Electric Cremation vs The Traditional Funeral Pyre

Uma Bharti, the water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation minister, had few days back, suggested that “electric crematoriums” should be banned on river banks to reduce pollution and bodies should be burned instead. Whether her suggestion will be accepted or not is not known. However, there has always been a controversy on the use of the electric crematoriums and Indians largely follow the traditional burning of the bodies. In metropolitan cities, the electric crematoriums are used, but not to a great extent and most of these have failed due to finance and religious reasons.

Why Hindus follow the open cremation?
All Hindus believe that the soul of a dead person must be completely detached from the body and the material world, so that it can be reincarnated again. For this, an open cremation is needed so that the soul can be easily released as soon as the body is burned atop a massive pile of wood. Draped in a white cloth, when the body is burned on the pyre of wood, prayers are chanted. The soul gets engulfed in the flames and releases from the body. This traditional belief and ritual has been followed since time immemorial by the Hindus and traditional Hindu funeral pyre is the most auspicious method, considered by the Hindus for the dead person’s soul to rest in peace.

Environmentalist’s viewpoint
It is a common sight in most open crematoriums where cloud of black smoke covers the blue sky. According to some environmentalists, the ceremony of burning human bodies using wood, with the belief that it releases the soul, is actually a threat to the environment. According to a report, all the year round, around 50 to 60 million trees are burned during cremations in India. While burning the wood, there is also emission of million tonnes of carbon dioxide gas which is not good for the environment. The two main drawbacks of the traditional method of cremation are air pollution and deforestation. Also, cremation in open grounds generate large amounts of ashes, which are later thrown into rivers and water bodies, especially the Ganga river, thereby polluting the water. These are all environmental threats caused by cremation.

Electric Cremation
The concept of electric cremation is not new. It was commissioned in January 1989 as a part of the Ganga Action Plan. The basic idea was to serve the purpose of river friendly cremation. In order to tackle environmental pollution, electric crematoriums are set up in various parts of the country, especially in the metro cities and are promoted by the Government, private NGOs and environmentalists. The electric system of cremation is used by certain sections of the society only.

Advantages of Electric Cremation
The traditional funeral pyre requires around 500-600 kg of firewood, three litres of kerosene and some prefer desi ghee, and 300-400 cowdung cakes per dead body. The total costs turn around Rs. 2,000 – 3,000 in total. Mortal remains can be taken only after 24 hours.

On the other hand, electric cremation is comparatively less expensive. Relatives can take the mortal remains within a few hours of cremation. In electric cremation, wood is not burned and there are no gas emissions. It is no doubt an unconventional way of cremation but it helps in saving resources like wood, kerosene, etc. It is the most economical option for funeral.

Failure of Electric Cremation in India

However, electric cremation has not been popularised much in India, as Hindus still do not want to shed away their traditional belief. Orthodox families believe that a electric crematorium, which also is a covered crematorium, won’t allow the soul to be released from the body and thereby it mingles with other souls and the concerned person will not be reincarnated again. Many also believe that the most important ritual that is performed in the traditional pyre known as the “kapal kriya”, where a long bamboo stick is used to crack open the skull which is burning to free the soul from its mortal remains is not possible in electric cremation. Electric cremations in India have also failed not only due to religious reasons but also due to technical snags and lack of finances in maintenance.

The concept of “Green Cremation System”
This is also a concept being developed in India but has not been very popular like the electric cremation. It is an alternate method of cremation in which the Hindus can also follow all their traditional rituals. It is affordable, energy efficient, and generates less water and air pollution, while all the religious needs of Hindus are taken into consideration. In the Green Cremation system, a man sized metal grate is constructed beneath a roof and a chimney, and woods are placed on the metal base. The use of chimney enable better air circulation and reduces heat loss. It uses much lesser amount of wood (around 150-200 kg) to burn a body as compared to the wood (500-600 kg) used in the traditional funeral pyre. Also, it takes less time for the entire cremation, somewhere around 2 hours, as compared to 6-8 hours in the traditional cremation. While the emissions are reduced by 60%, the cost is also reduced significantly. The green cremation system has been developed by a Delhi based NGO way back in 1992 but it has not been popularised yet.

Electric cremation means saving valuable resources like trees and water and saving the environment. It’s high time now that Indians should get rid of the myths associated with electric cremation or green cremation system. It is also a myth that religious customs cannot take place in an electric crematorium.