Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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James the Giant
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Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by James the Giant » Sun Aug 17, 2014 6:56 am

Recently in Thailand I was lucky enough to see a body being burned on an open cremation pyre. It is the first time I have seen such a thing. I have been to many funerals and seen lots of peaceful dead good-looking bodies, but never like this. In western countries we are so insulated from death, and dead things. People from countries like Thailand and India, which do open cremations, are fortunate in this respect, much closer to the reality of the thing.

So, on to the cremation:
The body of the 95-year-old man was displayed in the sala for four days in a fancy decorated refrigerated coffin. The monks chanted every night for the four days, and on the fifth a pyre was built.
The coffin was carried out and placed on the pyre, which was about 1.5m tall and made of densely stacked wood soaked in some oil.
There were ceremonies and much chanting, then the pyre was lit.

The coffin burned quickly, being made of thin wood and plastic.
The head of the man was revealed after perhaps 10 minutes, and the skin of the scalp blackened and crisped.
That was all we could see for about an hour, just the top of the scalp, as the rest of the body was covered with flower offerings and stuff the family had thrown on top. Apparently in India you can see a lot more, as the body is often uncovered on top of the pyre.
People crowed around to have a look, family, friends, and monks, all quite interested, and nobody considered it inappropriate to be openly curious and as close as possible to the fire and body, without getting burned oneself!
After a while most people left, leaving only about 5 of the original 100+ people.
Then, as the sun set and the night and darkness drew in, it started to get interesting.

The head started turning to to face us, as the neck muscles or tendons cooked and contracted. The head rotated until it was looking right at us. After the first hour, all the skin had burned off the head, so the head turning revealed a grinning skull, white in the heat. There were no teeth, as the man had used dentures for decades.
The eye sockets steamed and smoked, I guess as the brain boiled and escaped through the optic nerve channels.
The vertebrae of the neck became exposed, as crusty black meat slowly burned off, or fell off, leaving oozing patches of red raw flesh and bone underneath.
Now the legs, previously buried under embers, began to rise out of the fire into the air, maybe because the tendons and muscles were contracting again as they burned?
The ends of the limbs - the feet and shins - had burned off completely, meaning the legs stopped at the knee stumps. Over time the flesh seemed to contract away from the stumps, leaving more bone exposed, until there was about 30cm of femur with the joint on the end sticking into the air.
The collarbones poked out, as did the ribs, and the jaw began to crack and open wider and wider.
After maybe 2 1/2 hours, the skull fell off the neck, leaving the headless torso dripping from the throat.

Liquids streamed steadily out of the neck and chest, between the ribs. Most of the liquid was red and gooey, and it coagulated as it poured out, then burned with a sooty flame. Fats or somethings? There was a steady bubbling, frying noise, and it was one of the yuckiest parts for me, that noise. This was the noise of a person, being burned like a forgotten roast.
The skull, now lying directly on the embers, stopped steaming from the eyesockets, and we could see smoke and flame coming from where the spinal cord had gone in. Suddenly the eye sockets burst into flame, and the whole thing was wreathed in flame, just like in some classic horror movie.
After a time the surface flame stopped and we could see though cracks in the back of the eyesockets that there were now flames inside the cranium itself. The brain had finished boiling off the water, and was now burning inside the skull.
Those billions of precious neurons, protected for a lifetime, now just smoke and burning protein.

Over the next few hours into the night, the body became smaller and smaller, being burned away bit by bit, and it contracted and shrank a lot.
Monks came by and uncovered the body more, brought it to the surface of the fire with long sticks, so it could burn better or something.

The muscles of the spine contracted, meaning the spine flexed backward, leaving the torso, the headless, limbless torso, contorted, bent backwards more than would be possible while alive.

I imagined and visualised the body to be my mother and father, dead and burning there. That was sad.
I imagined it to be my body, which was weird but didn't disturb me as much as my parents. My own personal death has not worried me for a long time.
I finally imagined it to be the body of a woman I lust after, her beautiful, flexbile, smooth body all turned to burned meat, exposed bone, and corruption. That was effective! I juxtaposed images and sensations in my imagination of her lovely passionate alive body now, and the charred cooked thing I saw in front of me. An excellent asubha meditation! Repeatedly switching between the two. This specific meditation had been recommended to me by several monks, as a way of reducing sexual desire while celibate at the monastery, but I'd never had the opportunity to really work on that meditation so vividly. That memory will be useful in the future I think

By this time it was getting late, about four hours after the fire was lit, and I was getting tired. The remaining few of us, just two laymen and one laywoman - all westerners - had been sitting beside the pyre all this time, brushing off the ants and mosquitoes and talking of dhamma and death. It had been an interesting evening.

