A cremation ground is not my idea of a place to write. Until this piece started to write itself there. This happened the last time I attended a funeral in Delhi. The sights and sounds were the usual. The chants of “Ram” as a reminder of the eternal truth of death. The living and the dead waiting together, only to part company soon. The air laden with grief. Except this time round, all this appeared with parallel meanings. My attention was drawn to palls of thick, dark smoke, heavy logs burning at each pyre and the stockpile of wood that would soon be consumed. I saw the ash rise gently from the dead, fall on the living and float all around. I watched smoke disappear into Delhi’s grey skies, a city already desperately gasping for clean air while wearing its smoggy winter look.
Most of all, I recognised how human beings are both visionary and blind — we destroy trees that give us life for beings who have no life; we burn the living to cremate the dead; we pollute our environment to purify souls. A traditional Hindu funeral pyre burns anything between 500 to 600 kilograms of wood and takes over six hours. This implies that an estimated 50 to 60 million trees are cut and burnt annually in India for cremations — that is millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions. As per the journal Nature, more than three million people across the world die prematurely because of outdoor pollution; China and India lead this pack.
Now, if you think polluting funerals are neither a big problem, nor your problem, sadly, these impressions are a part of the problem. Traditional cremations are one cause of air pollution we can do something about. Well, almost — the trouble is, conversations about the environment or funerals don’t appeal to most people. First, we assume innocence by believing we do not contribute to our cities’ foul air. But recently on Diwali, we burst crackers regardless of public appeals and warnings by the authorities. In the midst of the odd-even traffic arrangements in Delhi, my neighbour whined about its inconvenience and burnt her termite-eaten mattress instead of simply discarding it. Like other issues, we believe pollution to be the government’s burden.
Hence, for most Hindus, the traditional wood-fired funeral is the only choice. Despite the recent visible haze in Delhi, pollution and its hazards simply don’t seem to worry us. Is it not strange that burning dry leaves attracts a fine of 5,000 rupees in Delhi — but cutting and burning thousands of trees for cremations is not even a talking point?
Second, talking about death or questioning traditional cremations is often seen as inappropriate, even difficult. These are “sensitive” issues, we are told, and being squeamish about these is acceptable. All this makes building a case against the traditional (wood-fired) pyre tough. Electric or CNG-run crematoriums are definitely less polluting. Delhi-based environmental group Mokshda Paryavaran Evam Van Suraksha Samiti offers eco-friendly “green cremations” that use only 100 kilograms of wood and take two hours. However, the usage of these alternatives is low because they aren’t seen as ceremonial enough. We exist in a time when “sentiment” can nullify sane argument. So, unable to do much, the authorities in Delhi surrendered to sentiment; they now hope to install smoke tappers in crematoriums.
But when appeals to rationality don’t work, what would make us think and act better? What will help stretch our imagination and make us kinder to nature and ourselves? Ironically, Hindu philosophy claims to revere all forms of life, including trees. Hindu mantras deify rivers, mountains, trees, animals and, of course, the earth. Rituals and prayers around these had a special place for our ancestors and trees remain a precious part of our heritage.
In fact, a spiritual understanding blurs the human and non-human divide, seeing humans as embedded in the cosmos — why do we then not practice this big-picture view of the universe and nature, with its innate environmentalism?
Maybe because unlike our philosophies, we see ourselves as distinct and superior from nature. After all, we are self-indulgent animals whose hallmark is narcissism.
Most of us live and leave with big carbon footprints and a trajectory of emissions. At least, when we finally check out, why not clean up after yourself? It will be good karma and good dharma. Think afresh. Choose creation over tradition.
The author is a social scientist and writer