My undertaker father never cremated a body. Our small town, an insular Southern community, had no crematorium and was pro burial, as were most small towns at that time. During my childhood cremation was thought of as distasteful and unnatural; the practice was spoken of in whispers. Only upon one occasion, that I recall, did a family request that their patriarch be cremated. On that day, my father drove the corpse to another town an hour away, the nearest dot on the map to fulfil the family’s wishes.
My imagination went wild: How did the skin burn? What do flaming muscles look like? How long did it take? Was there an odour?
I finally moved away from that house of death, and as an adult quickly adjusted and embraced cremation as a wholly valid choice. Other departures from the conventional casket burial have emerged; natural, or green burials, biodegradable coffins, and so on. But sometimes I still stumble upon a death ritual that challenges my strongly held value of live and let live. This was the case when I learned of the ancient custom of widow burning.
“…loosening their hair, and unveiling their faces, they went to the gate of zenåna, and presented themselves before the assembled populace. All opposition to their wishes now ceased. They were regarded as sacred to the departed monarch. Devout ejaculations poured incessantly from their lips. Their movements became invested with a mysterious significance; and their words were treasured up as prophetic.
Meantime the pile had been prepared. The eight victims, dressed in their richest attire, and mounted on horseback, moved with procession to the cemetery. There they stripped off their ornaments and jewels, distributed gifts to the bystanders, and lastly, mounting the pile, they took their places beside the corpse. As the Maharåna had left no son, his nephew, the present Sovereign, applied the torch. The crash of music, the chanting of the priests, and the cries of the multitude arose simultaneously, and the tragedy was consummated.”
“The Sacrifice of Sati”, by two queens and six concubines in India on the 30th of August, 1888 as described in WIDOW-BURNING by Henry Jeffryes Bushby.
The term Suttee, or Sati, is applied to the person; the act or the rite of widow burning is Sahagamana. An expert in ancient civilizations tells me that many peoples have had a custom of sacrificing the dependents of the dead including servants and slaves. In addition, other authorities believe that Scythians gave birth to the idea of voluntary death, or “sacrifice” of the deceased’s widow specifically, and planted the seeds of the practice in lands they settled. In India, where Sahagamana was most prominently practiced, its birth is traced in 300 BC. In Eastern Europe, especially in the Ukraine and South Russia, the Scythians practiced the ritual in the 6th to the 4th century B.C.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, no travel to India was complete without a reference to the Sati by a steady flow of eyewitness accounts. While many widows threw themselves upon the pyre voluntarily, many did not. The use of drugs, force and restraints to prevent escape were witnessed in horror. The woman was bound by cord, or in many instances, bamboo poles were used to push her down on top of her husband, or logs were thrown upon the woman as she lay on top of him. A Sati might be soaked in camphor, or ghee might be poured on her. It was reported that in an effort to shorten her suffering, a widow’s face was painted red with a mix of gunpowder and sulphur. Incense burned in concert with her flesh.
The practice was labelled as a voluntary sacrifice, a “supreme test of conjugal devotion” and the widow often paraded to her death in a bride’s dress among a crowd of thousands. The Sati should not solely be imagined as an elderly woman, but quite literally in many cases, a child-bride.
No religious sanction was ever attached to Sahagamana – all was superstition. There were reports of women who might have initially committed voluntarily, who then lost courage and fled the fire only to be thrown in by the crowd. In stark contrast in 1789-1814, other witnesses, both men and women, described how peaceful the Sati appeared and how the rite was performed “with great sensitivity”. As if those who pushed the widow into the flames extended a tender hand.
Sahagamana was to be found among many castes and at all social levels. By the end of the eighteenth century the practice was banned by European powers, but the ban was ignored, and though efforts have been made to reinforce laws against it, the most recent known case was in 1999. Much controversy surrounds this particular widow’s final act, as she was not known to have any desire to become a Sati. There were accusations of her having been coerced.
Sacrifice. Murder. Suicide. How best to categorize this ancient ritual? Is it even accurate to define it as a ritual? The Hindu Times in 2010 refers to it as the “Sati system” wherein it describes this memorial Sati stone that dates back to 1057, and has been carved with pictorial representation.
More often palm prints are a typical memorial used to honour the Sati.
The Sati stones can be found in the outskirts of the villages all over India. At times they’re placed at the spot where the widow became `Sati`. Unfortunately, the sculptures don’t tell us if the Sati walked willingly to her death.