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Auroville Adventure

August 2003

Grave Business

- Priya Sundaravalli

Auroville's least talked about real estate


Diary: Cycling up the Edayanchavadi road towards Adventure to see Auroville crematorium.

The Auroville crematorium designed by Werner
Following the directions given verbally by a friend, I look for a rusty metal gate after the farm house belonging to a Pondicherry business man. I see it blending imperceptibly with the live fence, its trellised frame plaited with dry mullu stems. It is locked, but I find footholds. Tossing my bag inside, I clamber up and drop in.
I follow the sandy red path, snaking between the wild growth of cashews, palms, and silver 'work' trees. The sounds from the road grow fainter and now only the occasional noise of a passing motor vehicle filters through the silence of that lazy June afternoon.
Suddenly I am in a clearing. On the periphery, nestled amidst a triangle of palmyras and a work tree, a gravestone catches my eye. On it, hewn in English,

1947 - 1996
Tamil Nadu

and the same in Tamil script. At its base, a lone ceramic gnome with blue boots and a pointed cap contemplates, a pipe at his lips.
Butterflies flutter past and bird-calls slice through the hush. It seems like a perfect place to rest.

"If you don't get supramentalized, you will die!" declares Cristo with a straight face. "So a group of us came together in 1999 to promote Auroville's own cemetery and burial ground." They called themselves the Farewell Group - a team of Aurovilians concerned with providing amenities for the final send-off, and Cristo is its scientific/research head of sorts. "Though many of us may prefer to forget about death, it is an inevitable end that awaits most of us. We need facilities within Auroville to deal with the situation when somebody leaves his or her body."
In the early years, deaths in Auroville were few and far between (see box), and friends or family could choose to bury or cremate their dear departed in any place of their choice. A few unmarked graves lie in Certitude, and the Greenbelt communities of Forecomers and Adventure. One even rests in the sacrosanct grounds of the Matrimandir. However, the most popular yet controversial choice was and continues to be the garden attached to one's house plot. Cristo prefers that option himself even though he feels that this practice should generally be discouraged. "This is in my own will," he says. "For some reason, I prefer to do it like that and have designated the place in my garden which will be ecologically safe."
For Cristo, it is clear that whatever resting place people may ultimately choose or be assigned to, it would be both unwise and impractical for a growing city to have no well-defined space for the dead. Auroville's current census registers at 1700 and the number grows annually. It is only natural that the number of deaths will also increase.
"Our first task was to find a suitable location," says Cristo, "suitable primarily from an environmental standpoint." Two factors that needed consideration were the distance from residential areas (at least 90 metres according to the Tamil Nadu Panchayat Building Rules) and the danger of ground water pollution due to burials (preventable by water-tight caskets). The community at Adventure came forward to provide land for the project, and a four acre area was immediately made available, extendable by an additional two acres in the future, if necessary.
The process so far has not been a bed of roses. Cristo refers to complaints from some residents of Edayanchavadi about alleged smoke disturbance from cremations. "The land picked was at a distance of over 250 metres from the nearest residence in the village. There is a buffer of at least four acres between the crematorium and the nearest house," he stresses. "Also, a tar road runs in between the two, so the separation is distinct. From the beginning, we have been extremely sensitive to anything that may hurt the sentiments of our neighbours in the village. We are not stupid enough to build a crematorium under people's windows." He mentions a special ceremony performed by the village priest to consecrate and bless the land. "We know that there are beliefs attached to such places. We have been following the traditional ways and respecting whatever customs our neighbours may have.
"At present we use a technique used by the Ashram," he explains. "The body is entirely cov-ered using dry cow-dung patties rather than wood, and this hardly generates smoke. So the inconvenience to the public is almost nil. Also in Auroville, cremations are less frequent than burials."
The other issue that the group continues to grapple with is money. While the overall project is projected to cost approximately 40 lakh rupees (  80,000), only a sum of 2.19 lakh rupees (  4,400) has been made available through grants from the Gateway Group in Auroville. Says Cristo, "This money was used to erect a temporary crematorium designed by Werner, the German architect, to dig a well, and to build a shed."
For Cristo, this is just the beginning. The research he has done is extensive and detailed. For example, from his readings of The Mother he believes there is a need for facilities to keep the body preserved for seven days. Of this he says, "After all, people are here to participate in the Yoga of Sri Aurobindo. And some of us may be found in a state where it may seem as if one is apparently dead but in reality may not be dead at all. Particularly when someone is in Kalpasamadhi it is almost impossible to tell the difference. So in order to avoid accidents, the body will have to be kept in a safe condition until a doctor can guarantee that tissue decomposition has started. Only then you know it is over."
Down-to-earth and detached in his approach, Cristo, like a true scientist, continues to keep updated about the latest happenings elsewhere in the funerary world and informed about the latest in cutting-edge technology - like the solar-powered crematorium existing in Switzerland that saves on fuel costs and eliminates environmental pollution, or the Geographical Positioning Systems (GPS) to locate old graves and identify potentially usable sites using satellite technology. According to Cristo's research, burial sites apparently have a life-cycle of 30 years after which they may be reused. Cristo also is familiar with indigenous practices. He has travelled to Benares and Pashupatinath in Nepal to observe and learn about current death practices, and has also witnessed the rites following the last Shankaracharya's passing, whose body was preserved in salt. All this information has been carefully filed in his folder titled 'Rigor Mortis'. In it, there is even a brief note on sea-burials.
With all this talk of technology, what is Cristo's opinion about Aurovilians who may choose to donate their bodies or organs to medical science, especially when one of India's most academically prestigious medical institutions - JIPMER - exists in the neighbourhood? "An important and excellent question!" beams Cristo. "This is again a private matter. This may have legal implications for Auroville. Suddenly if you have a team of doctors or surgeons who come to Auroville to take organs from a body, some people may object, especially if they have not been warned in advance. That is why in the project we have a caretaker, who will help not only to keep a record of the dead but also a record of future clients and what they want to happen to their body when they pass away. Of course all this will be voluntary."
Though the group feels there is little interest from the community for this project, it plods along cheerfully with a commendable sense of humour. In their project proposal, under the heading 'Beneficiaries', two lines sum up, "We will all benefit from it. The later, the better."

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