Will the dead be cremated as part of Europe's austerity?
27 April 2012
The conversation, that evening, took a macabre turn on how European austerity was beginning to affect the ancient custom of burying the dead. This reminded me of a story.
Peter Duval Smith was famous among journalists in the 60s and 70s for the creative work he had done in launching the BBC radio talks programmes. Covering the Vietnam War for London's Daily Telegraph, he was among the first journalists to have got hooked on opium. The addiction got the better of him. One day he choked on his own vomit and died.
A question arose as to what should be done with the body. The Saigon Press Corps fell into deep thought. The editor, when informed of his correspondent's death, asked for the cost involved in sending the body to London. The cost, it turned out, was prohibitive.
For economy of words and a singular absence of sentimentality, the editor's instructions are a classic: "cremate body locally: dispatch ashes".
In the Czech Republic this is a serious debate. In Prague, the capital of the most representative of what Ronald Rumsfeld called "new Europe", burial is turning out to be expensive. Purchase of land, cost of coffin, marble, grave digging, bricks and cement - it all adds upto quite a packet.
Cremation, by contrast, is simple matter. Place the body in the incinerator and it's all over. Collect the ashes if you like.
I suppose the clergy will, at some stage, have to sanctify the proposal.
Would the discontinuance of an ancient custom have costs in after life?
In Prague the issue has come out in the open but it is of relevance to most urban societies including ours. Pressure on Urban land will result in pressure on graveyards which in turn will bring into focus the inevitability of bodies being piled on bodies, a sort of horizontal arrangement. It could become a high pitched religion vs secularism debate. Surely there will be a Muslim angle to the discourse since Muslim too are buried.
Inevitably, the conversation drifted to the fashionable theme in recent years: Islamic fundamentalism. The obsession, I said, has obscured the growing phenomena of all religions digging their heels in on the fundamentals.
Some years ago, a diplomat at the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, sought an urgent transfer because India's capital city did not have the facilities for his wife to fulfill ritual obligations of her faith. Her religion required her to dip in a fresh water pond during her monthly periods. She was taken to the Bhadkal Lake in Haryana but it was found inadequate. They left Indian in double quick time.
Another, Jewish friend, a high powered journalists who traveled with me to Godhra during the pogrom of 2002, refused to eat in my house because "your kosher is not like our kosher - we have to say a specific prayer before any meat can be declared kosher."
An orthodox Jew brought his own chopping block to the fish shop in New Delhi's INA market! His solemnity in adhering to the ritual was harmless even amusing.
These somewhat disjointed bits of religious exclusiveness link up nicely with a chapter I have been reading in Madeleine Albright's the Mighty and the Almighty: "the holocaust may have been the tipping point in US support for Israel's statehood, but American policy has its roots in the Balfour Declaration - that there is indeed a promised land and that Israelites were the recipients of the promise." Many Americans are convinced on the basis of numerous biblical passages that Jesus will return to earth only when Solomon's temple is rebuilt and the climactic war between good and evil, described in the book of Revelation, is fought.
But Christopher Hitchen's description of what happened at Bagram air base takes the cake. Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, Chief of the United States Military Chaplains in Afghanistan, tells his audience, all in military uniform: "The Special Forces guys, they hunt men, basically. We do the same things, as Christians, we hunt people for Jesus. Get the hound of heaven after them, so we get them in the Kingdom."
That is Chaplain Hensley's understanding of the US mission in Afghanistan. Hunt them for the Kingdom of God! What more can the Afghans ask for?
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)