Dust

It was an early August morning in Kolkata — my hometown, a metropolitan city in eastern India — when I drove my father-in-law, upon his request, to one of the embankments of Ganges, the Holy River, which demarcates the western border of the city.

August in India is usually peak monsoon season, which brings heavy downpours to the subcontinent. On this morning, however, the sky was a clear azure, the breeze bracing, and the streets were relatively dry in between spells of rain. Our 20-minute drive was peaceful; the time was early enough for us to avoid the usual weekday rush-hour traffic and the inevitable vehicular congestion on narrow city roads.

In short, there were no portents in the surroundings that could clue me in to the solemn, weighty contemplations that were to come in the later part of the day.

My father-in-law and I cruised along in companionable silence, occasionally punctuated with desultory conversation. The circumstances leading to our sudden yearning for the Ganges happened to be somber: there had been a death in the family. Earlier that week, my father-in-law’s elder brother had suddenly passed away in his sleep from a massive heart attack, leaving behind his wife, daughter, and son.

From all accounts, this uncle-in-law, may he rest in eternal peace, had lived a complete life with few regrets. Traversing the country following his career’s trajectory, he had eventually settled down with family in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. His children, both adults, were professionally accomplished and well settled. While I did not know these cousins of my wife’s very well, we did exchange occasional pleasantries via Facebook. I shared the family’s sadness at this sudden and unexpected loss.

The previous day, my father-in-law had returned from Hyderabad, bearing the remains after the mortal body of his brother had been cremated according to Hindu rituals. The remains would be sprinkled onto the water of the Ganges, or Gangā, as my people would say.

Since ancient times — when the societies inhabiting the Indian subcontinent were primarily agricultural and riparian, and Hinduism was the dominant religion — all the major rivers have been considered holy and accorded divine statuses originating in Hindu mythology. Of them, Gangā embodies the sacredness of all holy waters; its name is invoked during Hindu religious rituals, and to the devout, Gangā water is considered both pure and purifying — to the extent that the ritual sprinkling of the cremated remains of the deceased onto the river is believed to cleanse their soul and facilitate their journey into the light.

That morning, as the car rolled on, I could not help but contemplate upon the manner of the gentleman’s death. Our world is no stranger to war, famine, and pestilence; since time immemorial, countless individuals have been dying every day violent, unnatural, and needless deaths over reasons spanning from petty politics, apathy, callousness, nationalism, fanatical adherence to religious beliefs, to accidents or random acts of violence. How fortunate, then, one must be — having lived in that same world — to pass on peacefully in one’s sleep on one’s own bed. Of course, death rarely arrives in the manner of one’s choosing, but would that I were so fortunate when it is finally my time to go.

“Hey, we are here. Pull over by the side.” My father-in-law’s voice yanked me out of the grim reverie. “This is the entrance to the Prinsep Ghāt. You don’t have to park; just wait in the car. I shouldn’t be long.”

Ghāt is the vernacular word for embankment. Built in 1841 by the British Raj, Prinsep Ghāt — named after James Prinsep, an English scholar and historian — served as a jetty on the bank of Gangā in Kolkata. With the British long gone, the city government has maintained the Ghāt as a waterfront recreational spot with facilities for boating and fresh air strolls. There are multiple entrances, each leading to a set of paved steps that descend into the water.

“No, no,” I protested. “I shall come with.”

Glimpse of Gangā from the steps of Prinsep Ghāt entrance 2; Photo by Rishi Bandopadhay, used under CC-BY-NC-2.0

I parked off Strand Road, the nearby thoroughfare, and we walked into the entrance number two, a relatively secluded and quiet spot. A few enthusiastic, rotund joggers were pottering about; a cute young couple, engrossed in each other, passed us by; some boatmen were washing their colorful boats and clothes on the wide steps of the embankment.

But we, my father-in-law more than I, were weighed down by the gravity of the duty he had come there to perform. In a way, his brother’s spiritual wellbeing in the afterlife had been entrusted upon him by the family. I mean, that must be an awfully huge responsibility, right? If it were upon me, how would I even know what to do? What does it even mean, cremated remains? What does remain after a person’s life is gone, and what does it matter? How does one sprinkle the remains — does one throw everything in at one go with a flick of the wrist, or sprinkle on the water like salt?

