What happens after the cremation? The last rite for Sikhs usually involves dispersing the remains in flowing water. HARKIREN KAUR has something to say about it.
A few days ago, Mataji remarked to me that I should write about Port Klang.
“Port Klang?” I looked at her, blank and confused.
“You know… what happens when they go to Port Klang after the phull chugna. The pails and all.”
My heart clenched, and as I had many times in the past, I felt shame. Shame and guilt, at the thought that once, I had been right there, on the boat, in the thick of things, and unable to prevent it from happening.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me start at the beginning. (Or the end, as it were).
Our faith teaches us that there is no finality in what we call death. The physical body may perish, but the soul just moves on to its next phase of being. Which is all very nice on a spiritual and intellectual level, but these words offer little comfort when such loss actually happens. We are beings of attachment, and we experience grief at the physical separation that ensues when a beloved departs. It is a painful time, and also a confusing one.
Will people come to pay their respects at the house? How many do you think? How do we send the message out? Have we arranged for a hearse? Do we cook? Can we cater the food at such short notice? What clothes do we set out for our loved one? Who will lead the Paath, do the Ardaas? Do we have Kirtan? When is the Bhog? Which Gurdwara? Loke Yew or crematorium? Today or tomorrow? White or black? Akhand Paath or Sehaj Paath?
And on, and on, and on. So many decisions, so unexpected, and so little time. Everything around this process is so delicate, and we tread the minutes that follow with such sensitivity and emotion. Some things we get right, and some things we don’t. In a disorienting mixture of Giani Ji’s guidance, common practice, and superstition, we somehow pull through, and things fall into place.
But I digress. The point of this post actually begins several days later, once the fire has cooled down, and close family members make their way to the cremation ground yet again for a ceremony beautifully termed as “phull chugna”, which literally translates to picking flowers. During these poignant moments, as we collect what is left, we reflect on how ridiculously absurd our inflated egos are. This ceremony is very close to my heart; it is quiet as only a few people participate, there is no noise and rush, and our hearts have had a few days to begin the healing journey of acceptance.
And here the calm is interrupted, because now come the Pail, the Gunny Sack, and the Towel, and everything changes.
Now, two things. First, I’m aware that customs differ from place to place, and from community to community. I hope you will read with the intent of seeing the point of what I’m writing, and not brush it off if it isn’t widespread enough to make the headlines. Second, I feel that I owe it to you to declare here that the rest of this piece will not be bringing you a sense of peace, but will instead be putting you at dis-ease. Tighten your stomachs, and read on.
The Pail is used for the milk bath; to clean the larger fragments from the body that survive the flame. These are then transferred into a potli, or cloth pouch, and since everything is wet, the Pail serves its second function: as a practical means to transport the potli. Of course you know that the pail is made of plastic, and with good reason: it lasts a long time. Look at your backyards and you’ll probably see pails and tubs that have been thriving for many years.
The Gunny Sack is used to hold everything else that is left, mainly ashes. In the old days, they were made of natural fibres such as jute, but these days, we more commonly use those made of polypropylene. Which isn’t bad in itself: Polypropylene is easily recycled and from what I’ve read, does not release harmful elements into the environment when disposed of. However, being extremely durable, it is a problem in that it takes an age to deteriorate. Heck, even jute does not dissolve overnight. So, unless reused and recycled, regardless of the material, both types can cause environmental damage.
The Towel is used for drying hands after the phull chugna. We can talk about what material it is made of and how bio-degradable it is, but I reiterate what I said above: that unless it is reused or recycled, it ends up as waste, and we already have a landfill problem on our hands. Go on; Google “landfill” and be horrified at the disturbing images that the search returns.
In our tradition, we surrender all that is left of the physical body back to the elements, and so we make our way to a source of water. In the Kuala Lumpur/Selangor community, the most common option is to head to Port Klang, charter a boat, and release the last traces of physical existence into the sea.
Here I pause, and proceed consciously, knowingly, and determinedly. I am certain that many will not like what I have to say, and fewer may accept it.
This idea of releasing what remains into the sea is unfortunately adhered to with such obstinate doggedness, that the belief is that everything that touches those final traces should also be discarded in the same way. True to this line of thought, the (plastic) Pail, the (jute/ polypropylene) Gunny Sack, and the (easily reused) towel are carelessly tossed in as well. Actually no, carelessly is not the right word. Deliberately.
Shocked? Oh yes.
On my first time on that boat, everything was a new experience. My brother and I sat back, and let those who ‘knew’ take charge and lead the way. I was so unprepared, and time moved faster my ability to react, to say something, to do anything, to get in between the Pail and the water.
I spent the journey home with my mind so troubled at the thought of all those Pails sitting at the bottom of the sea, and all that sea life dead from choking on bits of jute and polypropylene. All those corals and reefs destroyed, and all those birds killed from eating strangled fish. I can go on and on, but I suspect you already know a little about the circle of life and how this is all going to come fully round and stab us (or worse, our children) in the face soon enough.
But here, just in case you missed it, is how what we do on one end of the planet affects birds on one of the remotest islands on earth. [See here.]
Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Google at your service, once again.
And WE do this. Day in, day out, we do this.
We, the children of gentle Har Rai, the one who passionately preserved every flower and every leaf he saw. We call him our Guru, and we celebrate Sikh Environment Day with our children by drawing pictures of trees and talking about recycling, and then we get on those boats and throw pails in the sea.
We, the students of Bhagat Puran Singh, whose eyes were sharp enough to look out for the ants in his path. We watch the movie on his life and drop money in donation boxes, and then we feed the fish plastic.
The wretchedness of it all, that even after Man has taken his final breath, he still leaves behind a sea of pollution in his name. Literally. I have days when I want to shake myself out of fury, just for being human. How dreadful we are; we loot and poison and destroy this Earth without a moment’s thought that She too is a living being, a Mother, a part of the Ek that we chant so religiously at the start of Jap Ji.
But at the same time, look how beautiful we are, and how capable of change.
Once off the boat, my brother and I shared that episode with our family, and together we are now more prepared for what will come, and what to do in defence of our Mata Dharatt Mahatt. As much as we would like the world to change overnight, given the fragility around final rites, the solution can only come through conversation and patience.
To explain to an elderly person on that boat, that no, we don’t need to do this, is not easy. There will be lots of unwelcome free advice at that time, and he is a simple man in an immensely emotional final moment; so we must prepare him for it in advance.
To talk to our families, now. To share with them what happens, why it shouldn’t, and what we must do when confronted by it.
To take charge when the situation is unfolding, and negotiate on behalf of our Mother. To do that with determined compassion, and compassionate determination.
To educate those we know, on how our seemingly little and unconscious actions affect the land we walk on, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the creatures we share this space with. And to not just talk about it, but to live it.
After that first time, we’ve since walked off the boat with rescued Pails, Gunny Sacks, and Towels. I cannot tell you how much comfort, relief, and victory I have felt, knowing that the final act in the physical lives of our loved ones was not to leave behind a more tainted Earth for their next of kin.
And that MUST be their legacy. To return to the elements as purely, as cleanly, and as simply as possible. To leave with nothing, to carry nothing, to stain nothing.
I’m one little person, and I’m just doing my little bit to protect my only Home, one Pail at a time.
Please… do it with me. — ASIA SAMACHAR (21 Feb 2015)
[Harkiren Kaur, an active volunteers in Sikh activities, runs a blog entitled Tva Prasaad at http://harkirenkaur.blogspot.com]
[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE! Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]