The Cremators – Living with the dead


Death is an inexorable certainty. It comes to all of us, sooner or later. When it comes to human beings, death is accompanied by the ritual disposition of the body. This ritual is conducted in many ways- burial (mainly in Christianity and Islam), incineration of the body (predominantly in Hinduism and Buddhism), even placing the body on high mountains for the birds to prey (in Tibetan culture) and several other ways which we are unknown of.

Where there is life, there is death. Where human settlements prevail, there are places for the dead.

One such place is the crematorium ground located in Jalipool, 12 km away of the capital, Gangtok. For several decades, the crematorium has served as the final destination for thousands of deceased.

Sikkim Chronicle in its continuous efforts to cover the life of silent heroes, mainly who work behind the scenes came across a father-son duo.

Bir Bahadur Tamang and Sanjay Tamang have been assisting in burning the dead bodies for decades. The ‘cremators’, as they are known by, have been the witnesses to thousands of final farewells.

Bhim Bahadur Tamang

Bir Bahadur Tamang (58) who originally hails from Rongli in East Sikkim has been working in the crematorium since 1976.

“I remember walking those silent roads in the night with anxiety and fear when I was young,” recalls Bir Bahadur whose name ironically means ‘brave’.

“Those were the days when the natural jungle outwitted today’s concrete jungle. I still remember vividly how the crematorium area looked. A sparsely populated area with very few houses,” he adds.

Funeral rites may have been conducted as per a person’s caste and religion, but for Bir Bahadur it didn’t matter. For him, service to the ‘dead’ mattered the most and he did serve beyond people’s and his own caste, creed and class. His skill of optimum use of firewood and well disposal of the body made him the master of his work and it fetched him a statewide recognition too. He has been a proud recipient of a felicitation during the 122nd Birth Anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar in 2013 which he received from the hands of the then Governor.

“I have lost the count of the bodies that I have burnt. There was a time when I alone used to burn eight bodies in a day,” he tells.

In the year 2017 alone, he cremated a total of 360 bodies, as per the write records in the crematorium’s register.

Life’s circumstances may have been such that he took up this ‘unusual’ job because, for any child who’s growing up, becoming a cremator out of anything he can become, this can never be an aim.

“I really don’t know how and what made me do this job! I just started doing it!” Bir Bahadur exclaims.

What about his job satisfaction? One may think. Well! As per him job satisfaction is the only thing that mattered to him the most and kept him going.

“There’s a feeling of utter satisfaction at the end of the day. A feeling that unexplainable,” he says.

For a person who has seen more dead than the living, and many times you may think that he is used to this and it’s ‘normal’ for him to be among the dead, it is hard when death visits his own home. Bir Bahadur lost his two daughters in a fateful road accident at MP Golai in Gangtok almost ten years ago. The father vividly remembers how he arranged for his daughters’ cremation at the very spot where he had been cremating other people.

“It was the most painful day of my life. I never thought that I would be making funeral pyres for my daughters. My daughters were travelling in a car when it fell off the road. It was in 2009,” he says.

Among the thousands of funerals he assisted, one such funeral is what he shall never forget. The funeral service if the former Chief Minister, Nar Bahadur Bhandari.

“The crematorium was flooded with people. I had never seen such a massive gathering of people attending any funeral. Also, why shouldn’t they? After all, he was one of the most loved leaders of Sikkim,” he tells.

And there are some funerals who do bring any people.

“Sometimes the unidentified bodies are brought by the police or Municipal staffs and we perform their final rites with same emotion and dedication as what we do for other bodies,” he informs.

Having spent four decades in the crematory, his responsibilities are now shared by his son, Sanjay who is 27 years of age.

A youthful lad, Sanjay accompanies his father to work. Loving the dead has never been an issue to them, but ‘living’ among the alive has caused them pain. Socially, the cremators are given a lower social status, many times being labelled as an ‘outcast’. They have been subjected to ridicule, discrimination and name-calling.

Sanjay Tamang

“There was a time when people like us were discriminated. I remember people not letting me enter their house saying that it would be a bad omen. However, the situation has changed now. People have started realising how important our roles are,” says Sanjay.

Unlike his father who quietly fulfilled his duties throughout his life, this 27-year-old is vocal about his legitimate demands pertaining to their ‘workplace’.

As per Sanjay, the crematorium has an absence of proper sanitation and lack of water storage facilities. He informs about the delayed beautification of the crematorium area. Further, he also complains about the lack of civic sense among the people.

“People gather almost every day for funeral service and the pouches of various drinks, water bottles and other foodstuffs are littered here and there,” he stresses.

Also, the lack of proper fencing of the area allows drunkards and weed smokers visiting the place at odd hours and creating a nuisance.

It was reported by the people around that the beautification work amounting to 8 crore rupees has been sanctioned. The construction of a building (probably a rest house) is underway while the delay is visible in several other amenities to take shape which includes electricity works.

It is also to be noted that a quarry facility near the river coexists and it is seen that crematorium has become a dumping ground for the sand deposits, which cause major disturbance.

Bir Bahadur, who still waits for his job to be regularised says he is withdrawing Rs 14,000/- monthly for his service from the state Forest Department. It was only two months ago that his salary was hiked from Rs 9,000/-.

But for a person like Bir Bahadur, money never mattered. If it has ever mattered he wouldn’t have been doing this job in the first place. Also, if we look into his services, we will realise that no amount of money can repay his contribution to society.

This father-son duo is a living example to what Henry David Thoreau has quoted- “Live your life, do your work, then take the hat.”

By Ashish Bhandari and Nirmal Mangar

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