The funeral of an unknown
Text and photos: Kaisa Sirén
In the last little while, I have been thinking about death despite it being spring and everything coming alive after a long winter. The corona virus is partially responsible for these thoughts. Every day I see statistics in the news: so and so many dead in Finland and elsewhere. I can’t help but think about death
I have not seen India mentioned in the statistics. Perhaps nobody knows how many people live in India not to talk about how many have contracted the virus. I think about dirty streets and people who live on them, garbage and contaminated water. I suspect that in those conditions, the virus has ideal conditions to spread.
I have never wanted to travel to India but in the fall of 2018, I was invited to a close relative's wedding in New Delhi. I did not want to miss the opportunity. The wedding was amazing, there was no lack of splendour and abundance. I was struck by the generosity. But even more I was struck by the funeral of a person unknown to me.
After the wedding I attended, I take a cab to the Nigambodh Ghat crematory. I thought there might be something to take pictures of. I walk in through the gate and see a funeral coach by a little square. The mourners gather around the coach, and a few men lift the deceased from the coach and carry the body under a small canopy. Women in colourful saris make a tight group, and after the men have placed the body on a stela, they too, group themselves.
I ask the family if I can take pictures and wait eagerly for what will happen next. The men start the ceremony by throwing coconuts at the bottom of the stela. To a stela a little ways a way, they throw porcelain dishes. After a few coconuts the men return the body on the stretcher and we walk all the way to the back of the premises. We go up a set of stairs to a pool. The family asks that I do not show the body's face in the pictures.
Now we have to wait as men and women in a random order walk to the body. Water is running from a small tap and everybody takes a few drops and sprinkles them on the body while they recite a mantra quietly.
When all the mourners have said their goodbyes, we move again. We go down the stairs and walk to the area where the actual cremation takes place. All the women, myself included, remain on a path.
The men carry the body to a burning station and place it on a big pile of wood. They light the fire and smoke rises up. The burning area is huge. I count quickly that twenty fires are burning. A complete burn takes approximately twelve hours, and the mourners stay by the fire all that time. The women on the path look at the fire, thinking their own thoughts.
Suddenly someone pulls my arm. A lady in a red sari smiles at me and gestures for me to come along. We do not have a common language but I understand that a funeral of her relative is happening nearby. They invite me to join. I am a little bewildered but walk behind the woman across the burning area and behind a small brick building.
What a big party is happening there! There is approximately forty people, a band plays loud music, women sing, everybody is dancing, and they applaud when I arrive. They point at me and ask me to join the dance. When I join in, they laugh and applaud. The dancers get paid by coins and people ask me, too to donate. Almost every one of them wants a picture taken, and the more I photograph, the harder they dance. The colourful saris swing in the air and the drums are very loud.
I think about the Finnish funeral tradition. The Indian one is quite a contrast. We dress in black and remain quiet, scarcely look at each other. I am not sure in which of the two funerals I feel more like an outsider. Although joy in the Indian funeral seems to be most prevalent, I feel a little bewildered. If I was brought here without the context, I would not know if I am at a wedding or a funeral. It seems to me that no matter what celebration, the Indian people attend from the bottom of their hearts and enjoy themselves.
After a while the dance stops and people start to eat and drink. They offer to me too, but I am hesitant to eat. I thank them for their generosity and hospitality and leave. They let me go. When I quickly walk back to the cab I meet another funeral party. At the front of the people I see a man in a t-shirt that reads DHL. I wonder how busy the courier services are during this time of the corona pandemic. The smoke is thick above the crematorium.