Going out in a blaze

There’s the scratch and sizzle of a striking match. Then the blue-orange blaze that ignites the shrouded body, which is wreathed in marigolds. Then … foof! … all is rising flame and billowing smoke. The corpse begins to burn. It will do so for hours, until all that remains is a heap of ash and bone.  

I witnessed such sacred funeral pyres on the Ganges in India and on the Bagmati River in Nepal some years ago. I didn’t stumble upon them; I sought them out as quasi-spiritual pilgrimages. My slightly morbid, slightly practical fascination with death led me there. Beholding the ritualized smoke and fire, I felt privileged and humbled.

What I didn’t feel was awed. Death is deeply quotidian to this non-believer. There is nothing mystical, magical or celestial about it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, with no heaven, hell or afterlife to follow. Pardon the party-poopery.

Seeing these holy spectacles, my thoughts toggled between where the spirit goes (er, nowhere) and the fact that I was simply watching large bonfires almost beautiful in their pageantry. Any psychic weight was emotional — these were real, beloved humans — and philosophical — what does it mean? — and not, at last, spiritual. 

I’m brought to these memories by a spread in today’s Times about the only public open-air funeral pyre in the U.S., located in the small, dusty town of Crestone, Colorado. The story follows an 81-year-old resident from the last stages of his illness to his outdoor cremation:

“He knew his body would be wrapped into a simple shroud, carried on a wooden stretcher into an enclosure, and placed on a platform a few feet from the ground,” the story goes. “His sons and his wife would light the fire and watch his body burn for several hours. The next day, they would collect the ashes.”

While pyres are rare, cremation in the States is hot stuff. In a statistical shift, more than half of Americans are cremated after death, and you can be sure that’s how I’m getting out of here. Embalming is for chumps, religious beliefs be damned, and casket funerals are so much ceremonial claptrap — wasteful, ghoulish, quixotic. (You can read about far more creative and eco-friendly ways to be put to rest here and here.)

The Hindus have it down. Across Asia they practice communal, public pyres that almost anyone can chance upon and witness. They are solemn. Tears are shed. But for some reason they are not private family affairs, but rather regal roasts for all to see. Crestone, Colorado, is on to something.

Yet as much as I respect it, that’s not for me. Let me say — family, listen — I do not want to be burned on a communal funeral pyre for public consumption. A high-tech, high-temperature crematorium is just fine, and afterward, as I’ve said, do what you will with my ashes. I suggest salt and pepper shakers. 

What I saw in India and Nepal was real and powerful, despite my spiritual doubts that border on irreverent. I’m of two minds, the sacred and the profane, but a bit closer to one than the other. Guess.

Funeral pyre, Nepal

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