Cremations in Varanasi

Four cremation fires on the banks

Cremations in Varanasi on the Shores of the Ganges

The Hindus believe that the Ganges River in Varanasi is exceeding holy. If you are cremated along the banks, it’s believed that your soul will be able to move to the next reincarnation unhindered. This makes Varanasi a morbid but spiritually important destination for Indians.

And do be honest, although it was morbid, it was a destination that made me re-examine my own beliefs and spirituality as well.

This place along the banks is such a desirable place to be cremated that people come to Varanasi to die when they know their time is short. Because of this belief, there are about 80 cremations a day out in the open in specific places along the river. The area is open to the public and anyone is free to watch so long as you are respectful. So I watched. It’s solemn and it’s sobering. But it is the reality of life. The thing that got to me the most was, that we gloss over death and hide it away. But here, it was right out in the open.

The attitude towards death is so different. It made me take a step back and think about what we do in the US and what is normal?

The climate has to be a consideration. It’s very hot in this area of India so cremations need to take place soon after death, usually 5-7 hours. The family is required to manually carry the body down to the river. Because of that, it’s not uncommon to be in a market or cafe here and look up to see a corpse wrapped in cloth on a bamboo stretcher being carried down the street by chanting relatives. I’ve see it 3 times now.

Once at the river, the family rinses the body, pays for wood, sandalwood powder and begin the ceremony. The unfortunate thing is, the most expensive part is buying enough to wood to the job properly. It takes about 600 pounds of dry wood to effectively cremate and that costs about $20 US. In the past, poorer families would get by with less wood and the remaining remains were tossed into the river. Now there are charities to help defray costs.

The family is incredibly involved in the process, from beginning to end.

The oldest son shaves his head and beard, dresses in white and performs the ceremony. This consists of walking around the corpse 5 times followed by mourners, spreading fragrant smoke and chanting. They then light the fire and stick around for the entire cremation which takes about 3 hours. Women do not typically take part in the ceremony itself for two reasons. As I was explained to me, one is they cry and that is believed to hinder the soul’s journey, the second is they used to throw themselves on the fire if it was their husband that died. This was outlawed in the 80’s.

The lowest cast has historically been the ones to do the clean-up work of the ceremonies. Often they will have families agree that if they cannot afford the wood, they leave the jewelry of their loved one on and the cremator will sift though the ashes at the end and sell the jewelry.

Some are sent into the river without cremation.

Unfortunately, the belief it that not everyone can be cremated according to Hindu beliefs such as children, pregnant women, people with small pox or people who died from snake bites to name a few. These people are weighted down, and thrown directly in the river. Animals are also sacred and thrown in the river. This is evidenced by the number of dogs floating near the banks. For that reason, this is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. When you add in the issue of untreated sewage and daily deposits of cremation ashes and un-cremated remains from Varanasi and ashes shipped from everywhere else in India, you can see this is a very different view that can be hard to adjust to.

It makes sense to stay as far away as possible from the river but it’s also an important water source. Local laundry is brought to the river. To cleanse your soul you not only need to touch the water, you need to bathe in the river. Any time of day, you can come to the banks and see people bathing.

I was surprised at how peaceful the ceremony was actually. I thought it would be much more graphic and horrible but people in India seem to have a totally different view of death. Don’t get me wrong, there is mourning and devastating heartbreak, but I think the belief that loved ones are just going to their next life is comforting.

In a way, maybe it makes more sense to be accepting of death as part of life. It seems to me like we fight anything associated with death in the west. We fight age, hide illness and politely address death by putting makeup on corpses for viewing, which I think Indians would find strange. Seeing the Indian ceremonies was shocking, especially in the open like that, but their attitude towards it was enlightening.

Watching the Hindu ceremonies from the Ganges River