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The final goodbyes

Last rites and rituals are the last to change. My conversations with ritual specialists reveal that some changes are taking place. We are exploring greener cremation systems

Minakshi Dewan Published 18.04.24, 07:25 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File Photo

I remember Shambu, a cremation worker, who assisted us during my father’s last rites. His eyes were red, and his voice was slurry. Can you imagine the plight of someone working amidst the sooty smoke of the burning pyres, tending to the departed day and night? We rarely find references to these workers beyond academic discourses.

Death work in India is viewed as polluting — treated with disdain. My research took me to ghats and kabristans in Delhi and Varanasi, where much was seen and chronicled. Although critical, the work remains exploitative and underpaid — falling under unorganised and informal labour. I found that death workers take recourse to addictions to deal with the stench of the corpses that is detrimental to their health and well-being.


After the second wave of the pandemic, while I was busy collecting stories about death work, I heard rare tales of pride and valour. A worker in South Delhi’s crematorium said, “We fought the war against Corona — just like the army. The work was hard (mushkil kaam), but we never stopped — we served day and night. It is our
dharam to serve people.” Through these candid conversations, I gathered how overlooked and important their work is. Without their vital contribution, human bodies would have rotted, and the surroundings would have become a breeding ground for infection.

Many more stories unfolded as I went deeper into my research. I asked a pandit who assisted us during my father’s last rites, “Aap kya doosre sanskar bhi karte hain?” (Do you perform other life-cycle rituals?) He replied, “Nahin hum sirf mrityu se jude kaam karte hain.” (No, we perform rites related to death.) This was intriguing.

Not just workers, I learned that even the pandits who assist in death work are treated differently. I heard many stories during my fieldwork in Delhi and Varanasi. There is a clear work stratification within pandits. “The other pandits won’t do this work. God, Brahma, has created sixteen karams in our life, of which other Brahmins perform fifteen, and we perform the last karam,” a pandit in Nigambodh Ghat told me.

The spaces to bury or cremate are also stratified based on caste. “They don’t let us bury our dead at their funeral grounds,” said a member of the Kalbelia community from Rajasthan. My conversations with activists, film-makers, researchers, and communities highlighted that caste remains pervasive in end-life-rituals across religions. However, seeing activists and human rights organisations advocating for the cause gives one hope.

While researching the subject, I realised there was much more to unravel. My exploration highlighted that gender roles are predefined even during last rites and rituals. But I also wanted to understand the changing role of women during the last rites and rituals. I wrote a lengthy post on social media requesting women to share their experiences. There was an overwhelming response. I was happy that in some communities and sections, women have actively started taking part in end-of-life rituals beyond their predetermined roles.

The funerary methods across religions are diverse. But I intended to look at overlaps beyond religious binaries. I discovered several parallels across faiths. For instance, washing and shrouding rituals are crucial in most religions. Every faith discourages excessive mourning. Not lighting the kitchen hearth during the bereavement period is another common aspect. Similarly, hosting a community feast is more or less a common practice.

Last rites and rituals are the last to change. However, my conversations with the ritual specialists reveal that some changes are taking place. We are exploring greener cremation systems in India. Likewise, arranging the rites and rituals has been a community affair. Now the death care industry or professional funeral services have entered the scene.

All forms of life share the certainty of death. So it deserves respect and care for all the stories it leaves behind for the living.

Minakshi Dewan is the author of The Final Farewell: Understanding the Last Rites and Rituals of India's Major Faiths

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