Monday 23 January 2023

Would it be easier to process?


Detail from a famous Mughal tomb, Delhi.

Would grief be different if it had a headstone,

a slab of marble, an engraved epitaph,

would it be easier to process, move on

if it had more than just a photograph?


If the ashes weren’t dispersed, anonymous

part of the delta and onward to the bay

would it be simpler if there were a focus?

A tangible niche for a lamp or bouquet?


Would grief be different if it didn’t have to

look up to stars and ease be reimagined,

to look for heaven in seas and skies of blue,

to dredge for peace the rain and the sweep of wind.


Would it dissolve quicker and so integrate

if there were a concrete spot to touch and weep,

could a grave contain its unbearable weight

and would that make it simpler to breathe and sleep?

Once upon a time that is now light years away, a Scottish friend and I were in a deep conversation about the disposal of the dead in various cultures. I told her about the Indian Hindu practice of cremating bodies on funeral pyres lit by the eldest son. She had shuddered and said two things that stayed with me - 

1) pretty traumatising for the son, especially if young


2) where do you go to put flowers then?

Where, indeed?

Cremation was actually quite common in many cultures, the Ancient Greeks and Romans both certainly practiced it, as well as some Nordic folks. A little different from the current practice in India, because the ashes from the pyre (which consist of the bones, all else is consumed) weren't necessarily scattered or immersed in rivers, but given a ritual burial. Therefore, there was still something tangible for the family/loved ones to gather around and feel connected to. 

This the Indian practice does not encourage because holding onto any part of the body is believed to hold the departed soul back in its spiritual journey onward. Plus it is a forcible realisation for the family and helps them accept the finality of death. The process starts with the ritual cremation and immersion of ashes. And then progresses in stages till the 4th and 11th days, and then at monthly intervals up to the first anniversary of the death. This is what my mother had explained when I brought this topic up with her. Letting go in one fell swoop and then acclimatising to it over a year. At the time, I accepted it without much thinking, I mean, who even thinks at that age, right?

But now that I'm older and slower to accept things as given, plus I have lost several family members in quick succession over the last three years, I'm wondering... If letting the remains flow away to the oceans and become an unknown part of the planet is really the best way forward for the living. Certainly from the societal point of view, considering land scarcity in cities and saturated graveyards, yes that's so. But from the pov of individual trying to get used to the absence? Does it have to be this drastic and must they have no place to go to and draw breath? Would grief be different, made easier if there was something of the earthly body of the departed left, however minuscule, on the same plane as the living? 

The other, and massive, disadvantage of cremating the dead, is that a whole heap of historical records are lost. Also in one fell swoop. Not to mention the forensic evidence in dodgy circs.


  1. A weighty question. For which I have no answers. Just the same, I believe that grief keeps its own rules and agenda, and isn't limited by time or place.

    1. I have no answers either. And personally, I tend to think everything, every trauma can be processed through writing/reading poetry. But nothing really helps. Some days are better, some worse. Don't have a clue why.

  2. Hari OM
    Cremation is quite common in non-Hindu society also, and the urn in which ashes are kept is seen as the marker of remembrance. However, no object of any sort can aid grief. That is entirely internal and displacing it onto a piece of stone or a pot is a sticking plaster. There is no single solution to salving one's grief - each of us is entirely different in our response to it. What I do know is that a fixed burial is exactly that, fixed. If one lives 100, 10000, 1000000 miles away, how does it serve one's grief? It is in the rememberance, the writing of wonderful stanzas like this, that we can process and accept... YAM xx

    1. I'm 100% in agreement about each person handling grief differently. Personally, I can tell you going back to the same spaces/city has done precisely zilch to help. On the contrary, the entire place feels quite unbearable. I can also safely say that I'd be uncomfortable keeping the ashes at home - centuries of cultural practice is ingrained and whatever my take on rituals and organised religion, it's impossible to even contemplate breaking away without turning my brain inside out.

      However, I do know people among my circle who visit graves of loved ones and draw solace from that. The pandemic has prevented that and that's upsetting for them, in fact. Tending graves is one way of memory keeping and coping with loss.

      I was reading somewhere that cremation as a disposal method was largely unacceptable to the Christian world till very recently. I think the first UK cremation was in 1870s/80s, and it remained a one off thing till well into the next century, becoming common only in the last 40-50 years. That's for the Protestant churches. The RC church did not accept cremation till the 1960s and the Orthodox churches still do not.

      Even in places where cremation was accepted in Europe, there were very many restrictions which made it a complicated choice. One of my great uncles married a European lady and lived somewhere in Belgium/ Germany. When he passed, his ashes were brought to India for immersion by my great aunt partly because the laws there did not permit immersion in rivers at the time or even allowed them to be kept at home indefinitely. They had to be buried post cremation which is against the Hindu practice, so... Not sure which decade that was maybe 70s/80s. I don't know what the laws permit now.

      Cremation's forbidden in Islam of course. I remember in Egypt people were absolutely horrified at the idea, Copts and Muslims alike. Also in Nigeria.

