It is with mixed feelings that I enter the crematorium, after all, it is a place of death. Although I have come here many times, I still become very thoughtful each time I revisit this place. Maybe it is because I am reminded of my own mortality. Today I came with a group of devotees to sing mantras. A congregational member had passed away and this devotee’s family members and friends had gathered to pay their last homage. While some of our priests were performing the last rites and everyone else was offering some flowers and Ganges water, I sat on a carpet on the floor close to the coffin and sung a bhajan followed by maha-mantra kirtana. Some cried loudly, others stared at the large stone wall still trying to understand what had happened. I tried to sing with feeling and devotion, praying to the holy name to manifest His power for the benefit of the soul who has passed away and for the devotees who have gathered at this funeral hall.
After the ceremony, I was requested to say a few words. I was not particularly prepared for that and I also did not know the departed devotee so well. I decided to just speak in general about the nature of this world, how we live in a temporary place and that death will someday also approach us, sooner or later…
In the Mahabharata, there is this very instructive episode where Yudhishthira Maharaja finds his four brothers lying dead on the shore of a lake. They were apparently killed by a Yaksa, a celestial being who forbad them to drink water from the lake unless they could solve the riddles placed before them. In the conversation that took place between this Yaksa and Yudhistiras, the pious king answered all the questions in the most perfect way. One of these questions was: „What is the most wonderful thing in this world?“
King Yudhishthira replied: „Every day, hundreds and millions of living entities go to the kingdom of death. Still, those who are remaining aspire for a permanent situation. What could be more wonderful than this?“
Although it is very obvious that we have to die at some point, most of us never think about it and even more amazing, we live our lives as if we would never die. We strive for a permeant situation and do not consider that this world is temporary. We see all around us how others die, but do not really believe that the same will happen to us. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur expresses this point in one of his songs in a very powerful way:
„When this body of mine is finished, what will I have gained? Nobody, including my son and wife, will be able to give me happiness. I work hard like an ass, even though I do not know for whom I am laboring. Still, my illusion has not yet been removed. Many days are spent performing useless activities and my nights are passed by sleep. Still, I do not realize that death is sitting right next to me. I eat palatable foodstuff, I see beautiful things, and I wear nice clothes. In this way, I live without anxiety. I never think, that at any time, I may have to give up this body. Thoughts of wife, children, house and so on are constantly appearing in my heart, thus subduing my intelligence. Alas! Alas! I do not consider that all these things are temporary. When this body is finished, where will be my wealth? My body will lie down in the crematorium, birds and insects will enjoy a feast. Dogs and jackals will happily enjoy a feast eating my body. Such is the destination of the material body! Worldly opulence and friends are only considered as such in relation to the body. After understanding all of this, intelligent people should give up their illusory attachments to this body and search for eternal truth by engaging in the devotional service to Lord Krishna!“ 1
After my speech, others were also sharing some thoughts and we concluded the ceremony with another bhajan. Then the time for the cremation had come. A selected group of members was allowed to accompany the deceased on his journey to the cremation fire. We sung last prayers, kindled a symbolic fire and watched how the wooden coffin was moved into the 700-celsius hot cremation furnace. It takes about two to three hours until the body is completely burned to ashes.
One day our body will also be cremated or buried. As long as I live I should use every moment I have to reawaken my relationship with the Lord. It is that relationship which is of eternal nature, whereas everything else will be lost at the time of death. Yes, visiting the crematorium always has the same effect on my consciousness, it really makes me thoughtful.
1 - Kalyan Kalpa-taru — Symptoms of Detachment, Song 1