Come to think of it, this expanse of water in front of me, with its low billows continually irrigating the muddy banks — does it make a difference that this is not really the sin-cleansing Gangā of mythological lore?

“Here, hold this for a second.” My spiraling thoughts collapsed at the voice of my father-in-law, who handed me a brown paper bag. “I need to wash my hands with Gangā water before I take the contents out.”

I told myself to get a grip. It is true that, in the strictest geographical sense, the river in front of me is named Bhāgirathi-Hooghly, a distributary of Gangā. Having originated in an icy glacier high in the Himalayas and flowing through the plains of Northern India, Gangā bifurcates upon entering the eastern state of West Bengal, into Padmā, which continues east into the neighboring nation of Bangladesh, and Bhāgirathi-Hooghly, which makes its way southward through the deltaic plains of West Bengal, playfully nudging Kolkata — the state’s capital — to merge into the Bay of Bengal.

For the task at hand, however, geography did not matter. Both the exalted status of Gangā and its immense cultural significance devolve upon its tributaries and distributaries, and Hooghly (as it is known in the lower reaches in the Gangetic plains) is no exception. To the people of Kolkata, Hooghly and Gangā are synonymous and endowed with the same sacred qualities.

My father-in-law approached the steps with great solemnity, put aside his slippers, walked barefoot down the steps into the water, and bending down, rinsed his palms thoroughly. He reached out to me for the brown paper bag and took out a piece of folded paper, which, to my utter shock, was about the size of a one-ounce box of Sun-Maid California Raisins. With great care, he opened the folds to peek inside and then folded it back — but not before I managed to catch a glimpse of the cremated remains.

I don’t know what I was expecting. In the movies and sitcoms, they always show a jar or an urn, of varying sizes, filled with ash. The accidental release of the ash from the container, forming a powdery cloud, has been a popular, humorous MacGuffin. This was nothing like that. There were bits of greyish ash — some flakes, some powdered — and a few pieces of charred bones, not larger than a well-chewed chicken thigh or wing. That was it.

Seriously?! Was. That. It?

Cremation — the process of burning a corpse at very high temperatures — has long been an essential part of the funerary practices of eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. These philosophies believe the soul to be indestructible, and once the soul has departed the body in death, cremation is the prescribed process to return to nature the elements, with which the mortal body was composed. The purifying and sanitizing attributes ascribed to fire in religious mythologies are of additional interest, too.

In the olden days, the corpse would be placed on an open funeral pyre made of wooden logs. The rich would use expensive but fragrant sandalwood. As a part of the last rites, a male member of the immediate family (usually the oldest son) would set the first fire to the pyre. Modern-day cremations, performed under strict governmental regulations, occur at crematories where industrial furnaces efficiently incinerate human bodies; to follow traditions, the crematories would often allow a designated family member to press a switch to ignite the furnace.

Cremation requires prior preparation for both the corpse and the cremation chamber. This entails removal of metallic implants, including pacemakers and titanium joint replacements, and prostheses from the corpse, which is then placed in a casket, usually made of a combustible material, such as plywood or cardboard. The cremation chamber, lined with several layers of heat-resistant fire bricks and insulation material, is preheated to about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit (close to 600 degrees Celsius). To minimize the loss of heat, a mechanized system rapidly transfers the casket to the primary incineration chamber through a door which is sealed immediately thereafter.

With the push of a button, the body and casket are exposed to a column of flame resembling a jet engine, fueled by diesel, natural gas, or propane, reaching chamber temperatures of 1,400–1,800 degrees Fahrenheit (up to nearly 990 degrees Celsius, about a fifth of the sun’s surface temperature). Such high heat is required to completely vaporize the water content of the human body (which makes for 65–85% of the total body weight) before the body will burn.

The casket burns first, of course. In the next few hours, the intense heat dries the body, vaporizing water in the organic matter, consuming the skin and hair, disintegrating organs and soft tissues, charring the muscles, finally calcifying and crumbling bones. The gases released during the oxidation process — which carry most of the body’s sulfur and carbon content as dioxides — go out through an exhaust system. No odor or smoke lingers; a secondary chamber destroys particulates in the escaping air with an afterburner and/or traps them with a water mist.

Upon completion of the process, the chamber is cooled, and the cremated remains — mostly dry bone fragments — are swept up, processed via a special grinder into a fine gravel-like material, and collected in urns or other containers to be given to family members if they want it. (Some do not.)

