Can You Afford to Die? Estimates of Expenditure on Rituals and Impact on Ecology

Even though death seems to wipe out all social inequalities, ways of disposing dead bodies continue to perpetuate economic differences. This article provides an indicative estimate of the costs incurred in cremation and burial according to religious affiliations. Findings show that while rich people’s spending on death rituals reflects their social position, the poor with limited means struggle hard to conform to normative practices. Traditional methods of corpse disposal have environmental costs. With 105 people dying every minute, there is an urgent need to adopt greener as well as cost-effective ways of handling dead-bodies in India.

Death is the inevitable reality of existence. There are approximately 7.6 billion people in the world. The death rate is 8 per 1000. Nearly 55.3 million people die each year, 151,600 die each day, 6,316 each hour, 105 each minute, and 2 people each second in the world (PRB and World Factbook 2011). Thus, disposal of corpses practically takes place all the time across the globe. There are many ways to do this—usually, corpses are buried, put on a pyre,  incinerated, and at times, preserved.  

While nature eliminates all identities with death, society tends to perpetuate economic distinctions through its rituals. Historical evidence shows that people in ancient civilisations (like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro) kept certain possessions like food, clothes, and other items of need along with the buried corpse of their relative with the assumption that the soul may require these items on its journey. The practice of keeping objects with the corpse quickly changed into a statement of aristocracy and prestige. Archaeologists can easily identify the socio-economic status of the buried person by observing these objects. 

Methodology

The article has three objectives: a) to estimate the cost incurred by people of different religious affiliations on death-related rituals; b) to examine financial implications of death rituals on families; c) to analyse environmental impact of corpse disposal. 

Using a mixed-method case-study approach, the study was conducted in Delhi and Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. In-depth interviews were conducted with people who had performed the last rites of their relatives in the last one year so as to gauge the cost involved in rituals. Eighteen interviews were conducted, six each from people belonging to three religions—Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. This was corroborated by key informant interviews with religious functionaries performing or overseeing death rituals such as brahmins, imams, and priests (three from each religion). Participant observation was done at burial and cremation grounds—Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi and Nigambodh Ghat, Lothian Cemetery, and Indian Christian Cemetery in Delhi. Two environment activists were also interviewed. Information from secondary sources was integrated to meet the objectives of the study.

Findings of the Study  

Norms and practices of handling bodies and related death rituals differ based on religious affiliations. 

Hindus constitute 79.8% of the Indian population (Census 2011). According to Hindu rituals, the dead body is cremated. This is presently done using either of two methods—one where the body is burnt with wood, and the relatively new method of using incinerators run on electricity or Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). 

In the former method, the major expense is on purchase of wood. For a body weighing nearly 80 kg, about 320 to 360 kg of wood is required. Generally, the wood of mango, eucalyptus, sakhauri, and other trees is used. Poor families invariably go for a mix of dry and wet wood. Rich families sometimes also prefer sandalwood. The cost of wood, depending on the type and quality, ranges from 6 to 14,000 per kg (making the aggregate cost vary from 2,160 to 50,40,000). 

Saamagri, a mixture of dried herbs and flammable materials (chunri, saakla, guggul, etc) are offered to the pyre. The cost of this varies from 200 to 50,000, based on quality and quantity of materials. Ghee (clarified butter) is also required and is available with quality variations. The average expenditure is nearly 500 per kg. Another expense is on the holy fire (called chita lagwaii), where a burning stick is provided by a person who charges 300. For a fee of 200, this person also oversees and ensures complete burning of the body, which takes 2–4 hours.  

On the day after the cremation, the bones and ashes of the deceased are collected and taken to Haridwar or a similar religious place to be immersed in a holy river like the Ganges. For every small or big ritual, the family has to pay the brahmin’s fees that may range from 101 to several thousands.

Following this, Mahapatras (a sect of Brahmins) do pinda-daan or cremation puja, for which fees are charged in cash or kind depending upon the paying capacity of the family. Mahapatras may ask for commodities that were liked by the deceased or demand things like television sets, air conditioners, or even a piece of land, costing lakhs of rupees. Apart from this, there are several rituals—recitation of scriptures, installation of a mud bowl called ghant by a barber, Ganesh puja on the twelfth day, and a grand feast for relatives and friends on the thirteenth day—each costing anywhere between a few hundred to several thousand rupees. 

Muslims constitute 14.2% of the Indian population (Census 2011). Sharia calls for burial of the corpse. The dead body is bathed and clothed. The cost of the shroud or kafan is up to 1,000. A bunk or charpai is usually procured from the nearby mosque and the body is taken to the graveyard. Rich Muslims often have their own land (private graveyard) for burial of their deceased relatives, while the poor and others are taken to government or public graveyards. 

