As Covid consumes human life in a very conspicuous way we are confronted with the additional problem of disposing of human corpses. Cremation grounds are lit with continuous pyres, graveyards are running out of land and now Ganga has become a mass grave potentially polluting its water.

In India, one estimate reveals that funeral pyres consume 6 crore trees annually and play a huge role in deforesting the country. Air pollution and deforestation are not the only environmental threats of cremation. They also generate large quantities of ash - around 50 lakh tonnes each year - which is later thrown into rivers, adding to their waters’ toxicity. This ash was already polluting the water of Ganga before we became alarmed by the scenes of floating human corpses.

The prolonged burning of fossil fuels for cremation results in around 80 lakh tonnes of carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions per year, according to one estimate. It creates different hazardous gases, including dental mercury, which is vaporised and released into the environment leading to health hazards in the surrounding area.

Many of these toxins can bioaccumulate in humans, including mercury - often from dental amalgams, but also from general bioaccumulation in the body. Cremation results in various other toxic emissions including persistent pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and heavy metals.

An IIT Kanpur study in 2016 found that open-air cremations contribute 4% of Delhi’s carbon monoxide emissions. There are concerns for crematorium workers as well, who may be exposed to nuclear medicine treatments (chemotherapeutics/radiation), orthopaedic (implants) and pacemaker explosions, and nanoparticles.

A hymn in the Rig Veda, traditionally recited by a priest or an adult male, urges Agni the Vedic fire god to “carry this man to the world of those who have done good deeds.” From the perspective of Hindu, Jain, and Sikh rituals, the act of cremation is seen as a sacrifice, a final breaking of ties between the body and spirit so it is free to reincarnate.

In our times cremation also differentiates Hindus from Muslims, Christians and Parsis, and even raised caste Hindus from lowered caste Hindus, who were generally buried. It was seen as a right rather than rite. The lowered castes often use the phrase ‘mitti’ for a human corpse, implying that the dead body has already become earth even before the process.

In order to tackle the environmental problems stemming from these sites, the Indian government and environmental groups have over the years promoted the use of electric crematoriums as an alternative way of cremation. But these systems only avoid creating pollution on site, but are polluting where the electricity is being generated from thermal power plants, which are still the biggest source of power for India.

Electric crematoriums have by and large failed, mainly due to financial and religious reasons. They are expensive to run, and crucially, traditional rituals such as kapal kriya, where a stick or long bamboo pole is used to crack open the burning skull to free the soul from its earthly existence, are made impossible.

Mokshda, a Delhi based NGO working to reduce the environmental impact of funeral pyres, describes its alternate energy-efficient “green cremation system” by maintaining that it will burn a body completely in less time and with less wood than usual. The green cremation system consists of a human-sized grate beneath a roof, and a chimney which reduces heat loss. The pyre wood is placed on metal slats, enabling better air circulation around the flames. It is also easier to transition from one cremation to another by removing the metal tray filled with ash and replacing it with a new tray containing the next body.

One of the big advantages of this system is that mourners can continue to fulfil all traditional rites. It is believed that a traditional pyre takes about six hours and requires 500-600 kilograms of wood to burn a body completely, while this alternative system takes only up to two hours and 150-200 kilograms of wood, reduces emissions by up to 60%. The organization has 50 such units spread around nine Indian states.

However, Covid times have already altered a number of practices. In some cases young women may be the only ones available to light the funerary pyre, which they were earlier prevented from doing. Families in quarantine are forced to use video software to visually identify the body and recite digital funerary rites. In most Covid deaths, crematorium workers, who are mostly Dalits, have been asked to read prayers earlier reserved for Brahmin priests or people from a higher caste, as the relatives and priests are afraid of approaching the body.

There are also green burials, which are performed without using embalming fluids or toxic chemicals of any kind. The grave is often dug by hand. The body is simply placed in an unbleached cloth shroud rather than a casket. This allows the corpse to decompose naturally, returning its sustenance to the Earth. Many green burial grounds also act as wildlife refuges, creating safe spaces for animals and native plant life.

Among the Gond community, one of India’s largest Indigenous groups, burial, or mitti sanskar, was a common practice which over the decades gave way to cremation as the Gonds assimilated with caste Hindu communities. However, they have now decided to bury their dead instead of cremating them, with the aim of reducing the number of trees cut for funeral pyres.

They believe that through burial the body mixes with five basic elements of nature: earth, air, water, fire and space. Also, Lingayats - ardent Shiva devotees and followers of the 12th century saint Basavanna - do not cremate their dead. Instead the departed are buried in deep pits in a sitting, meditative position with a linga (symbol of Shiva) in the right hand.

In Tibet and other areas nearby, Buddhists practice a death ritual meant to encourage good karma. Similar to the Parsi practice they take the bodies to charnel grounds where vultures come to eat the flesh, offering back to the world what was taken in life: flesh. Ritual aside, it is also a practical answer due to the scarcity of wood and usable burial grounds, as the rocky earth makes it hard to dig.

Although a bit controversial, another utilitarian alternative is human composting, the process of transforming bodies into soil, naturally. Farmers have practised livestock composting for decades. Wood chips, moisture and breeze combine to expedite the natural process of decay into nutrient-rich soil. In as little as 30 days a dead cattle transforms into (roughly) a cubic yard of soil.

In the United States some 6% of people prefer to donate their bodies after death to medical science institutions. In India too the share of people donating bodies or organs after death is very low.

In Anandvan, set up by the late Baba Amte, everyone after death, irrespective of their religion, is buried with a sapling planted on top and no permanent or semi-permanent structure built.

The problem of land for burial can be solved in Covid times by using land alongside railway tracks or highways. After some years the saplings will provide shade and possibly fruits.

Abhay Jain is an engineer-entrepreneur and Sandeep Pandey is Vice President, Socialist Party (India)

Cover Photograph PTI

A municipal worker dressed in PPE stands before the funeral pyre of a COVID-19 victim at a crematorium