For my dad’s 48th birthday, we got him a dead body. And not just any dead body, either—we got him a saffron-wrapped, floating, Sadhu corpse. You can’t beat that.
We were in Varanasi, the Hindu holy city on the Ganges, taking a walk along the banks of the river to observe the sights, sounds, and (unfortunately) smells of the city. (The smell guaranteed that I didn’t try taking a dip in the river, as tradition dictates. You’ll see why in a minute.) It was almost dusk, and the city's population was hanging out at the river, bathing, swimming, washing clothes, and chatting. Upstream, a cremation ground was in full 24-hour operation, with about six or seven saffron-wrapped bodies being burned. We watched the cremations from a small boat which floated about twenty feet away from the process: bodies carried down to the river, thrown on a pyre, and consumed by flames. The male mourners watched solemnly from a few feet away, while the female mourners, barred from treading on holy ground, stood on the banks of the river and wept. After a few minutes, the chief mourner, wrapped in white, his head completely shorn, stepped towards the small heap of ashes, extracted the ribs and pelvis—the parts that don’t burn, apparently—and threw them into the river. (And thus we see why I thought about burning the clothes I was wearing. Can you believe they bathe in it?) Then, without looking back at the ashes, the chief mourner threw a jug of water on the pyre to kill the fire and all the mourners slowly walked away.
It—the ceremony, the burning, the whole entire cremation ground—was part poignant, part disgusting, part admirable, and part eerie. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I doubt I ever will again. We sailed back in total silence, broken only by my dad saying, slowly, “Well, at least you kids will never think the temple is weird.”
But back to the floating corpse. The river doesn’t flow quickly, and the body was drifting dangerously close to the bank, slowing down and acquiring river detritus as it went. We watched it float for a few minutes, wondering what to do, when a group of Muslim young men, newly bathed and dressed in spotless white, killing time until the evening prayer by playing cricket, spotted the corpse and shouted something. All together, at least seven or eight of them, they grabbed a forty-foot pole, neatly placed near the pavement we were standing on, walked down to the river, and poked the body back out into the middle of the river where the current could catch it again. Then they put the pole back in the place clearly designed for it, and, without any fuss at all, went back to their cricket game, the corpse rescue all in an evening’s work.
And who says Muslims and Hindus can’t get along? For the sake of my father's birthday, at least, religious cooperation is easy.