This Degenerate Age

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A man comes up to me on the burning ghats. “Burning is learning” he says, suggesting a spot to stand and watch, “cremation is education.” Don’t take photos, he warns, there was a fight here just the other day with some rude tourists.1 He tells me he works on the ghats as a dom, wants to share his culture with me. He doesn’t want money, no charge, no charge, but people who come here to die are left in a hospice over there–he waves his hand in some indeterminate direction–and they need money for food and a pyre. If I just give him a small donation, he’ll take care of them, he promises. He’s insistent, strangely pushy for someone who thinks of himself as a charitable, cultural ambassador for a sacred space. I relent, hand over a few rupees. He waits for more. Desperate to be alone with my own thoughts, I give in. He leaves, but returns a little later to tell me the spot I’m sitting in, surrounded by a ring of empty space, is reserved for families.

Something suggests this isn’t totally above board.

Some of the wood for the cremation ghats

The advice from other people on the ghats is to avoid giving any cash. It’s unlikely he’s a dom, or if he is, he’s definitely not employed as a guide. But there’s no sense of condemnation, the way one might imagine if a door to door salesman dropped by a visitation.

I sit and watch and try to understand. The corpses are burned in all their regalia, dressed to impress for their journey to the next life. But, though perhaps the true essence of the jewelry and gold may move on, in a more mundane sense there are pickings left over. A man leans on his friend’s shoulder, doing a little soft shoe in the ash-filled water. People look like they’re panning for gold, prospectors who have hit a solid vein.

Doms negotiate their wages in public, with a certain flair.2 Johnathan Parry describes the negotiations:

“But whichever Dom has rights on that is the raja of the cremation ground, and the mourners are never allowed to forget it. During the negotiations over his ‘tax’, he makes a point of touching the mourners, and treats them with the haughty disdain an Untouchable might normally experience at their hands. Lounging on a bolster, he addresses the mourners with the disrespectful second person singular pronoun tu, while they use the polite ap and call him ‘elder brother’ or ‘Chaudhuri (headman) Sahib.’”

He then quotes a particularly colorful argument:

“Your respected father won’t die again and again. You won’t perform his last rights time after time. Your father raised you, educated you. Now you must give with an open heart. You have brought him to Kashi to burn. Do the work happily. You will die also….So how did he die? Did you poison him…You say you are poor! You want to teach me how to fuck? If you can’t give more than that, then go. Take your corpse away, and take your money too.”


But while negotiations with families are fierce, it would be a mistake to call it a market. The right to sift for jewelry (sona) or receive the lion’s share of the fee is given to each dom on a scheduled day. The rights are heritable and unequally distributed, enforced through professional bonds and old record books, with the male children splitting their father’s position in the rota after he dies. The allocation changes depending on the deceased’s ethnicity, whether they are South Indian or North Indian or Bengali. Similar temporal arrangements are made for the Mahabrahmans (funeral priests), who stand in for the deceased’s vengeful ghost and must be appeased. The supply of funeral labor is essentially a cartel. So, while hustling a clueless foreigner is not ritually condoned like the dom and the Mahabrahman3, it isn’t as untoward as it seems at first.

Or if it is inappropriate, it’s also expected. According to the Hindu faith, we are living in the Kali Yuga, the fourth and most degenerate age of the universe, a time when people are faithless and cynical in their dealings and material matters have replaced spiritual enlightenment. In dark times like these, the world is always on the edge of chaos, and some semblance of order must be retained to avoid a war of all against all. Parry observes “Hindus often appear to see themselves as engaged in an endless battle against impeding chaos and disintegration, of which the ever-present danger of a disintegration and degeneration of the actor’s own person is the most immediate and apprehensible manifestation.” So, “the rota system is quite explicitly represented as a device to eliminate conflict and competition between members of the same occupational group” as an assurance of some form of order in a world without trust. There’s no way you can trust the family of the deceased to treat you fairly, but you can at least insure your fellow doms will have to follow some rules.


In comparison, when I talked with funeral directors in Ireland, there was hope for regulation to protect grieving families from greedy funeral directors, or, more cynically, to protect the reputation as an industry. But there, the focus was on controlling market forces, dealing with an information asymmetry between the clueless family and the upselling director. In India, the information asymmetry is a given, the dom feeling out what the family can pay and trying to maximize his haul. But a full on market has to be avoided at all costs. Without rules to govern behavior, the theory goes, one’s very self is at risk. Identity and the soul are contingent on ordered systems.

