One of the great lessons of life is to see, for the first time, the dead queueing for the furnace on their pallets of bamboo in a crematorium. In Calcutta, for instance, the conditions were primitive and squalid until recently. In the midst of the din and squalor, the dead lay (and still lie) on the dirty floor, horizontal, helpless and humble, no matter who they may have been when alive. In an absolute and unchanging way, death is ‘the great leveller’. The ashes and bits of bone that remain at the end stand for the ultimate erasure of difference. This aspect of death has been used for centuries in most cultures as an antidote to human vanity and pride, so that the Stoic idea of ‘practising death’ was a way of putting self-importance — especially the philosopher’s own — in its place.
In the light of such eternal verities, what begins to look a little absurd is the worry, in Delhi’s highest places, that space is running out for the samadhis of the country’s most important people. The regal sprawl of Rajghat and Shantivan is, in a sense, at odds with the spirit of the nation’s two fathers whose last rites were performed there. Both of them wanted their remains to mingle with the elements, and achieving this oneness with the great cycles of nature is, after all, the entire physical and metaphysical point of cremation. In a literal sense, the cremated dead are the planet’s best friends, provided their remains are kept from polluting the rivers: they do not take up any space at all. This is an advantage that the countries that traditionally bury their dead are beginning to realize, gently encouraging their citizens to opt for cremation and other options that do not involve burial.
Getting worked up about where to cremate presidents, vice-presidents and prime ministers, so that there will be enough room for building grand memorials to them, seems politically excessive, environmentally wasteful and metaphysically unsound. Three Union ministries and the Central public works department have put their heads together and drawn up a draft proposal and plan for a VIP samadhisthal, but the land for building it has not been found yet. The courts and the green lobby want to protect the Yamuna from further pollution, and the other possible stretches of land are all tied up with one dispute or another. But, perhaps the whole matter should be questioned at a more fundamental level. Do the country’s important people need a separate place for their last rites and commemoration at all? Should death not be regarded as a necessary and welcome release from the burden of being important? An overpopulated democracy, the majority of whose citizens celebrate the body’s return to nature after death irrespective of earthly differences, is perhaps the ideal context for rethinking this peculiar crisis of space from first — and last — principles.