Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cremation 101

"I have burnt …46 human bodies"

When Fanuel Moffat started working at the Hindu crematorium he never expected more than being a guard, to prevent thieves and vandals from encroaching. That was in 2003, ten years later he might as well as the person who does all the cremation that happens in Malawi.

I got curious of the practice of cremation a long time ago when I saw it in a movie should be Strike Commando. When I moved to Lilongwe and saw the sign at the crematorium along Blantyre the Lilongwe M1 road, I just wanted to know more.

Thakrar, Teacher
My quest brought me to the Hindu Temple at Area 2 in the city and after introducing myself and my mission, one of the seers of the temple got me on his car and I was soon being driven to meet the person who is the custodian of Hindu culture and the one who would ably speak on cremation in Malawi.

After a few mazes, I was in a shop that sells braids and mesh and as soon as I was introduced, I was shown into a backroom, given a coke and the guardian, Jayantilal Thakrar, who is the Head of the Hindu Temple in Lilongwe, joined me.

Do not be scared by the long name or his designation, Thakrar is more Malawian than many Malawians, he has been in the country for 71 years, he can juggle Chichewa, English and some serious Hindu as he wishes.

 And he knows his Gods: in his office, next to his accounting files there is a recess where there is a picture and models of Hindu gods with an incise stick standing in front of the lot.

He has a religious tattoo on his wrist and his son, who runs the shop, has one on his forehead.

The coke and warm welcome do not derail me from my mission, after listening to a crash course in Hinduism 101, I still fired my question: Why do Hindus burn their bodies?

Thakrar thought about it for a minute, scribbled some Hindu terms in his receipt book and lowered his reading glasses to look at me.

“The body is made up of several elements: water, air, fire, earth and vacuum, when we die we have to burn the body to make it return to its original elements and the ashes we take and immerse into the river or sea because it also belongs to god,” he said, slowly.

He insisted that there I nothing cruel  about cremation because the dead know nothing.

I lay the body on six of these logs
To Hindus, the body comes with a soul, the soul never dies and once it dies, the soul gets born into another body, such that Mr. Thakrar is probably in his 20th life.
Cremation, I later learned, is only done on bodies of those from six years upwards.

Women are not allowed at the cremation owing to their faint traits, but this is not final, the brave ones who can live with seeing their loved ones in flames can attend.

“Burying contaminates the earth,” added Thakrar, to which his son added that that it’s not just Hindus who do cremation, Chinese, Koreans and some Europeans do it too, he said.

When a Hindu dies, a priest is invited to do prayers at the house and then the body is taken to the crematorium where further prayers are conducted, rites performed and then the body is left in the hands of Fanuel Moffat.

Moffat is a Chewa from Dedza; he is daringly termed Gauo by those that know him. He is a rickety but serious character.

“When I got employed, I was employed as a guard but soon they invited me to the cremation, showed me how to do it and that was it, I was surprised of the practice because I had never seen it before but I wasn’t scared, I have seen dead people before and conducted burials before,” he says.

He has overseen 46 cremations, he keeps record of them all and he insisted that his dreams are normal, that he still loves his wife and two children the same way, the job he does doesn’t make him any callous, he insists.

He also rubbished my assertions that he might have some juju to make him courageous; he says he is a catholic and knows his God well.

“I first get notified, then they bring the body, they do the prayers and then I get the body lay it on six logs, in between the logs we put tinder and over the body we form a triangle of smaller wood engulfing the body wholly.

“Then I light a stick with a fireball in front of it which is given to the relatives, they light up the body, after the fire catches, we move back and relatives soon go away and leave me alone here,” he narrated.

Moffat poses infront of the crematorium
Now, here is where it gets creepy, everyone has left, the crematorium is a quiet place with a high fence and spanning almost two football grounds and there he stays making sure that the body is burnt to ash. In laying the body, he has to put wood to as close as the body’s face.

“The legs and arms burn quick, but the hip area for women and the chest for men take time. I see it all, burning fresh, annals and as it burns, I have to keep the fire burning by restacking the firewood,” he said.

Holy mother of god! Behind you!
The six underlying logs are coated with ghee and this makes ghee, not the burning flesh, dominate the air, the body is also sprayed with sesame seeds which Thakrar said make the body to burst up quickly and burn effectively.

Takes five hours for the cremation to complete and the bereaved family returns the next day to collect the ashes.
Thakrar said the prayers continue up to the thirteenth day after which they believe the soul leaves. The prayers are for god to do what he will with the soul. He said in Hinduism Karma or deeds matters, such that the life one lived in this life will determine whether he or she is born rich or poor, healthy or diseased in the next life.
Moffat in holy garb
I asked Moffat if he has fallen in love enough with the cremation to the point of thinking about going the same way, he vehemently refused, saying he is an African and wants to be laid at Mayani, his home village, he is just an employee, he says.

I agreed with him, I am also just a journalist, I want my whole body (if they will find it) buried at Khata Village in Mlowe next to my father and mother. If I am unlucky, I will burn in hell, not here in Lilongwe.

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