Finding life and death in Varanasi

Some are more fortunate than others when it comes to experiencing loss. If you’re lucky, in your lifetime you’ll bury your hamster, then your grandparents, then your parents and eventually a friend or two. If you’ve got it tough, death will show itself in the wrong order and you may have to face the grief of losing a fiancé or a child.

We don’t often talk about death because it feels foreboding. And it’s not exactly dinner-party conversation. It’s important to, at the very least, have the discussion about what happens to your shell after you shuffle of this mortal coil. If you believe that you need your body embalmed so that it will be preserved for Round 2, you better let your next of kin know so that they don’t book you in for an afternoon slot in the giant pizza oven of life.

Being an atheist, I intend to donate my body to science after I die. However, I recently discovered that it’s not as simple as just telling your family that’s what you want: You have to fill out a form, potentially cover the costs for transporting your own cadaver, and your local medical school might not accept donations during public holidays or Christmas!

Death and funeral processes are approached drastically differently depending on your faith, traditions and nationality. One particular example which still reverberates in my mind when I think about this topic is that of Varanasi, India. The city of Varanasi is considered very spiritual, with its rambling alleyways and roads stretching outwards from the epicentre at the Ganges River.

There’s something quite poetic and cyclical about the way the Ganges provides a life-source for thousands of citizens of India and Bangladesh, yet the dead are brought back to the banks of the river to reach their final resting place. There are some who make the pilgrimage to Varanasi when they know they are dying for the sole purpose of having their body burnt on the ghats of the oldest city in India.

The popular tourist gig is to hop aboard a wooden boat and traverse the ghats (steps on the river banks) until you reach the burning ghat. At sunset, you watch (from mere metres away) as families say farewell to their dead and drape the linen-wrapped bodies with orange flowers.


The funeral pyres burn at all times here because Varanasi is such a popular death-tination. Against the ashen grey backdrop, the bright orange flowers and the orange boats are eerily reminiscent of the smouldering embers of the pyres, as if the whole scene has been colour-coordinated.

While the experience is of course very humbling and deeply moving, there are a few irregularities which make it difficult to really relate. First of all, there are no women at these funeral ceremonies. Women are believed to be too emotionally fragile and, according to one tour guide, at risk of throwing themselves into the flames in anguish.

Then there is the part of the tour, as you sit in your wooden boat low in the water, where they tell you not all the bodies brought to Varanasi are burnt…some are sunk. Deceased holy men and young children, for example, are taken to the middle of the river and weighed down with heavy rocks so that their bodies sink to the river bed.

Thirdly, because of the complex science of how a body burns, there are often some biological by-products which are then hoovered up by the stray dogs. The numerous cows, which behave like the urban foxes of Europe, are scavengers and they join the dogs in sifting through the waste for any leftover morsels. There’s black comedy to be found in the scenes of Varanasi.

As you watch the pyres, and the densely ash-filled air lingers around your skin and nostrils, you can’t help but imagine what lives these people must have led. You can identify their caste, or class, from the position of their pyre, but you can’t know if they were good people. Did they enjoy their lives? Did they work hard? Were they good parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, neighbours?


If that were your body, wrapped in a sheet, smothered in ghee (to help with burning), alight from the head first, what would you be remembered for? Are you living your life? Are you a good person? Are you spontaneous, careful, free, responsible, kind, hardworking, respectful, earnest, giving and diligent? When you look back, can you say with your hand on your heart that, for the most part, you smiled and laughed and danced and worked and loved and lived?

Because a visit to Varanasi doesn’t teach you about death, it teaches you about life.


(If you are planning to visit Varanasi, check out this blog by the BrokeBackpacker for some useful tips)

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