Coffins and Cultures

'Drop in when you drop dead' was the line at the Undertaker’s outlet on my regular route. I imagined stone cold corpses walk in for a cuppa and a casket. It invariably made me smile.

I thought about the smiles I saw at the Michael Jackson memorial service. They were not celebrating death, but life. Brought up in a culture where this is unusual and loud weeping is common and acceptable, it made me see the cultural differences clearly.

This empty hearse touched me more than anything else.

Someone called A Body, just a body, would be driven in it to his final resting place. Such finality. Moving through the grounds of Forest Lawn Memorial-Parks and Mortuaries, there was desolation in the person of the hearse. It was a lonely carriage without even a passenger who could see nothing, speak nothing, sing nothing.

The other details are there: A $25,000, solid bronze, 14-karat gold-plated coffin, described as a rare Promethean casket, had a blue velvet interior and mirror finish. This was a celebrity and these minutiae perhaps become immensely important for the public.

But, what is the death industry all about?

All my childhood and college days I was surrounded with Christian friends, yet I did not know the bodies had to be embalmed. What I did know is that the kind of coffin chosen had a great deal to do with how much money could be spent. The area where I live is very cosmopolitan and we have people from all communities living either in the same apartment block or down the road. One would often stop out of courtesy and respect as the hearse with the mourners and priests passed; the music was a dirge if the dead person was young and a bit less sombre if the person had lived life long enough. I still hear the sound of this music as a funeral procession makes it way to the churches close to where I live. Instinctively, I pause doing what I am doing.

I recently read a report from Denver about the ‘Green way to go’ in biodegradable coffins made from recycled newspapers or cardboard or banana sheaves or bamboo. One funeral director said, “I guess you can go to hell in a handbasket now.”

An exhibition in Poland of biodegradable coffins

In natural burials, bodies aren’t embalmed and eventually decompose into the earth.

have always buried their dead this way, with only a white sheet covering the person as s/he is released into the earth and handfuls of mud are thrown over it by close family and friends and shovelled back to ‘seal’ the place. Flowers are allowed to be placed there but no permanent tomb or even a mark is permitted. It is believed that the soul lives on. Even a grave is not seen as permanent and someone or the other will replace that space in time. The caretakers of the graveyard seem to know all the dead in the locality and the moment they see a family member they know where to direct her/him.

My mother used to visit my grandma’s grave. She had sown some seeds and a plant had sprouted. I thought she had created a beautiful memorial. On a later occasion she saw a huge chaadar – a thick sheet of flowers – over it. Some relative in the enthusiasm to offer prayers had killed the plant. Sometimes, I accompanied her. We would sprinkle water over the grave, light agarbattis and say a prayer. I would just look intently and in that gaze of intensity memories came alive.

That is the reason I do not like to see tombs, that too ones that are ostentatious. Muslims who do not believe in idol worship end up doing that when they bow down before a dead saint at one of the many dargahs that exist even in Islamic societies.

In India there are other ways to go as well.

Hindus are cremated. The bodies are either burned over piles of wood, the quality of the wood and the grease denoting the status of the family. When the body is devoured by flames and the skull is cracked, the ashes are put in an urn and given to the family. Many take them to be dropped in the holy rivers or a place which they consider important. These days there are electric crematoriums and quite a few people opt for it.

Parsis are a dwindling minority. They do not follow any of the other ways to go since they do not wish to pollute the earth or the air and believe that even in the end a person must be useful. So, in their Tower of Silence vultures descend and peck on the corpse. A peculiar problem has arisen in a city like Mumbai. The vultures have almost disappeared and the bodies decompose and spread a stench. Since the resting place is in the urban hub with tall buildings around, earlier too there was a problem when the birds would sometimes carry bits of flesh and deposit them anywhere at all. Bits of a life?

“I believe that this life is not all; neither the beginning nor the end. I believe while I tremble; I trust while I weep”
- Charlotte Bronte


  1. Interesting information. Are electric crematoriums popular in India? There are so many muslim monuments with tombs, is that unislamic? The parsi last rites seem different and can be a problem. I did not give these matters much thought when I lived in india.

  2. Many funeral rites have become big money rakets to show of by rich people,feeding priests and all.For Hindus electric cremetorium is best

  3. Ameya:

    Electric crematoriums are largely used in big cities; however, even some wealthy educated folks prefer the rituals that go with traditional cremation.

    My understanding about tombs clearly denotes them to be un-Islamic, although perhaps they were prevalent during its pagan days.

    As regards the Parsi last rites, the problem the community faces is of survival as a community. They funeral rites are different in a manner of speaking.


    The feeding of priests or even the post-mourning ceremonies are ways in which families often display their wealth rather than love for the departed. It is not specific to any religion, I think, though those where rituals dominate have more to 'perform'.

  4. A point I would like to make about mourning is that in Rajasthan, some people still have professional mourners - rudaali (there was a film by that name) - who are called specifically to cry and beat their breasts. I wonder why it is only women...


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