Our first day in Varanasi, four of us went down to the Ganges to see the ghats (steps). As we meandered around, we came to the Burning Place. A priest who is in charge offered to take us around the ghat and explain the rituals to us.
It has taken me a few days to process what I saw, smelt, heard, breathed, and experienced.
The first thing I noticed was the fire, the smoke, the ash, and the wood. Then, I realized I was seeing bodies burning, and saw legs and feet sticking out of flames. I saw the skin melt yellow and burn away.
There are only two burning places on the Ganges. Hindus believe that those who die near, are burned at, and put into the Ganges go straight to nirvana. Only men are allowed at the burning places; women are seen as “too emotional,” and their strong emotions, crying, or wailing would disrupt the movement of the soul to its final place. No photographs are allowed.
I felt guilty because the women of the families were not allowed, but I was. I’m not sure what to do with this feeling, other than note it, acknowledge it, and remember it.
Many sick, dying, and elderly people try to get themselves as close to the river as possible. The priest pointed out two big buildings near the ghat that act as hospices; they are filled with they dying. Every morning he goes to the railroad stations and brings back the bodies of the dying.
The wood they use for burning is unique, and expensive. It costs Rs 525 for one kilogram, and takes more than three hundred kilograms (at minimum) to burn a body. (Although, if a family can’t pay, others donate, or the priest and his workers will beg nearby to gather enough money. Everyone who wishes will receive the service. We gave the priest Rs 525 before we left. Rs 500 is about ten dollars US.)
Up where the wood is kept, along with dried grass that the family uses to light the fire, is an eternal flame. The small fire, mostly white-hot embers and ash, has been burning continuously for 3,500 years.
Family members first cut and shave all of the hair from the body, and then bring it down to the river to wash it. They crack the top of the skull, to aid in letting the spirit escape. Then, they take it back up and wrap it in white (the color of funerals and death here), and then wrap it in brightly colored cloth and garland. All the bodies I saw were wrapped in saffron-yellow cloth and then gold, red, and rainbow garland.
While we were there, there were at least four bodies burning, six bodies wrapped and waiting, and we saw two other bodies come in procession. The families carry them, singing or chanting, as they make their way down to the river.
I found seeing actual burning flesh less horrifying than, for example, seeing photographs of burned bodies from the Holocaust. The difference is intention, I think. In the latter, soldiers were murdering, humiliating, and seeking to annihilate. In this case, though, families are manifesting their religious and community hopes, and there is no doubt (as there sometimes is in Western funerals) that the loved one has gone straight to heaven (or nirvana.) In fact, the priest said that the attitude is one of, “Now you go to heaven; I will go home.”
The ashes were all over me; I was breathing in the end of life in this material world. I felt the smoke burn my eyes and watched wood settle. I saw scraps of old garland floating in the water. I tried to pay attention to everything, and spontaneously prayed, crossing myself, when I realized, with a jolt, that I was looking at another body.
Later that evening, we watched a puja. Hundreds of people gathered close to five small stages by the river. Five young men in yellow stood; one on each stage prepared his materials for worship. To music, drums, and endless ringing of bells, the men completed rituals with fire, conch-blowing, petal-throwing, and incense.
As the incense wafted over the crowd, I remembered that in the Eastern Orthodox church (for one), the priest or acolyte censes the congregation to protect us from the holy presence. Remember the Holy of Holies, the cloud concealing God’s face, the various fires and clouds that protected the Israelites and holy people of the Bible from God’s presence.
Meanwhile, down at the river’s edge, women held baskets full of small candles. It seemed that people would come and purchase a floating candle, and send it out onto the river, like a prayer. As the evening wore on, more and more little candles floated along, carried by the currents of the living and the dead.
After a body is completely burned, the family members carry small pots of water from the Ganges to start extinguishing the fire. All around the burning place, dark black ashes pooled near the banks. Someone from the family takes whatever large bones might be left in the ash, and carries them carefully to the water. They take one last pot of water back, pour it on the ash, and then smash the pot. They are finished with the funeral duties, and can “go home.”
I find the tangible heartening. In my experience with funerals, so much is unseen. Between the time a person dies and the time I see them again in their casket, days pass. Clothes are changed, make-up applied, decisions made with careful professionals. I have read that in the US, it is even common now for family members to use a silver shovel (provided as part of the service) to scoop the earth into the open grave; it’s thought that we, as consumers, don’t want to get our hands dirty.
My memories of my grandmother’s death, for example, include the smell of the hospital, with mauve and gray plastic hospital room accoutrements and the constant sound of ward announcements and footsteps in the hall. Her body seemed the only physical thing, and insubstantial in the face of chemicals, tiling, and electronics. Later, at her funeral, the casket was brushed and satin lined, the parlor carpeted and hushed. Everything clean and well-decorated. So little physicality.
In contrast, the funerals I saw at the Burning Place were all physicality, all fire, wood, water, and flesh. Hoarse voices singing, worn hands carrying. Cows and dogs throughout, children begging nearby. Hands, faces, fire, water, ash.
What more can we do for those we have loved? We carry them, wash them, find the fine linen, sing our best song, and wait with the elements to help them finish their material existence.
No photographs are allowed of the Burning Place. Photo of the riverfront by the author.
Stephanie Varnon-Hughes is a Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, where she earned her Master's in Church History in 2008 and her STM in 2009. A schoolteacher, Stephanie received the Most Promising New Teacher of the Year Award of 2005 in St. Louis, Missouri and has taught English and Performing Arts in public schools in St. Louis and the Bronx. She is a PhD student at Claremont Lincoln University, focusing on building and piloting a multi-religious curriculum for public secondary school students. Follow her on Twitter @SVarnonHughes.