My grandfather’s funeral was the first I attended of a significant family member. It was also the first time I witnessed a cremation, that fiery return to the ashes–and possibly eternal cycles of becoming and passing away–which signals the end of a Hindu’s life. As we prepared for it, I was aware, even through the haze of my grieving for a man who had assumed such a vivid and dominant presence in my life, that I was about to undergo a transformative experience of one kind or the other.
It was not long in forthcoming. After the preliminary prayers had been chanted, and my grandfather’s body wrapped in a white shroud and placed on top of the pyre, my uncle–my grandfather’s eldest surviving son–stepped up and brought a burning taper to it. The wooden logs caught fire quickly and long tongues of flame moved up and through their thickets, rapidly turning into a fierce blaze. I stood on the other side of the pyre; I could see my grandfather’s feet pointing toward me, suddenly exposed, sticking out from the under the sheet that covered the rest of his body.
As the flames grew, so did the radiant heat, and I took a step backward. As I did so, I noticed that my grandfather’s feet had blackened, charred by the fire that turned skin into soot. And then, abruptly, without notice, the blackened skin peeled, exposing an ivory-white flesh below, which began to melt and drip off the the now exposed bones; a bony, skeletal foot began to emerge. I instinctively winced, and started forward; I wanted to protect my grandfather from this horrible, agonizing, consignment to the flames. He was trapped and helpless; pinned under by the weight of the logs.
I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to protect. My grandfather was gone; he was beyond pain and sensation and feeling and suffering. I was staring at the remnants of his body, now lacking the appropriate relationship to the totality I had called my ‘grandfather.’ It could feel nothing, sense nothing. Old instincts died hard; standing there, in that April heat, as the Central Indian sun beat down on me, I could scarcely believe this all too evident fact.
The pyre continued to blaze; the bones in my grandfather’s feet had now started to crack and crumble under the still raging flames. All around me, a sombre group of family and friends gazed on. I had received news of my grandfather’s worsening health a mere twenty-four hours before; we had dashed to his home by overnight train in an effort to meet him, and on arriving, had learned he had passed away the previous night itself. I had spent the morning in a daze, scarcely believing this larger than life figure was gone, never to return.
But now there was no doubt about it; I had received confirmation that the time had come for my grandfather to ‘return’; this cremation had quickly and efficiently prepared his physical remains for the next stage of their transformation and further utilization in this world’s ongoing becoming.