Or so it seems to me. In writing this, I am aware of how much I’m relying on second-hand accounts, like Parry’s 20 year old book. I don’t know the language, I didn’t have a translator. I felt distant from the specific, personal narratives that I feel form the heart of my work. I found those unusually hard to get for reasons I’ll go into another time, but there’s so much happening at the ghats, I feel it’s inevitable as an outsider to misunderstand and mischaracterize it.

1. Every day I visit it seems like I’d just missed a brawl.

2. An important piece of context: Doms were previously known as Untouchables, the most impure of the impure. While legally caste discrimination is no longer permitted, there is a taboo around interacting with them. The aggressiveness in their negotiations is partly a reflection of the inversion of power brought about by death. The lowest caste has incredible authority in the negotiations, regardless of the status of the deceased, and it’s a chance to exact some revenge.

3. The comments from Indians on the ghats labeled these scammers as drunks or drug addicts.


4 thoughts on “This Degenerate Age

  1. Perhaps your journals have pushed me to reflection. Here are some US thoughts:

    I keep thinking about the mothers of my two friends who died last weekend and the 98 year old mother of another friend. The experiences of the ends of their lives were so very different, but mostly due to events beyond their control, or to events that they didn’t know they were controlling.

    Glady outlived her only daughter, two husbands, and her awareness. But aging and confused, she fell over Hank about 10 years ago, broke her hip, and never really recovered. She went from rehab to nursing home. Hank quietly died shortly after. Glady was alone. She had moved from the community in which she had lived for decades to Beloit to be near her daughter. Her daughter had died 4 years before, and her daughter’s partner, Chuck, and her grandson, visited regularly, but she was mostly alone. When Chuck moved away several years ago, there was only the grandson, who was busy with finishing medical training. When Glady died, it wasn’t too different than when she lived; she just floated off to another world. Jesse and Chuck buried Glady back in NJ, next to her daughter and her husband, with a scattering of family. It was a quiet affair, but not a sad one.

    Ruth lived til the last days of her life in her own home, where she spent the last 60 years, with 2 husbands, 2 children, and visits from 4 grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren. She worked until she was 90, overseeing the sale of make-up and gifts at the store she and her husband had owned (and her son continued). She carried on as active a social life as anyone could at 98. She wore beautiful clothes, makeup, and ate meals at the local country club. Of course she was getting older and more frail, and needed assistance. It seems as if Ruth would live forever. When Ruth died, people mourned but knew it was time. She was buried in Jewish tradition, and family and friends gathered to sit Shiva for several days. I imagine that her home was filled with people but soon will seem oddly quiet. She “passed away” and left memories, beautiful things, and close family ties.

    Mrs. Miller continues her active life at 98, driving around Milwaukee, meeting her friends for bridge, and going to matinees. Her husband died 30 years ago, but she has stayed in her house. She doesn’t travel alone, but she does travel to the lake and to visit Kris, her oldest daughter, in Florida. Her friends are younger now, because her old friends got old and died. She is visited regularly by her three daughters and their families. She is active and adapting as much as she needs to.

    My own mother died at 93 after 10 years of increasing confusion and dementia. My father cared for her at home in Fort Lauderdale, but they didn’t have the network of old friends that they had had in Baltimore. When you live in a community of active older people, dementia is a threat to everyone’s sense of control, so in a way you are shunned or at least hidden. She lost her sense of self, her gorgeous grooming, and finally her ability to move and communicate. Sometimes there were moments of lucidity but they were few and far between. She thrived on the closeness of my father, but as he got to 93 he got more frail, too. When she died we had a memorial service in Beloit, with my friends. My children, her grandchildren, weren’t there. She had died years before for them.

    Steve’s mother was angry when she died. She was angry that she had outlived her husband Harry. She was lonely and isolated in assisted living- mostly deaf and almost blind. She hadn’t wanted to live with her daughter, because she had memories of the difficulties of living with her own mother in her home. She was ready to die, and angry when she feared that her life would be prolonged.

    What are the lessons? Is it all about good genes and good luck? What structures contentment? Is it about strong family ties? Community? Living in your own space? What keeps your brain active? What are the things that make a difference?

    Marion Fass

    On Wed, Apr 5, 2017 at 8:05 AM, Let’s Start at the End wrote:

    > letsstartattheendblog posted: ” A man comes up to me on the burning ghats. > “Burning is learning” he says, suggesting a spot to stand and watch, > “cremation is education.” Don’t take photos, he warns, there was a fight > here just the other day with some rude tourists.1 He tells me he wor” >


  2. Jesse, I forgot to write and tell you how much I enjoyed your story. Such a different culture and experience!


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