But before I left, I went to the edge of the pyre and had a good sniff of the smoke.
It smelled like barbecue, forgotten steak left on the barbecue for far too long, burning fat and charcoal. Exactly the smell of a normal BBQ.
Even though I knew it was the smell of a burning human filling my nostrils and lungs, I wasn't repulsed by it. Well, er, not too much at least.
I realised "This thing is now edible, and would probably taste pretty okay."
In a warzone, or house-fire, or outside a Nazi concentration camp, that smell of burned human flesh would probably be sickening and terrible, but since it was the body of a 95-year-old who had died naturally, it was a fine smell, not offensive at all.

When I left the pyre, the body was a lump of blackened meat weighing about 15 kilos. The fire was burning much more slowly and the rest of the body would probably take all night to burn away.

So that's how it was. I hope I didn't gross anyone out too much. I definitely recommend taking the time to see such a cremation, if you ever have the chance.
Very interesting insight into the body, my own body, other people's bodies, sickness, death, inevitability, etc, especially if you meditate upon those themes as you are watching.
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you will put an end to suffering and stress.
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cooran
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by cooran » Sun Aug 17, 2014 8:28 am

Hello James,

Interesting impressions. This experience can be utilised in practice.

Every time I go on Pilgrimage, I go on a short boat ride at the Burning Ghats at Varanasi, where there are many bodies burned each day.
There is accommodation nearby for those who are very elderly, or who know they are dying, to wait. All wish to be "cremated" at this place which is very holy to Hindus.

With metta,
Chris
---The trouble is that you think you have time---
---Worry is the Interest, paid in advance, on a debt you may never owe---
---It's not what happens to you in life that is important ~ it's what you do with it ---

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Mkoll
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by Mkoll » Sun Aug 17, 2014 8:59 am

Thanks for sharing James. That was a very vivid description of events. One day I'll probably witness the like.
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa
Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa

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Kusala
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by Kusala » Sun Aug 17, 2014 9:09 am

A poignant reminder of the human condition...thank you, James.
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He trains perfectly those who wish to be trained; he is Teacher of gods and men; he is Awake and Holy. "

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James the Giant
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by James the Giant » Sun Aug 17, 2014 9:24 am

cooran wrote: Every time I go on Pilgrimage, I go on a short boat ride at the Burning Ghats at Varanasi, where there are many bodies burned each day.
There is accommodation nearby for those who are very elderly, or who know they are dying, to wait. All wish to be "cremated" at this place which is very holy to Hindus.
Gosh, that is an order of magnitude more intense than single cremations in Thailand!
I hope to visit Varanasi in a few years for a bit of a pilgrimage too.
Then,
saturated with joy,
you will put an end to suffering and stress.
SN 9.11

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Hickersonia
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by Hickersonia » Mon Aug 18, 2014 12:23 am

Thank you for sharing your experience and observations...

In my own practice, I think meditation on death (and in particular, the foulness of the body in death) is not particularly effective for me simply because I cannot properly imagine it... Perhaps I should print this and read it whenever I feel overwhelmed with lustful thoughts...

Please be well, friend. :anjali:
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plwk
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by plwk » Mon Aug 18, 2014 1:03 am

Every time I go on Pilgrimage, I go on a short boat ride at the Burning Ghats at Varanasi, where there are many bodies burned each day.
There is accommodation nearby for those who are very elderly, or who know they are dying, to wait. All wish to be "cremated" at this place which is very holy to Hindus.
I can totally relate to this having watched 3 simultaneous cremations at one part of this area back in 2010 on a similar boat ride and last year in the heritage site of Pasupatinath cremation area in Nepal. I even experienced a family rushing by down the hill steps bearing a white wrapped corpse on a bed palanquin laden with marigold garlands while chanting 'Narayana! Om Namo Vasudevaya!'

In fact, I can still 'feel' the emanating great heat from those Varanasi pyres just from the memory of it... memorable experience...

Very good sharing James :thumbsup:

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phil
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by phil » Mon Aug 18, 2014 1:05 am

Thanks, very well told.

Someway different topic but I always remember seeing a video clip of the Vietnamese monk who self-immolated in protest during the war. He didn't budge until the moment the body fell over. Presumably very deep jhanas. So the body was being burned and the mind untouched (or so it seems safe to assume) vs. the body being cremated and the mind long gone.
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by ancientbuddhism » Mon Aug 18, 2014 11:56 am

That is the crematory at WPN. At a funeral I attended there the body laid in state without refrigeration, so there was the smell of decomposition and turning of the skin to a purple-black. Because the body was burned uncovered everything was visible. The abbot, Ajahn Nyanadhammo then, placed heavy steel bars across the body to prevent it from sitting up due to contractions from the heat. The funeral was at dusk so the fire burned through the night and I could smell it at my kuti. The next morning there was an old woman collecting the remains in a tin bowel.
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James the Giant
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Re: Watching a body burn on an open pyre

Post by James the Giant » Tue Aug 19, 2014 6:49 am

ancientbuddhism wrote: The abbot, Ajahn Nyanadhammo then, placed heavy steel bars across the body to prevent it from sitting up due to contractions from the heat.
Aha, thankyou, I wondered why they put those big steel bars on there.
Then,
saturated with joy,
you will put an end to suffering and stress.
SN 9.11

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