A clutch of houses in Chah Pokhar in Achhnera block of Agra district have turned into graveyards as some families are compelled to bury their departed in their homes due to lack of space in the burial ground. As a result, the dead here are a constant part of day-to-day life. The correspondent of a leading newspaper found women cooking next to where their children were buried while the elderly rested on cots in a backyard full of graves. With our bourgeoning population, the man-land ratio is worsening by the day. Yet, significant areas are covered by cemeteries, qabristans and other graveyards. Each grave occupies at the least five square yards or more considering the pathways and margins. In the case of the qabristan, conceptually the grave is supposed to be eternal. Long after the remains have degenerated, the land is supposed to continue to remain occupied, presumably awaiting qayamat or doomsday.

An appeal should, therefore, be made to everyone concerned that bodies should be cremated rather than buried, wherever a gas or an electric crematorium is available. All in all, this is a plea to the various governments to discourage Hindus from using up wood and the others from occupying land. The decision of the Madras Cemeteries Board to construct an electric crematorium at Kilpauk has testified that there is no religious obstacle between burial and cremation, at least among Christians. And Muslims are also ahl-e-kitab or belonging to a religion of the Book. The Bishops of Mylapore in Chennai have also given their consent for this break from tradition. The earlier reluctance of Christians towards cremations was their belief in resurrection. It was allowed only in emergencies like epidemics, famines or wars. Moreover, cremation was looked upon as a pagan practice; it was the practice in the pre Christian era in Europe. In any case, the Roman Catholic Church did not permit it until 1963 when the Pope lifted the ban. Incidentally, the legendary Field Marshall Erwin Rommel of WW II Germany was cremated and not buried. Although the Jews have been conservative, Judaism does not prohibit cremation.

Cremation by wood is a colossal crime today against the country’s disappearing forest cover or rather the nation’s ecology. Estimates of the quantity of wood used annually for cremation across the country vary widely from 12 to 72 lakh tonnes. Regardless of the actual quantity used, it is easy to see what a waste of wood it is. Wood that takes years to grow is blown up in a matter of an hour into smoke to dispose of waste matter. In the Hindu view, once the soul leaves the body, it is a mass of pollution. As India entered the tribal era, the need to get rid of the dead must have been realized. Most of the plentiful land must have been green with a luxuriant forest cover. Burning the carcass was the obvious choice. The Abrahamic people chose burial because they had plenty of land but limited water and fewer trees or wood. Moreover, for them, there is a single life which finally terminates on Doomsday. The body is treated with respect even after death. Whereas for the Hindu the soul is all important because it is born again and again; the body without the soul is a piece of pollution to be disposed of as soon as possible.

It is not surprising that tradition insists that the body of a person who dies during the day must be cremated before sunset; that of someone who dies at night must be disposed of before sunrise. This is logical enough in a climate which is generally hot and humid. How polluted the body is considered to be is illustrated by what many a family in Gujarat practices. A dying person is transferred to the bare floor well before life goes out. The idea is to avoid polluting the bedding. The writer has met a person who had survived two transfers to the floor!

The ceremonial use of ghee, sandalwood, etc., was introduced to help the priest to earn some money and to enable the cremating staff to make a living. The attitude towards the body is so casual that all garments are allowed to be taken away by the cremating staff before the funeral pyre is lit. True, there is a sentiment attached to homagni or the havan as an essential part of the ceremony. However, a small havan in a container can be performed without having to waste so much wood, which would be some 400 kg at a time. There is, therefore, no religious or sentimental barrier to a widespread changeover to electric or gas crematoria.

Our country is awakening rapidly to the importance of ecology and environment. It is, therefore, surprising that no national leader has taken the initiative and appealed to the Hindus to stop using wood and instead use electric or gas crematoria, wherever available. No doubt, water is invaluable and we are threatened with running out of it in the coming years. But equally valuable is wood which consumes water to grow. And as far as land is concerned, India has an adverse land-man ratio and it is certainly as valuable as water. Why waste it on graves? It is more unfortunate that gas or electrical facilities are not being introduced with any speed in the towns and villages of India. In Europe, it is reported that 50 per cent of the final journeys are performed by cremation and only the rest burial. Parsees have been changing over to cremation from their tradition of letting vultures devour carcasses.

At the time of Independence, on paper, India had about 25 per cent forest cover. How much was the difference between the paper records and the reality on the ground is difficult to say. It is, however, not unduly hard to believe that by now the actual forest cover would be 10 per cent or less in the country as a whole. True, poverty in some of the rural areas is so excruciating that the local people have no alternative but to live off the surrounding forest. Equally perhaps, beyond a point, the governments are not able to prevent unscrupulous traders from denuding the forests. But there can be no excuse for the policy not to be in tune with the country’s ecological necessity