The government, home ministry in particular, set up five diesel-run incinerators at the duthroe (cremation ground) in Hejo, Thimphu, 16 years ago in 1997. The argument was that they would save both trees, air pollution, and cut down the cost of cremation.
But soon after the machines were installed, the machines went quietly dead. They did not help save trees, neither did they bring down pollution, nor the cost of cremation. The government had myriad answers for it, none convincing enough. For more than a decade, the machines that the government spent upwards of Nu 12 million remained comatose.
Even today, 16 years after the installation of incinerators, the machines are out of use. Were the public consulted before the machines were brought in and set up?
Recently, one of the five incinerators was repaired. However, it saw no one interested or willing to cremate a dead body in it. Thimphu thromde spent about 53,000 USD for the maintenance. Repairing the whole set would have cost the thromde 80,000 USD, said Thimphu Thrompon Kinlay Dorjee.
On Tuesday last week, relatives of the two deceased refused to cremate the bodies in the machine, and they waited for the space in the open nearby, for as long as they were told to wait.
What is evident is that people were never consulted before bringing in the machines. Culture is a strong element of a society. As Buddhists, people do not feel right to cremate the dead in a way other than traditional.
Two repair men are checking the machine. They find about two kilo of ash in the machine. That’s probably how the machine goes wrong, with leftovers that are not thoroughly cleaned, said one of them. In the traditional way of cremation, ash of the burnt body is collected in a bag and thrown into a nearby river, and is cleared for the next in line.
But the thromde has a bigger plan still. “There are plans to dismantle a few traditional pyres and install three more incinerators. There will also be a new guest house,” said 34-years-old caretaker, Kinley Tenzin. This, he said, could be because the space is too small. Bodies are brought to Hejo from places as far as Punakha, Wangdue and Paro.
Kezang, 40, who has waited to cremate his dead brother for days, said although cremating a body in modern incinerator is quick and efficient, the relatives of the deceased do not feel satisfied with the process. “Unless we do it the traditional way, we cannot consider the process right. It’s not a good sendoff to the dead.”
People believe that ash of the dead after cremation should be preserved for the rituals until 49 days after cremation.
Sonam Tenzin, who had to make do with modern incinerator to cremate the body of his relative a week ago, said that cremating a body in an incinerator is by far efficient and easy. While the bodies on the traditional pyres took more than three hours to completely burn, incinerator took less than two hours to cremate his brother’s body.
“Cremating a body in incinerator takes by far less effort and trouble, and we get to offer and receive all the blessings and rituals,” he said.
Thrompon Kinlay Dorjee said that the thromde has budget to set up additional modern incinerators. The diesel-run incinerators will be replaced by electric ones. “That will be more efficient and easy. Only the ash of the dead will remain,” he said. People, he said, are reluctant to burn bodies in the incinerators because they feel the whole process of rituals and accompanying rites are not complete without burning the bodies the traditional way.
The advantage with the incinerator is, he said, “Even without electricity, bodies can be burnt using wood without any delay. Wood will be kept as backup in case the electricity goes out,” said the thrompon. The duthroe, he said, will have not less than 15 incinerators in a traditional setting with debrey (wall painting) and altars.
The thromde has plans to organise a discussion on BBS about the advantages of cremating bodies in incinerators to encourage people to use incinerators.
“After setting up the new machines, the authorities concerned will make sure that no wood is used for cremation of body. Rules will be stringent. Thromde might even charge nominal fees for operation and use of electricity,” said Thrompon Kinlay Dorjee. People may be unhappy with modern incinerators, but it is all to make the process convenient with provision for all the required rituals for the dead, he added.
Getsho lam Kinzang Wangdi said that he feels more hygienic with the modern incinerator than with traditional way of cremation. To encourage people to use incinerators, awareness is necessary, he said. “If people want to use wood to cremate the body in the machine, they can. All the traditional rituals for the dead will be done. Of course, some people may feel that others might look down upon them for cremating a body in an incinerator, but awareness can overcome such stereotypes.”
But the public is still to accept cremating bodies in the incinerators.