On Sepulchral Culture

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

11121225_10152734494012267_1399827233345441239_oMany months ago, I wandered along with a bunch of enthusiastic companions, into a museum for sepulchral culture. Nestled in the charming, modernist city of Kassel, Germany, we were part of a conference group discussing reproductive loss, and I suppose our hosts considered it fitting that we make communion with death culture writ large. As we flitted curiously around, and up and down, seeking shelter from the sleet and wind outside, we noted little skeletal figurines, gravestones, tombs, tombstones, and ritualistic instruments meant to ease passage to other worlds. For a museum devoted to the seemingly morbid phenomenon of death, it left us surprisingly sanguine.

The dictionary tells me that a sepulchre is “a small room or monument, cut in rock or built of stone, in which a dead person is laid or buried”. I worry at the oxymoronic, “dead person”. Other romanticized words like “crypt”, “catacomb”, and “sarcophagus” serve as synonyms for those who do not quite like the cadence of “sepulchre”. Together, in medieval-esque glory, they capture for us the stories of death, memory, and memorialization, and cultures of dying. For this we share with all humankind, in that people die. The sorrow of their loss is mitigated by cultural processes that allow us to believe that their lives meant something.

There are no sepulchral museums in India. But memorialization is seen across the length of the country, from the sepulchral urns excavated at Adichanallur in South India, to the stone circles of Junapani in Nagpur, to the evidence of pit burials in Burzahoma, Kashmir. The Iron Age in these regions marks the beginning of the creation of separate areas for the dead.

The Corporation of the City of Chennai, where I live, lists 38 burial grounds, one of them at a place called Kasimedu, separated into Christian, Hindu, and Muslim. In life, as in death, segregation before erasure. The Madras Cemeteries Board manages three cemeteries at Kilpauk, Kasimode, and Quibble Island at Santhome High Road. Their archived website tells me that the Kilpauk old cemetery opened in the year 1903, and that there are more than 50,000 bodies buried here. However, it has been closed for new burials since April 2005. Also, the graves of those buried 14 years prior to 2005 are being reopened in order to be reused by their family members, and tombs are being constructed on top of old tombs.

In death, as in life, recycle, and build vertically. Further, there is the Madras War Cemetery for men and women who laid down their lives in the Second World War, set up in 1952 by the Imperial War Graves Commission, which is now known as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). The business of memory is clearly painstaking, bureaucratic, and sometimes must adjust for political happenstances like postcoloniality. And lastly, there is the business of memory without the presence of those who can remember. The Jewish cemetery, located off Lloyd's Road in Chennai, is the last memorial to what was once a significant Jewish presence in this city. For those willing to make the trek, the Armenian Church in Georgetown bears testimony to the vibrant and epoch changing influence of the Armenian merchants, who were around when Madras took birth as the first modern city of postcolonial India.

Why this clambering for space, and this separation, I wonder. What is this nature of the uncanny body without life that haunts us, and must therefore be sent away? Since Descartes, much as we insist on the primacy of mind over body, the body without mind disturbs us and worries that insistence. A long time ago, I walked through a mall in America to the background score of Christmas carols even as I perused the controversial exhibition Body Worlds (“The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies”). The exhibition consisted of cadavers that once had life, mummified and preserved through Plastination, a process invented in 1977, by a Dr. Gunther von Hagens, an anatomist at the University of Heidelberg. It displayed real human specimens, including whole bodies as well as organs, and fetuses. I was glued. The beauty of those bodies sans life was an uncanny reminder of the separation we enforce and the body that we both obsess over, and ignore. Above all, we know mortality, but refuse it, in ourselves and in others. And yet, as I looked at those bodies, I could not look away. I, who turn away quickly from dead bodies as they pass by in street processions, spent two hours fascinated at the spectacle of these statuesque bodies that once had life. Even as they had been sanitized and their innards exposed like so many laboratory specimens, I couldn't help but remember that these machine-like objects once moved, and had the capacity for love, voice, feeling, and action.

The controversy around the original Body Worlds exhibition was around the procurement of the bodies. In 2004, Gunther von Hagens consented to return seven corpses to China following an exposé by the German magazine Der Spiegel, which revealed that the bodies might have been those of executed Chinese prisoners. He went on to state that the corpses would be buried. In life, as in death, only some bodies are allowed a cultural and cultured goodbye.

One night, many nights ago, on a silent Pune midnight, a friend and I pushed my decrepit scooter along, and were offered company for a few streets by two policemen carting a bier with a body on it. They told us that it was the body of a jumper, someone who had committed suicide on the railway tracks, and it was therefore up to the policemen to cart the unclaimed, unnamed body to the morgue.

Many months ago, on a bus to Chennai from Pondicherry, we all peered out as the vehicle came to a lumbering stop before a few hundred-body strong funeral procession. We sat still in the insulated air-conditioning as the crowd gathered strength, and police attempted to re-route traffic. Being the massive vehicle we were, we had no choice but to stay put in our first-class seats to the unfolding spectacle. Batons were wielded, instructions yelled silently as if in a pre-sound movie, and the quiet buzz of both morbid spectacle and public grief permeated the bus. The gentleman in front of me pulled out a newspaper reporting on the very incident we were watching. Somebody whispered that it was the deputy tahsildar, a local government official, who had committed suicide along with the entire family, four bodies in all. The crowd parted for a little bit as our bus shimmied alongside two vans carrying shrouded bodies. The middle-aged woman next to me commented as to how she could not make out how the bodies had been distributed between the two vans. I later discovered that the deputy tahsildar was a woman. She had set herself on fire. Her family rushed to help and had been engulfed by the flames.

Sometimes, these unnamed bodies without life explode in our midst, and all together we decry our collective mortality. The heart of sepulchral culture lies perhaps in this melancholia as we remember that even the dead were once living.