Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lack of Trees Means Cremation by Cow Dung

Photos via the BBC. The new mode of cremation has achieved widespread social acceptance.

Bihar, India is suffering from a shortage of trees. This shortage has led the local people to become creative in the choice of fuel sources for cremation. The local populace as decided to replace the wood used in a traditional cremation with cow dung - a move that saves an entire tree for every ceremony. The people of remote, flood ravaged Bihar have no aversion to cremating their dead over cow dung. It's entirely socially acceptable; and, is rapidly growing as a practice. It is now used by 40% of the population. Many people in India use cow dung as a building material and as a fuel source for their cooking fires.

This region is famed for its mango trees; however, it regularly loses entire orchards to storms because it is subject to extremely harsh flooding. The region is also sparsely forested (only 7%) so access to trees is increasingly restricted as the population grows. The deaths are in direct relation to the population; so, as the population grows the demand for wood for cremations grows also.

The people of the Bihar have traditionally used the wood of the mango trees for the funeral fires of cremation; but, this tradition uses an entire mango tree. Since the number of mango trees was dwindling an alternate fuel source was needed.

The new method is said to be more environmentally friendly.

Besides being less cumbersome and environmentally destructive, cow dung cakes are also more economical.

"With the stringent restrictions over cutting green trees, the mango woods have become costlier and it even becomes difficult during the flood season to get, especially when the whole area remains chronically waterlogged for months," Professor Vidyanath Jha told the BBC.

"There are waterlogged areas like Kusheshwarasthan where mango orchards have completely been wiped out," said Professor Jha.

The funeral pyre is made from cakes known as goraha. From the BBC:
Using cow dung is known in Bihar as the "goraha" way of cremation. Cow dung is fashioned into a long rod-shaped cake, known locally as goraha.

Under the new method of cremation, people dig a large pit and arrange long rod-shaped cow dung cakes in rows set in three tiers.

The lowest tier comprises three horizontal rows arranged in a scaffolding pattern and an additional fourth layer is added when the soil is moist.

Pressure is exerted on the lower layers which break into smaller pieces and help absorb the soil moisture.

The lowest tier serves as the podium on which the corpse is laid in a sitting posture to minimise the surface area. A small space is left between tiers to light the pyre through performing the rituals.

The flame gradually reaches the lower layers and sets the whole body alight
About 200 kg of cow dung cakes are used to burn a corpse compared with about 240-280kg of mango wood.

"Under this system the whole body gets disposed of within one-and-half-hours; whereas, in the traditional system mourners needed to be at the funeral site for three to four hours," said Shambhu Ram, a college employee who cremated one of his relatives using dung as fuel a year ago.

"One has to spend only 400-500 rupees ($6-$8) in the goraha system as opposed to between 3,000-4,000 rupees ($62-$83) in the traditional mango-wood cremation of a dead body.

"It's easy, cheap and takes less time for us who are waterlogged in flood waters for three to four months every year in monsoon season," Mr Ram says.

Forest cover in Bihar is rapidly disappearing.

Via BBC and TreeHugger

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