Life Amongst Death

Written by Liberty Shockley (University of Cincinnati) Student Correspondent UW in India, Summer 2017

Today, I want to talk about death.

Death isn’t as scary and final as most of us think, if you believe in reincarnation. The possibility of coming back as a rat is more worrisome, and the thought of a final death and reaching Nirvana, or Heaven, is something sought after.

Death of a loved one is felt deeply, and mourned by all. In America, we put obituaries in our newspapers, post on Facebook our memories of them, throw a big party in celebration of the life they lived, and then stuff them in the ground. Loved ones can get attached to headstones, visiting them often, and still struggle with death months or years later.

CET student group on a boat ride along the ghats of the Ganges

When a person dies here in Varanasi, the stages of mourning and funeral look different. The families usually take a day to complete the cremation ceremony from time of death at one of the many ghats along the Ganges River. Some families will choose to wait another one or two days for a child to arrive if they are out of town, using the morgue facilities at Banaras Hindu University Hospital. The ceremony is really involved, rooted deep in tradition and Hindu faith. Then for two weeks, the family will perform a fire ceremony in the morning before trying to carry on with life as usual. There is less attachment to a person’s material things and their body, because it is believed their spirit lingers after death, and the family can help the soul along its karmic path.

The order of events is as follows:

Death occurs

If male, they are wrapped in white. If female, then wrapped in red. If a Hindu dies outside of Varanasi, they are subject to continue in the reincarnation cycle, with their next life dependent on their karma in this life. However if a person dies in Varanasi, it is believed that the reincarnation cycle ends and the soul can continue toward Nirvana.

A deceased man and his family wait for a cremation stall

The family will then cut bamboo and make a gurney for the deceased. Women will say their goodbyes to the deceased before leaving the home. There is a separate viewing area if they are interested, but usually don’t attend. There is an old thought that women will cry or try to jump on the fire. This however did not occur frequently in history, just enough for it to become a stereotype. It’s the job of the men of the family to transport the body through town, ending at the ghats, usually filled with the mantra, “Rama nam satya hai” meaning “The name of Rama is truth”. After settling in a designated place on the ghat, final goodbyes are said by pouring water from the Ganga into the mouth. The body is lit on fire from its mouth facing up, by the eldest son if male, and the youngest son if female. In Nepal, the body is placed face down and lit by the nose instead. The body will burn for 3 ½ hours, then, the ashes are swept and will dry before being released into the Ganga.

A funeral at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal

This is specifically death in Varanasi. It’s not like this in all of India. Nepal is different too, despite having Varanasi’s “Sister Site”, Pashupatinath Temple. There are things we as “Westerners” can relate to, and there are things we won’t ever fully grasp. My biggest takeaway is a lack of materialism involved. Families here don’t even keep ashes in urns or necklaces or anything. All of it is released into a river. Even I find myself holding on to handwritten notes from friends who’ve died, or visiting headstones much too often. I want to believe more that a person’s legacy is kept in my memories, in photos, and in the actions they took while they were alive rather than hold onto home goods or useless trinkets from the deceased. I believe this experience has changed my views on death, and will help me overcome the inevitable grief I’ll experience in the future.