Filmmaker Sai Pramod Mohan described his first experience with cremation to me. Sai grew up in India, where cremation is a much different experience than what we have in the United States:
"My first cremation experience was at the age of 14-15 years, when my grand father passed away. He was 75 years, super healthy, active and was living with my Grandmother and her mother in a very small spiritual town in South India. I remember my dad telling me that grandpa passed away in his sleep and we are leaving immediately with no return plans in place. By the time we reached, there were a few other relatives mourning next to my grandpa who was covered in a white shroud, his eyes closed, big toes tied together with a piece of cloth and left uncovered so people could touch them to pay their respects. The body stayed there for 2-3 days, while some of my family members were busy with preparations for cremation and others sat next to the it.
"On the day of cremation, grandpa was bathed, covered with turmeric, dressed in new clothes and brought to the patio of the apartment in a chair. A priest chanted hymns, and instructed my uncle-the eldest son and my dad to perform a small ritual as the other family members formed a circle around them. A wooden stretcher covered with a fresh white linen waited on the street for grandpa at the end of the ritual.
"Once on the stretcher, four men including my dad, and uncles picked it up and the procession of men walked towards the cremation grounds as the women of the house wailed staying put on the street. There were 15-20 men in total including me and my cousins who were around my age. We enthusiastically threw petals of flowers on grandpa as the elders shouted a distinct chant that loosely translates into "There's nothing permanent in this world". By the time all the elders took turns carrying grandpa we reached the banks of the river, where an undertaker with a well framed pile of logs was waiting for us. Grandpa was moved to the top of the log pile and each of us started covering him up with more logs as the priest's chants continued. My uncle, being the eldest son had a log of fire in his hand and circled around the pyre a few times before the priest instructed him to light it up. As the flames picked up, we stood by them watching the embers form and take grandpa away slowly. Being a very restless kid, I remember asking my dad how long till we go home? The priest, who overheard it chuckled and explained that we are not supposed to leave till "Kapala Moksha"- i.e till the bursting of the skull which signifies leaving of the soul from the body. I wondered how we'd know when Grandpa's soul leaves but was fascinated enough to not ask anymore questions and just stare at the rising flames. After a few minutes, a loud thud sound reverberated through the flames. I knew that grandpa's soul had left us, as we prayed one last time before walking back home."