Digging of the grave costs nearly 1,000 and putting wooden planks on the sides of the grave costs 3,500–4,000. Scents, flowers, and fees of the cleric who holds the janazah prayer and the rates of graveyard roughly cost another 2,000 to 5,000. On the fortieth day, a feast is organised for relatives and friends in the memory of the deceased, as a mark to culminate mourning. 

Reportedly, among Muslims, the minimum expenditure incurred in the burial of a dead body is about 5,000. Affluent people often buy land for the grave, the cost of which is based on location and area covered. Usage of marble, precious stones, and engraving also adds to the cost. 

Christians comprise 2.3% of India’s population. The main expenditure in Christian burial rituals is on the coffin and the cemetery. The body is wrapped in cloth (costing roughly 1,000) and placed inside the coffin. The coffin is then taken to the cemetery in a vehicle. Expenses incurred on the cost of coffin can range from 2,000 to several lakhs. Graves are of two types—kuccha ones cost nearly 3,500 and are opted for largely by poor people. The minimum cost of a pucca grave is about 6,500. Carpentry and labour charges are up to 1,500. The priest also charges fees depending upon the economic status of the family of the deceased. Types of flowers and bouquets offered adds to the cost. Families may also buy land for the grave. The cost of the site is variable, subject to locality. Additionally, expenses are incurred on prayer meetings that are generally held on the twelfth or thirteenth day of burial. 

While calculation of the exact cost is not possible, on an average (across religious affiliations), about 8,000–10,000 rupees is the minimum amount spent only on cremation/burial of the deceased relative. Death-related expenses can be classified into three main heads—actual disposal of the body, fees of service providers, and cost of organising prayer meetings or feasts on the last day of mourning. 

Apart from this, many families make donations to hospitals, schools, or similar institutions in order to pay tribute to their deceased relative. Embalming, though not as popular in India as in the West, adds to death-related expenditures. In the West, services of mortuary cosmetologists have also come into demand. These professionals beautify the dead body for the “last viewing” during cremation. Several event management companies usually contracted for organising marriage ceremonies and birthday celebrations now offer their services for funeral management. Everything—from decorating the place for keeping the dead body to paying homage, funeral processions, and follow up functions—is organised and managed by event management companies, for which exorbitant fees are charged. 

Implications on Family Budget

This study shows that expenditure on death rituals invariably destabilises family budgets, especially among middle- and low-income households. Often, the unexpected nature of death makes related expenses unplanned. Most people also refrain from talking about death. This silence makes them unprepared to handle death—psychologically as well as financially. 

People performing death rituals often decide their fees by gauging the economic status of the family. Bereaved relatives seldom pay attention to additional and unbudgeted spending in cremation. Some do not mind spending imprudently on death rites to maintain social status. The fear of being labeled as “inconsiderate” on not adhering to normative death rituals is a crucial factor that influences spending. The case below depicts this.  

Rashmi (name changed) has spent a little over 3 lakh on death rituals of her mother-in-law. Since she passed away at a ripe age of 92 years, the bier was decorated with balloons and ribbons and a musical band was hired. The priest demanded a ladder made of gold signifying her smooth passage to heaven as the deceased had seen the birth of her great-grandson. All the rituals were religiously followed. In hosting distant and close relatives for 12 days of the mourning period and organising a lavish feast on the 13th day for about 500 people, Rashmi’s family had to spend over 1 lakh . Monthly prayers by the priest in the name of the deceased and offerings in terms of money, clothes, utensils, and other items continued for a year. On the first death anniversary, a grand feast was organised again for the community and more money and gifts were given to the priest. Rashmi said that the death-related expenditures were totally unplanned and she had to withdraw money from her savings earmarked for her daughter’s marriage.

The impact on the poor is huge, as seen in the following cases.  

Moga (name changed), a landless labourer, took loan from a moneylender to meet the expenses related to the cremation of his father. The priest told him that he needed to donate a cow to a Brahmin so as to ensure that his father’s soul went to the heaven. Failing to do this would mean that his father would remain impoverished in his next life as well. To provide solace to his father’s departed soul and possibly save him from the miseries in his next life, he followed the priest’s advice by taking a loan. Now his ten-year-old son is working as a labourer in a lock and key making factory to repay the outstanding loan amount.

Ramden (name changed) works at the brick kiln in his village. Poverty and starvation claimed the life of his young wife. He did not have money to buy sufficient wood for her cremation. Stray dogs ate the half-burnt portions of her body and seeing that, Ramden could only cry helplessly.  

