And what that says about us
by Geetika Jain
A great way to get under the skin of a living culture, especially a little-known one, is to learn about their thoughts, beliefs and rituals around death. Conversations about reincarnation, reunions with departed spirits, and the manner in which they send-off their loved ones might surprise you and lead to fascinating discoveries. While most rituals are rooted in ancient philosophies, modern science and technology is helping to develop sustainable options that can turn our lifeless barks into useful nuggets.
Whisperings of death are all around us. Statements of grief and love take form in flower bouquets and roadside memorials where a person might have lost their life in an instance. The names of loved ones are inscribed on park benches. They live on in academic scholarships, wings of hospitals, places of worship and most of all, in our memories. Their photographs are hung in our homes, shops and offices. While these may be familiar to us, in far-flung lands, other practices are thriving.
Wandering the lanes of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam, my friend and I came upon Hang Ma street with shops selling things made from paper. The stalls were festooned with rather unique paper replicas of houses, cars, motorcycles, washing machines, refrigerators, clothes, cell-phones, shoes, wallets, eye-glasses and wads of cash. These, it turns out, are bought by relatives of the deceased and burned on Wandering Soul’s Day. People believe that on this day the gates to the afterlife are opened for spirits to come back to the earth, and their ancestors can accept and enjoy the offerings. From their vantage point, death is by no means a final departure and the next world bears a strong resemblance to the present one.
Driving through the countryside in Kyrgyzstan, the captivatingly beautiful hills reared up all around me and my guide Kuban. We stopped to explore curious clusters that looked like giant birdcages. Kuban explained that these airy domes housed tombs. Influenced by Islam and nomadic traditions, the Kyrgyz have uniquely adapted their grave coverings to look like yurts, with views of the open skies that are close to their hearts. While the Soviet occupation saw many mosques razed to the ground, the graves were left alone, and they continue to tell the story of the people held deep within their wombs.
High up in the folds of the Himalayas, several Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists still opt for sky burials. In accordance with their beliefs, after a person’s passing, while the spirit is in transition, the body is a mere empty vessel to be given back to nature. In an extreme act of compassion, the naked body, often chopped into pieces, is left out in the open as food for scavenging vultures and predators. When full, they spare small creatures such as the mice, marmots, weasels and hares.
The respected priests, the Lamas, encourage people to confront death openly, and to feel the impermanence of life. Many a ritual object in the monasteries is made from human bones. The harsh, treeless landscape has also had a role to play in eliciting this practice, with the lack of wood for pyres or coffins and the earth being too hard to dig graves.
In Ladakh and the villages of the hinterland, if a baby dies before its teeth are cut, the dbon-po (astrologer) might recommend putting it in a small coffin and walling it up within the house to retain its g-yang, or good fortune and hoping its soul will re-enter the mother’s womb.
According to the ancient Zoroastrian faith, dead bodies must not defile the earth, water or air. Traditionally, they are cleansed in accordance with rituals and left in the ‘towers of silence’ to be consumed by vultures. The practice continues in a handful of places such as Yazd, Iran. In Mumbai and Hyderabad, the lack of vultures (many died from eating cow carcasses that contained the drug diclofenac) has made the community pivot to solar concentrators, where intense sunlight desiccates corpses as it passes through a fresnel lens.
In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town on the planet, it has been illegal to die since 1950. As the temperatures dip down to –43°C, there is constant permafrost in the ground. The archipelago belongs to Norwegians, who are mainly Christians, but they can’t bury their dead here, as the permafrost will preserve the bodies forever. Anyone expecting to die must fly to the mainland.
Over time, several polar explorers, whalers and scientists have lost their lives in Antarctica, where they might remain hidden forever, or make a macabre appearance as an iceberg calves and melts in the ocean. Similarly, as Everest melts, bodies of trekkers and Sherpas keep emerging from the ice.
On a trek through Mantadia Rainforest in Madagascar, as we looked out for creatures such as lemurs, indris and sifakas, our guide Eric Michel chatted with us about life on the island, describing the famadihana or ‘turning of the bones’ tradition. “We (Malagasy) believe that our dead ancestors influence our fortunes and fertility from the afterlife. Every 5-7 years, when enough money has been saved, our family plans a famadihana where the entire village comes together. Alcohol is passed around freely, food is served, and the festivities start. We make an opening in the family tomb to let out the bad smell, then begin pulling out one body after another. They’re re-wrapped in fresh fabric, even the crumbled ones. The band starts to play, people begin to dance, sing, and commune with the dead, rocking them, talking to them, filling them in on the latest news, introducing them to new family members, perhaps showing them a new bridge or house, and asking for specific blessings before placing them back. People are even more powerful once they die, so we must respect them.”
Also believing in an afterlife, the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert add bows and arrows, pots and fabrics to the graves of their dead, whose bodies are anointed in ochre and fat and buried in foetal position, facing east. The spot is topped with a stone cairn to keep it from being dug up by any animals.
Death rites are not always achingly solemn. In Barbados, a driver commemorates his grandmother, who passed four years ago, by hanging her smiling picture on a badge on his rear-view mirror. In Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley, the sudden loud gunshots turned out to be part of a funeral procession with a touch of gangsta-verve. Guns and bullets are a luxury, swapped with precious cows and goats, and so firing them is a way of lavishing honour on the departed. In Spanta, Romania, people believe that death leads to a better life, and so it must be celebrated. The notion is reflected in the Cimitriul Vesel, the ‘merry cemetery’, dense with colourful paintings on tombs illustrating the dead person’s life that are often topped with light-hearted epitaphs.
Our death is our swansong, and the manner in which we go also reflects who we are. The religious rites that are handed down to us over generations have a consolatory feel, but many of these were established millennia ago, when there were far fewer humans, rivers were pure and thick forests covered our planet. These traditions now need to be revisited. Our awareness of environmental issues has been heightened. Let’s look outside our windows today and think afresh. By 2050, there will be 10 billion humans. Does cutting down trees for pyres and coffins, putting masses of carbon in the air and choking our waters with ashes sound right?
Shedding our reticence and donating our bodies to science and allowing our organs as hearts, livers, eyes to be used by others upon our passing is modern-day compassion. Preserving, not depleting our planet is the new mantra. Fresh ideas abound. The US-based company Eternal Reefs compresses human remains into a sphere that is attached to a reef in the ocean providing habitat for sea life. Resomation is a technique where alkaline hydrolysis breaks down and liquifies the body with no carbon emission. Capsula Mundi, an Italian company, makes organic pods into which bodies are placed and put in the earth. Seeds or saplings are planted just above, and they become nourishment for the growing tree. A simple version of this practice requires a spot, a sack and a sapling. If we can allocate land and turn our bodies into forests, it could be our most considerate legacy for future generations. A human and a tree growing into each other. What better consolation.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!