Years ago when travelling in India I met a noble yogi in Varanasi, my favorite of all Indian cities. This fine fellow had the simple job of tending the fire from which all funeral pyres are lit. Stories have it that this fire has been burning for 5,000 years without going out and his family has tended it all these years.
What inspired me about him was the depth and presence he displayed while tending to his duties. His compassion and humble pride were obvious too. He waved me into his ‘office’ – we spent time together as he tended to his duties. At the end of our visit we knelt by the fire. This gallant man dabbed my forehead with ash from the fire and gave me a little packet of ash to take with me. (The ash still in an urn on my fireplace mantel to this day.)
What I took away from my visit with this fellow was more than just the keepsake. I felt a deep appreciation for the loving and humble work this man did as he served all the families that came to the Ghats in Varanasi to cremate their loved ones and say a final good-bye – an understanding I would experience personally many years after our meeting.
Now, some 6 years later I find myself in a different yet similar situation as my Indian friend at the Ghats. I am tending my own fire at a crematorium in Vancouver! Though his fuel is wood and mine is natural gas, and his fires are on the banks of the Ganges River and mine are at the corner of 41st and Fraser, I feel a deep kinship with the noble man in India. Over the past five months I have been witness to hundreds of cremations, many of them attended by families. I have watched and learned what is going on at these ceremonies. I have studied the logistics and what needs to happen for a successful cremation. I have watched the funeral directors and staff for tips on the human how to’s. I have also watched the families for clues on how to do an even better job serving them at this important time of their lives.
One weekend late in the spring I had an amazing lesson from the sister of a woman who had passed. It had been a full ceremony, lots of family and friends, and many people saying their final good-byes. It was a wonderful display of family and friends sharing connections, happy memories, joy, and feelings of loss – gloriously full of life and love .
The sister said her final good-byes and as she turned to leave the viewing space she walked by me. We had meet at the funeral home as she came by to make the arrangements for her sister’s ceremony, she knew I was the cremationist. She stopped in front of me and placed her hand on my forearm. Looking into my eyes and speaking to my heart she said, “You will take care of my sister won’t you?”
In that instant I felt my friend from the Ghats in Indian and the noble way he was with people. I felt at the same time the trust families place in me, the cremationist, to take care of their loved one throughout the cremation process. I knew it mentally, now I had the lesson deeply in my body. I felt the trust people must have when they relinquish their loved one to the care of a funeral director or cremationist. It blew my socks off! What an honor and a loving responsibility it is to take great care of a family’s loved one as they prepare to say their final good-byes. It feels to me like a sacred job, one that requires compassion, openness, and a grounded certainty. I am such a lucky fellow to be able to serve people in this most unique way.