Impact on the Environment

Disposal of corpses has a severe impact on the environment too. Several studies have shown that the two most common practices of corpse disposal, burial and cremation, are not environment friendly. 

Burial is the most common practice of handling the dead in the world, but it poses serious threats to the environment. Burial entails usage of hardwood or metal caskets and toxic chemicals (especially for embalming of the body). Hardwood and metal caskets do not decompose easily and also prevent natural decomposition of the body. Decomposition of the human body is also harmful due to a high concentration of organic and inorganic substances in the soil to a level that renders groundwater unpotable. People living in close proximity to such cemeteries are the worst affected. This is particularly true for users of wells. The land in cemeteries cannot be used for agricultural purposes or even for buildings—it becomes a waste land (Knight 2010). With over 55 million people dying each year, the burden on land is very high.

Cremation is equally detrimental due to gaseous emissions such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury vapours that pollute the environment (Ambrose 2009). Singh (2015) observes that on an average, nearly 500 kg of wood is required to burn an adult human body. The demand for wood for cremation is also taxing Himalayan forests. According to estimates, in India, funeral pyres consume around 50–60 million trees annually, producing 500,000 tonnes of ash and 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. These pyres release an alarming 2,129 kg of carbon monoxide into the air every day. Felling of trees results in loss of oxygen and groundwater recharge capacity (Singh 2015). Another problem with cremation is emission of mercury (used in dental fillings), which is highly toxic and has been linked to neurological problems and death (Knight 2010).

 
Many poor people who cannot afford the cost of funeral immerse the dead body, partially cremated or not cremated, into rivers. Estimates reveal that 100,000 bodies in different states of cremation are dumped into the Ganges each year, adding to pollution (Rogers 2013).

Even though alternative methods of cremation such as CNG crematoriums or electric incinerators are economical (with a fixed rate of 700) as well as eco-friendly, their availability is limited. There are only six CNG furnaces and four electric crematoriums in Delhi. Most of the cremation grounds in the capital are not equipped to follow the National Green Tribunal's advice of eco-friendly options. Reluctance of the people to forego the traditional cremation processes is a sensitive issue to address. Though the traditional system is two to three times costlier than modern crematoriums, in only 1 out of 14 cases, gas-fired burners are opted. Ritualistic notions also hamper the usage of electric crematoriums. For instance, the eldest son must break his dead father’s skull with a bamboo stick after lighting the pyre, which is not feasible in electric crematoriums. Also, the ashes of different bodies tend to get mixed together in electric crematoriums (Singh 2015). 

Conclusions 

It may be concluded that current death rituals and methods of disposal of bodies are not only financially draining, but also contribute to environmental degradation. Undoubtedly, death-related rituals are significant. These rituals have a major role in helping people cope with death (Prasad 1995) and they differ based on religious affiliations. However, the very purpose of these rituals is defeated when instead of providing solace, they become a financial burden on the bereaved families. Becvar (2001) maintains that rituals are personal. Bereaved families need not feel obligated to follow the rules and traditions prescribed by society but should rather design unique rituals that fit their needs. 

 
While cremation practices render a huge cost on environmental resources such as forests and rivers, rituals of burial add to soil and water pollution. People, across the world, are increasingly becoming environmentally conscious. It is equally imperative to be conscious of the negative impacts of current death practices. A few innovative and environment-friendly options for disposal of bodies may be looked into. 

It is estimated that Nigambodh Ghat (a cremation site in Delhi) alone burns around 250 quintals of wood every day. Mokshdaan, an NGO, has developed a system of cremation that employs a hood and chimney to create more efficient combustion, where instead of 350 kg, only 150 kg of wood is consumed per body. This system, though not entirely green, strikes a good balance between tradition and environmental concerns. The prototypes of this system are installed in 2–3 crematoriums in Delhi (Times of India 2016). At some places in the Western world, burial grounds with biodegradable coffins are turned into a wildlife sanctuary after a stipulated time period once capacity is met (Farmers Weekly 2008). 

Donating dead bodies to science would not only prevent environmental harm, but also facilitate the progress of medicine contributing to better public health services. Corpses, through chemical treatments like alkaline hydrolysis and freeze drying, can also be converted into fertilisers (Rastogi 2009), or turned into artificial coral reefs beneficial for marine life (Gillies nd) or even made into diamonds (Slaton 2003). Though mostly environment-friendly, these methods are costly.

Traditional practices of handling dead bodies need to be replaced with greener methods so that the environment can be preserved for future generations. It requires concerted efforts of different stakeholders—the scientific fraternity, religious leaders, civil society bodies, government, and above all, a socially responsive citizenry. 

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