Scene at dusk from the holy city of Varanasi, open air funeral pyres on the bank of the River Ganges
Holy City of Varanasi, open air funeral pyres on the bank of Ganga; photo by Josh Friedman, used under CC-BY-ND-2.0

The open-air funeral pyres of olden days required the supply of a large amount of wood for burning, nearly 900 pounds (400 kilograms) per ritual, at a heavy cost to the environment — in addition to the air pollution from incomplete combustions and release of carbon dioxide and other gases. In addition, open-air cremations often involve two rather gruesome situations: once the firewood is set ablaze, the rising heat leads to the tonic contraction of the muscles, which often causes the corpse to sit upright from the torso. This necessitates someone, usually a funerary worker, to beat the burning corpse with a stick to break bones and soften up the muscles, so that it goes supine again.

Second, a part of the ritual involves breaking the skull of the corpse with a long bamboo stick. This action, which symbolically releases the soul from its seat, is supposed to be done by the family member performing the last rites, but they often find it an emotionally and physically daunting task, which then falls upon a funerary worker to do. Not unsurprisingly, this entire process extracts a tremendous toll on the mental health of the funerary workers — an already terrible situation that is further exacerbated by the fact that these funerary workers are socially stigmatized, paid a pittance, and placed in the lowest rung of the social hierarchy (“caste”).

Besides, the manual operation of the open-air funeral pyre does not produce the uniformly powdered cremation remains as with the mechanical grinder. I never had the heart to ask my father-in-law about his brother’s final rites, but the appearance of the remains made the open-air pyre a likelier possibility.

Concerned with the environmental harms, Mokshda, a non-profit organization in India, had introduced in the 1990s a cleaner and more energy-efficient system, which utilizes a metallic enclosure as pyre; the metal surface burns hotter, with only about a third of firewood; the enclosure focuses the heat more efficiently in the central chamber, and the process finishes in a matter of hours instead of days required for the traditional pyres. However, since societal mindset is ever the slowest to change, the demands for the traditional pyres continue heedless of the environmental tolls, and the uptake of this new system has been slow. Identical societal mores have also stymied wider uptake of electric crematories beyond metropolitan cities.

With its technological optimizations, the crematory-led cremation process — standard in the US, Canada, and many parts of Europe — is likely cleaner and more environmentally friendly than pyres. However, cremation still has a significant carbon footprint; according to some estimates, the carbon dioxide emission and consumption of electricity or natural gas from a single cremation is equivalent to a 500-mile (800 kilometers) drive. There is now another process, currently legally accepted in nearly half of the US states and a few in Canada, which addresses this concern.

Commonly referred to as water cremation or aquamation and technically alkaline hydrolysis, this process chemically mimics in a matter of hours what happens to an interred body over years. In a hermetically sealed metal chamber, the body is placed in a caustic mixture of water and lye (chemical name sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide); the alkaline chemical reactions are accelerated by heating the water to 200–300 degrees Fahrenheit (about 95–150 degrees Celsius; as reference, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius), with application of pressure, sometimes with mechanical stirring. Within about 16 hours, the lye digests the proteins and fats of bodily tissues and other components down to their basic building blocks, essentially making a soup with salts, sugars, and amino acids, along with undigested, porous bone fragments; these bones are then dried and powdered in the usual manner to produce the cremated remains, while the liquid is drained into local wastewater treatment facilities.

Processing of pet and other animal carcasses by alkaline hydrolysis — a zero emission, environment-friendly technique — has long been an established practice since late 19ᵗʰ century when it was patented in the US. But the acceptance of its use for human bodies has been slow, in part due to stiff resistance from the Catholic church (which finds the process not sufficiently respectful to the dead) and, unsurprisingly, the lobby of casket-makers.

As my father-in-law started to put the folded paper with the remains gently down on the water surface, I managed to remember my mother’s admonishment when starting from home that morning and, from atop a vantage position on the embankment, placed a palm on his shoulder.

“I know you don’t subscribe to these beliefs, but they do, your father-in-law and his family, as do I; at that melancholy moment, you are standing in solidarity with their customs,” she had instructed me. “There is a right way of doing everything. For the ritual you are helping your father-in-law with, this is what you do: Maintain a touch with him at all times, especially when his feet are submerged. We believe this prevents the living from inadvertently floating away with the remains of the dead.”

