Resurrecting the Dead

After the resurrection of Jesus Christ I do not think there has been any such miracle in history or mythology, whatever one may believe in.

Since the idea of individual immortality is linked to one having an eternal soul, does it matter very much how you are disposed off once your everlasting soul has left your body for paradise, purgatory or the next life?

Well, apparently, some forms of disposal are more eco-friendly and cost-effective and the costly rituals that the clergy have devised to thrive on the infallible business of disposal of the dead, could be adapted to counter climate change, without jeopardizing the direction in which your soul might be headed.

So how can we resurrect the dead?

Did you know how many of us kick the bucket every day? Neither did I. But some jugglery with figures for 2003, on something called Crude Death Rate (Census of India, 2011) it came out that a total of 1021087 cop it in a year.

Of these, about 191000 number (18.7 %) account for infant deaths. Assuming that 25 % adult corpses are not cremated and are buried, there were then roughly 623000 actual cremations in the year or 1700 every single day in 2003.

So a figure of 2000 cremations a day for 2012 would be reasonable.

A single cremation burns about 4.5 quintals (a quintal is a hundred kilos) of hardwood and 1.5 quintals of soft wood. This weight converts to about 1.5 cubic meters of wood in chopped form and would be roughly 2 cu.m. of standing volume.

Almost, two medium sized standing trees per cremation. More wood than is used in shanties across the land. Let us say 1.5 trees per cremation. Those who bury their dead in wooden coffins also use costly timber.

With 3000 trees being used daily to burn or bury the dead (about 1.1 million trees in a year), have we got a major deforestation cause in cremating / burying the dead, using wood?

For want of data we cannot go into the contribution of this practice to carbon emissions but it certainly makes a hole in the pocket of the bereaved. With current rates of hardwood and softwood at Rs 800 and Rs 700 per quintal (including VAT) respectively, the cost of wood alone in a cremation comes to about Rs 4600[1].

Even where villagers contribute wood from each household for a cremation, the fact that two trees disappear remains.

An obvious alternative is the quicker electric crematoria. With electricity having reached almost every nook and corner of the country, would it not be prudent to have at least one electric crematorium in every panchayat and may be one in every urban ward, for starters?

In Patna an electric crematorium charges about Rs 300 for burning a body, the cremation cost escalates to around Rs 3,500 for a traditional pyre.

In expensive, urban South Delhi the electric crematorium costs Rs 3500 per cremation. Here is a case for subsidy if there is one and in the process saving lakhs of trees every year! Greening India?

In fact a percentage of the funds earmarked for the Green India Mission would be well spent for setting up and subsidizing electric crematoria.

It would be a sensible next FYP target to have when we aren’t going to do away with the Planning Commission, yet.

And certainly more achievable than providing flush toilets to every household under the Total Sanitation Programme when most rural and many urban dwellings do not have access to piped water!

Traditional religious rites have been well adapted where electric crematoria are used and the ashes are promptly handed over to the family of the bereaved.

For those who may be open to the idea, the ashes can be used / mixed with soil and a tree planted in a smriti van or cemetery.

Not only would this use much less space to bury the dead and no exhumations later! Though there would be a problem procuring skeletons for medical colleges and evolutionary biologists could run into boneless cul de sac ten millennia hence?

In years you would have a goodly forest coming up (with much less chances of illicit felling!). Who said we need Green Lungs for our cities?

The Spirits of the dead aka ghosts are known to reside in trees and wouldn’t it make night walks more interesting near smriti vans?

Many people organize dhams (free lunches) or have prayer meetings followed by tea or something on death anniversaries.

With Smriti Vans around you would have a huge business opportunity coming up (are you listening President Obama?), much more than the marriage market because death anniversaries are religiously held for many years unlike marriage anniversaries, and without Bhramanical ceremonial monopoly!

And with 2000 stiffs a day and counting, business would be deadly and booming! More FDI in a moribund Market!

By planting a tree in memory of the departed, wherever we do it, we in a way resurrect the dead.

For at least a few generations the tree would be looked after, the dead remembered and so forth, (seen those costly Death Anniversary insertions in newspapers?).

Apart from the obvious Green benefits that would flow from widespread use of electric crematoria and raising of Smriti Vans, we would have, as a dead people taken a big step downward to spring back as living trees; a mass woody resurrection of the DEAD.

No miracle here.



[1] Commercial rates for firewood in Shimla; this may vary as some crematoria subsidize firewood for the dead.

Nodnat - is a pen name that the writer with deep knowledge of Himalayan flora and fauna and a keen environmentalist has adopted. He hails from Kotgarh, in Shimla Hills and retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests from Himachal Pradesh forest department.

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