      In the Middle East, you'd require a special permission for cremation. Oman and UAE have crematoria. Bahrain has no crematorium but allows bodies to be cremated on open pyres as per the ancient Hindu practice - not recommended as most people find that too distressing. Saudi Arabia of course prohibits cremation. So do Qatar and Kuwait. Iran, Iraq Afghanistan - ditto.

      Most expats would repatriate bodies home, very few families choose to have a burial or cremation abroad. But then again, the pandemic has forced people to do that too - because of lockdowns and travel restrictions, 2020 and 2021 were truly horror shows in every way!

      Thanks for reading and weighing in, Yamini. It always adds meaning to my day to read your thoughtful and cogent views. <3

  3. Definitely a deep subject. Here most people put the ashes in an urn they keep, so there is a place to go.

    1. Yes, I believe that is the common practice. Does it help though?

  4. My grandparents were all buried outside of Detroit. I don't remember ever going to visit the graves. Since I live far away now, there is not a likely hood that I will visit them.
    My mother was cremated and my second father kept them for awhile and then scattered them down the hill near in the river that ran behind the house. After my second father and my uncle died, I was given the ashes. I kept them for several years but then we were going to move far away. I thought they would rather stay where they were, so my husband and I scattered their ashes the same place my mother's were. It rained that night and I know that they were all washed out to the river.
    My father was also cremated when he died, however his church has the ashes and I believe they are on an altar. I asked for them, but never did get them. If I did, I would scatter them.
    My husband's parents are buried in St. Louis. That's also far from us.
    I have photos of all of them and memories, some I've written about and some I haven't. Sometimes I light candles or put flowers by the photos. Sometimes I don't. Even though it's been decades since they all died, sometimes my grief still overwhelms me. I don't think visiting graves and knowing their embalmed bodies were entombed underground would comfort me at all.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences so frankly, Kristin. It must have been so hard not getting your father's ashes back! why would anyone deny that to a daughter? - that seems totally unacceptable!

      I know your exploration of family history and your writing is one way of keeping memories alive and fresh. I enjoy reading them and the reason I do is because of the universality of the emotions, no matter how far apart we are geographically and culturally.

      What I gather is that having a fixed place to go to hasn't helped much. And that the intensity of grief doesn't abate with time. So all that about time healing all wounds is just so much nonsense. Something I have suspected all along and can now confirm from my own lived experience too.

      As I said to Yamini above, I would not be able to keep the ashes of a loved one - definitely would scatter them as per Indian tradition. As per ritual, which have evolved for the specific climatic environment of a tropical country, from death to final scattering of ashes is less than 24 hours, there is no scope of any mental preparation. I wonder if it would help if things were spaced out a bit, if the process were more gradual?

      But then again, there is probably no way to prepare anyway.

      May you continue to find comfort in photographs and peaceful memories and may all our departed elders continue to guide and bless us from their resting places in heaven.

  5. Hi Nila - death ... it can be sudden and that's difficult to process ... I've doing that for the past 45 years for my father, whereas I had the time of my mother' stroked illness to adjust to her passing after 5+ years ... also being single makes a difference. It's a personal adjustment ... the Victorians were very public about death; the reason cremations came to the fore here - was because the churchyards and cemeteries became full - as the population grew, so did disease.

    We had a Necropolis railway line from Waterloo station out to Brookwood, Woking, Surrey where a new cemetery had been built. There were 3 classes of tickets - one for the deceased, one for the mourners ... and tacked on the back one for golfers - as there were golf-courses accessed by the railway - I used to live in that area!

    I think we should be allowed to learn more about death ... and what happens when we die ... I never learnt and I'm not sure they teach that now.

    My father was buried, my mother we cremated (as per her wish) and took her back to Cornwall - where we sprinkled her under the Cornish hedge in her local churchyard.

    My memories hold my thoughts ... it's part of life ... but personally I'm glad there's no stones to visit as often as possible. I can take my thoughts with me ...

    Fascinating subject you've raised ... with very interesting comments - cheers Hilary

    1. That's so very interesting about the Necropolis line! Agree with you about learning more about death, it's not often talked about, certainly nothing much is taught about it, let alone how to handle grief/loss.

      People on this thread seem to feel that fixed burials are not helpful towards navigating losses. For me personally, nothing seems to help much, fixed or unfixed. It's nearly three years since my mother passed, but it feels very fresh still.

  6. Excellent poem. I think it is different for all. My mother is buried with a proper gravestone, etc and I never visit when I go to PA. I find it just rather cold. I prefer baking her recipe, reading an author she liked. Grief just can hit in a wave. A proper place doesn't have the intensity of that moment. Take care. I vote cremation for me - just toss me in the ocean.

    1. I do that too! - not baking recipes, but rereading the books/poetry she read to me and/or we talked about. And writing about her. Grief does hit in waves, what gets me is the unpredictability of the 'hit.'
      Your comment about tossing in the ocean reminded me of Mary Oliver -
      'May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
      and give them to the ocean,
      leap in the froth of the waves,
      still loving movement,
      still ready, beyond all else,
      to dance for the world.'

      Words to live by! and to die by also.