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COVID disaster transforms the way India handles its dead
Over the past few weeks, the world has watched in horror as the coronavirus rages across India. With hospitals running out of beds, oxygen and medicine, the official daily death toll is around 3,000. Many argue that this number could be an undercoverage; Crematoriums and cemeteries are running out of space. The majority of the Indian population is Hindu, who prefers cremation as a means of disposing of the body. But the Muslim population, which is close to 15%, favors the burial of its dead. In general, tradition has it that the body be cremated or buried as quickly as possible – within 24 hours for Hindus, Jains. and Muslims, and within three days. for Sikhs. This need for rapid elimination has also contributed to the current crisis: hundreds of families want the bodies of their loved ones to be taken care of as quickly as possible, but there is a shortage of people capable of providing the funerals and the last. rites. This has led to a situation where people pay bribes in order to obtain a space or an oven for cremation. As a researcher interested in how Asian societies tell stories about the afterlife and prepare the deceased for it, I argue that the coronavirus crisis represents an unprecedented cultural cataclysm that has forced Indian culture to recover. question. the way he deals with his deaths. Workers build cremation platforms in Amritsar. Narinder Nanu / AFP via Getty Many Americans believe that cremation takes place in a closed, mechanized structure, but most Indian crematoria, known as “shmashana” in Hindi, are open-air spaces with dozens of brick and mortar platforms on which a body can be burnt on a wooden pyre. Hindus and Sikhs will dispose of the remaining ashes in a river. Many shmashana are therefore built near the banks of a river to allow easy access, but many well-to-do families often travel to a sacred city along the banks of the Ganges, such as Boldiwar or Benares, for the final rituals. Jains – who have traditionally paid special attention to humanity’s impact on the environmental world – bury the ashes to bring the body back to Earth and make sure it doesn’t help pollute rivers. The workers who run the shmashana are often from the Dom ethnic group and have been doing this work for generations; they are of lower caste and subsequently perceived as polluted for their intimate work with corpses. The act of cremation has not always been without controversy. In the 19th century, British colonial authorities viewed the Indian practice of cremation as barbaric and unsanitary. But they couldn’t ban it given its ubiquity, but Indians living in the UK, South Africa and Trinidad often had to fight for the right to cremate the dead in accordance with religious rituals in due to the mistaken and often racist belief that Cremation was primitive, alien and polluting the environment.The earliest writings on Indian burial rituals are found in the Rig Veda – a Hindu religious scripture composed orally thousands of years ago. years, potentially as early as 2000 BC In the Rig Veda, a hymn, traditionally recited by a priest or an adult man, urges Agni, the Vedic god of fire, to “bring this man into the world of those who have done good actions ”. Relatives perform the last rites before a cremation in Allahabad. Sanjay Kanojia / AFP via Getty From the point of view of Hindu, Jain and Sikh rituals, the act of cremation is seen as a sacrifice, a definitive breaking of the bonds between body and spirit so that he is free to reincarnate . The body is traditionally bathed, anointed, and carefully wrapped in white cloth at home, and then ceremonially transported, in procession, by the local community to the cremation grounds. While Hindus and Sikhs often decorate the body with flowers, the jains avoid natural flowers for fear of inadvertently destroying the life of insects that might be hiding in its petals. In all of these religions, a priest or a male member of the family recites prayers. It is traditionally the eldest son of the deceased who lights the funeral pyre; women do not go to the cremation grounds. After the ceremony, mourners return to their homes to bathe and remove what they consider to be the inauspicious energy that surrounds the cremation grounds. Communities host a variety of postmortem rituals, including scriptural recitations and symbolic meals, and in some Hindu communities, sons or men in the household will shave their heads in mourning. During this period of mourning, which lasts 10 to 13 days, the family performs scriptural recitations and prayers in honor of their deceased loved one. The wave of death from the COVID-19 pandemic has forced transformations in these long established religious rituals. Improvised crematoriums are being built in hospital car parks and in city parks. Young women may be the only ones available to light the funeral pyre, which was previously not allowed. Families in quarantine are forced to use WhatsApp and other video software to visually identify the body and perform digital funeral rites. Media reports have pointed out that in some cases, crematorium employees have been asked to read prayers. traditionally reserved for Brahmin priests or people of a higher caste. Muslim cemeteries have started to run out of space and are tearing up parking lots to bury more bodies, while other important rituals such as marriage and baptism may take on a new look in response to cultural changes, conversations on social media or economic opportunities, Funeral rituals are slowly changing. Historian Thomas Laqueur has written about what he calls “the work of the dead” – the way in which the bodies of the deceased participate in social worlds and political realities of the living. announce the health crisis that the country believed to have overcome. As late as April 18, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was organizing crowded political rallies and his government allowed the great Hindu pilgrimage festival of Kumbh Mela to take place a year earlier in response to auspicious forecasts from astrologers. . Authorities only began to act when the deaths became impossible to ignore. But even then, the Indian government seemed more concerned about removing social media posts that criticized its operation. India is one of the largest vaccine-producing countries in the world, and yet it has failed. been able to manufacture or even purchase the vaccines needed to protect her The dead have important stories to tell about neglect, mismanagement, or even our global interdependence – if we are to listen to them. Natasha Mikles is a lecturer in Philosophy at Texas State University Learn more about The Daily Beast. everyday. Register now! Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside delves deeper into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.