When the so called modern incinerator was introduced at the Thimphu crematorium in 1998, Aum Pem, then talking to Kuensel, wished her death to coincide when the monastic body was still at their winter residence in Punakha.
She wanted to escape being cremated in a modern incinerator. Aum Pem died many years ago in Thimphu. Fortunately for her, the incinerators stopped working and she had a ‘traditional’ cremation.
The Thimphu thromde is now going to replace all the traditional funeral pyres with incinerators. Which means that there is no choice, unless the funeral is conducted outside the capital. There will be some reservations about the change, but a majority will appreciate the benefit of this change.
There will be some hesitation of committing the last rites of a family member to an unfamiliar system. Most will be worried that prayers and rituals of a revered tradition will be bypassed when the funeral is conducted by a click of a button. There is a strong belief that the deceased may not be reborn as a human if funeral rites are not completed according to traditions.
But we know that the electric or diesel incinerators do not circumvent any aspects of our traditional cremation ceremony. If it was approved by His Holiness the Je Khenpo, the system is flexible and can be controlled so the deceased receives all the rituals and prayers the tradition prescribes. Lam netens and khenpos at an environment conservation workshop, not long ago, prescribed the modern technology.
Cremation is wood intensive. It is estimated that half a truckload of firewood is needed to burn a body. The leftover, many believe, cannot be taken home or used to cremate another body although some do out of desperation. There is not a single day without cremation in Thimphu except when the zakar prohibits. On many days there is more than one.
However, the benefit will go beyond saving trees and the air from pollution. Funeral is an expensive affair even with cash offerings and serving of meat stopped at the duthroe. For the average Bhutanese family, even readying wood is difficult. They will be spared the pressure of the escalating cost of all the necessities and the hazards of obtaining fuel wood.
The modern crematorium should be looked as a pragmatic evolution of Bhutanese tradition and people should accept the change like we do in many areas. Like a lam suggested, a highly respected lopon or lama cremated in the modern incinerators would convince the doubters.
A more practical way to convince people would be to create awareness led by our religious figures. We are a society where even today, initiatives started by revered lamas and religious institutions are mostly followed without questioning.
For instance, some are convinced, when told by lamas, that we need not kill 108 young trees to make mani prayer flags. Prayer flags can be hoisted on steel or bamboo poles. Many are doing that.
The incinerators should also gain the trust of the people. If it stops or breaks down with the body half burnt, that will be the end of the incinerators. We have learnt lessons from the first attempt. If we repeat, it will be a disaster.