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To bury or to cremate, that is the question.

The first close encounter of my life with cremation was the death of my father’s younger brother who passed away at a relatively young age leaving behind his wife and two distressed daughters. For reasons not understood by me I was chosen by the group of household elders to be the ‘adopted son’ of my uncle for the purposes of cremating his body. Clad in pure white clothes and a white turban I silently followed the instructions of the pundit in chanting the prayers and moving around the body of my uncle spraying water on the ground around him from an earthen pot. Numerous rituals followed and all I had to do was to just look at the pundit and be guided accordingly, an innocently young lad who understood little of what was going on but nonetheless having a deep psychological impact with the encounter of death and cremation at a young and impressionable age.

As time passed and I came on to learn more on facts of life and death two issues still eluded me regarding the rituals followed by Hindus namely why did they cremate the dead instead of simply burying them and why was it necessary for me to take on the role of a son to my uncle when his daughters could have done the same rituals. Elderly neighbors would often comment on the birth of a baby boy in a family ”Oh! that’s good, someone to take care of the father’s last rites”. These practices were often questioned by me to several acquaintances and friends and the answers came in aplenty, some plainly funny while some suggestions utterly ridiculous. Hence began another quest for me.

Since time immemorial Hindus have always has the custom of cremating the dead rather than resort to other forms of disposing the dead as followed by different religions of the world. This practice has often been looked upon by the western world as an ancient barbaric ritual of condemning a corpse to be burnt rather than a respectful disposition by way of burial. Hinduism is not the only religion in the world to profess and continue such a practice.

Cremation has been practiced throughout the world since ancient times, with religions and nations developing unique customs and rituals. The process represented the rebirth of the soul for ancient civilizations, which believed that the burning flame would purify the soul and ward off evil spirits.

Cremation is forbidden by some traditions, including the Parsi and Baha’I faiths, but it is widely practiced by Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. Beliefs differ among Christian groups; some, such as the Protestants, have no objections, while others, in particular the Roman Catholics, generally frown on such a practice.

When they were not either ridiculing or ignoring the rite, these traditionalists argued that cremation was a heathen, pagan, and therefore anti-Christian practice: it overturned nearly 2,000 years of the Christian custom of burial, it demonstrated a lack of respect for the sanctity of the body (which was the temple of the Holy Ghost), and it flew in the face of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

Several theorists took up the task and used the idioms of theology and sanitary science. They claimed that burial failed to safeguard the living from the toxins of the dead since the bodies in the graves emitted ‘poisonous exhalations’, polluting both air and water. It is of no doubt that the body eventually met the same end in burial or whether it was cremated, and neither nature nor God discriminated between the two systems. The argument was however the time it took for the body to decompose between the two methods.

Was cremation an affront to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body? Well, to recover a shape from a heap of ashes can be no more difficult than to recover it from a mound of dust. God is as capable of raising a burned body as He was of raising a buried one. The issue of whether to cremate a body or to bury it has somehow always been seen as a case of one religion versus another while actually the issue should be considered as a question.

Hindus have always considered cremation as a much superior method to dispose of the dead as compared to burial based on sanitary, economic, social and aesthetic grounds. In the world according to these early cremationists, it was more hygienic, more utilitarian, more refined, more egalitarian, more economical, and more theologically correct to burn than to bury. Cremation has been considered to be both more hygienic and less expensive than burial. It was also said that the swiftness of the process of incineration was “a relief to the mind” when compared with “the slow and distressing” decay of inhumation.

Cremation does rapidly what nature does slowly, and although cremation is becoming more widely accepted, it is still a concept that often requires people to change their way of thinking about death and burial. One understands and comes to grips with the concept of cremation and the spreading of ashes when they realize the meaning of the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and to dust we shall return”. 

The hardest part of cremation is a loved one’s accepting that what is in that little urn that weighs 2 kgs was once a person…….a near and dear one!!

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