The piece of paper bobbed up and down a few times as it floated away and quickly drowned when it got wet.

The drive back was inevitably slower since we got ensnared in the office-hour rush. But while traversing the distance and throughout the rest of the day thereafter, I could not shake an unsettling thought. The crematories produce cremation remains weighing 3–9 pounds (nearly 2–4 kilograms), about 2–4% of the original body mass, and the open-air process, significantly less. Which meant that the rest of the 132-odd pound (about 60 kilograms) body of the late lamented — skin, hair, muscle, fat, tissues, organs, systems — were all mercilessly, deliberately, irrevocably consumed by the blazing flames, all chemical compounds breaking down and returning to their elemental states. For dust thou art, unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:19).

Human history is but a chronicle — spoken or unspoken, known or unknown, documented or not — of lives lived and ended. By observing the variegated lived experiences of people, philosophers across ancient civilizations have attempted, from around mid-2ⁿᵈ millennium before common era (circa 1500 BCE), to understand the meaning of existence. The collective contemplations of these philosophers and their pursuits of knowledge and wisdom eventually gave rise to various Western and non-Western schools of thought — including Eastern philosophies of religion — guiding fundamental beliefs about nature of reality, theological precepts, reason and knowledge, as well as systems of moral values.

The concept of death as an extinguishment of life was first recorded in writing also during the latter half of 2ⁿᵈ millennium BCE, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem about a legendary Sumerian/Babylonian king who reigned a millennium earlier. Therefore, people have been aware of the realities of end of life for a long time. Nonetheless, this reality can be particularly harsh to accept, especially when a loved one is concerned. Many philosophers — especially the proponents of religious philosophies — have long sought for effective means to cope with loss and grief. I suspect that this is how they came to extend the notion of life into an “afterlife” — which incorporates the concept of rebirth in many Eastern philosophies — as a comforting thought that even in death, not everything is forever gone.

A pragmatic rationalist, I don’t hold with such abstract theological constructs as soul and afterlife; I prefer instead to rely on empirically derived truths and follow a simple ethical framework defined by empathy and reciprocity. The Hindu philosophical principle of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (“the world is thus one family”: Maha Upanishad, Chapter 6, verse 71) and the “Golden Rule” from the Bible — do unto others as you would have other do unto you (Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31) — both work for me.

But I am far from unaware of the human iniquities in our contemporary times, especially those actions which bring pain and suffering to others. It is ironic — as this day’s experience reminded me afresh — that regardless of how we live, the final chapter ends in either a decaying, maggot-infested wooden box six feet under, or a few pieces of charred bones and gravelly ash floating into oblivion, or some soupy variation thereof.

An author close to my heart, the late Sir Terry Pratchett OBE, once wrote in his Thief of Time:

“The universe is, instant by instant, recreated anew. There is in truth no past, only a memory of the past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.”

To my mind, these words embrace the very essence of humanity. Living in the now in an ever-changing world is a privilege. Appreciation of the ephemeral nature of the moments of our existence makes each moment that much precious, that much deserving of living in joy, and what better way to accomplish this than to spread this joy by doing something good for someone else, not for any quid pro quo, but simply because of a kinship we feel with them?

I am here this moment; the next I might not be. The same can be said for a delightful bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich in a croissant, so how is my existence different from its? I believe the meaning of our existence is derived from the lives we have touched in a meaningful way and good memories we have created. Long after we have shuffled off this mortal coil, we continue to live on in those memory imprints. Wouldn’t I rather have my remembrances spark joy every time than elicit curses?

Just as my mother and father-in-law appear to have their life-guiding precepts, I find mine in Sir Terry’s playful words; made of dust, I am glad of the life that I have. It is, after all, the only one I believe there is. It behooves me to live that life with joy before I, too, must return, ineluctably, to dust. Or soup.

Sources:

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4. Shapiro, Ari. 2016. “In India, Eco-Friendly Cremation Is Easy — But It’s A Tough Sell.” NPR All Things Considered, May 10. Accessed November 22, 2020. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/05/10/477350818/in-india-eco-friendly-cremation-is-easy-but-its-a-tough-sell

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16. Pratchett, Terry. 2001. “Thief of Time.” New York: Doubleday Inc.

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Kausik Datta

Kausik Datta

Wannabe storyteller in science. Graduate of John Hopkins Science Writing MA program.