers hope to be cremated on the banks of the river Ganga (a.k.a. Ganges) in Varnasi (a.k.a. Benares; those a.k.a. names are mutilation of the original names, and were coined by the British rulers. They are gradually returning to the usage of the original names).
I took the picture above at a funeral. Notice that while one body is being burnt on the left, close to the Ganga river, on an ordinary pyre made of simple wood arranged on the ground, a cremation pyre of a member of a rich family is being prepared on an elevated platform at the center. The wood here is all fragrant sandalwood, and staff spent hours laying down garlands all around.
The end result is the same (excuse the graphic details): body burnt to ashes, with all the bones crushed into powder by the cremation workers except for one bone (pelvis in the case of women, rib cage in the case of men) which they leave whole for the closest relative (always a male) who, after the fire dies down, carries it with tongs and drops it in the river, charred and still hot. That man is clean shaven (head and face) and bearfoot, and his body is wrapped in two plain white sheets of cotton.
After discarding the bone in the river, he takes a jar of Ganga water, turns his back to the river and pours the water behind his back towards the river, signaling that the relationship with the deceased has now been permanently cut off. He then goes back towards the city without looking back.
No one is allowed to cry, wail, or shed a tear during the ceremony, since sad emotions of those left on earth are said to make it more difficult for the deceased to depart from this world. Emotionally demonstrative relatives and friends are banned from the ceremony. All women relatives and friends are banned.
Sitting in meditation for part of the ceremony, I understood why it is a recommended Buddhist practice to meditate in cremation grounds. A meditation on impermanence.