Sat, Jun 16, 2007 - Page 9 News List

New 'green' pyre to cool planetwhile burning India's dead

A mechanical engineer has developed a pyre that cuts the amount of carbon dioxide produced by Hindu cremations by more than 60 percent

By Tripti Lahiri  /  AFP , NEW DELHI

The average Indian may go through an entire life without contributing a huge amount to the world's production of greenhouse gases, but in death his carbon footprint jumps.

Alarmed by the fuel-intensive nature of the funeral rites of Hindus who practice open-air cremation using firewood, an environmental group in New Delhi is promoting a new, more eco-friendly pyre.

"Our faith tells us we must do our last rites in this way," said Vinod Kumar Agarwal, 60, a mechanical engineer who has developed a raised pyre that cuts the amount of wood required and ensuing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 60 percent.

Hindus believe that burning the body entirely helps to release the soul in a cycle of reincarnation that ends only with salvation.

But "all the ashes go into the rivers and carbon dioxide is creating global warming," Agarwal said.

UN figures show close to 10 million people die a year in India, where 85 percent of the billion-plus population are Hindus who practice cremation.

That leads to the felling of an estimated 50 million trees, leaves behind half a million tonnes of ash and produces 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, according to research by Agarwal's Mokshda environmental group.

Agarwal first got the idea for what he calls the Mokshda Green Cremation System after an unpleasant experience in 1992 at Haridwar on the banks of the river Ganges.

While attending a funeral in the northern Indian city, considered holy by Hindus, Agarwal said he saw a poor family struggling to carry out a cremation with sparse damp wood. The fire went out repeatedly and the partially burned corpse was finally flung into the Ganges.

"This is the river whose water we bring home for praying," said Agarwal, referring to the belief that the river confers salvation on those who bathe in it.

The engineer thought there had to be a better way.

Agarwal says it should take only 22kg of wood to cremate the average human body. But Hindu funerals often use much more because of inefficient combustion.

A formal Hindu cremation — in which a dead body is burned for more than six hours in a 1m-high open-air pyre — can consume more than 400kg of wood to reduce the body to ashes, he said.

That much wood costs about 1,300 rupees (US$30) so poorer families sometimes try to get by with much less and end up having to dispose of partially burned bodies, or even whole corpses, in rivers.

In 1993, Agarwal built his first pyre, a raised human-sized brazier under a roof with slats that could be lowered to maintain heat. The elevation allowed air to circulate and feed the fire.

Unlike electric crematoriums, however, Agarwal's pyre still allowed family members to congregate to perform last rites.

"But no one used it," said Agarwal, even though it needed only about 100kg of wood and reduced the burning process to two hours.

"We had to get religion on our side," Agarwal said.

Consultations with priests, bureaucrats and environmentalists led to major design modifications. Agarwal settled on a system four years ago that included finer touches such as marble flooring and a statue of the god Shiva.

Literature for the unit dropped references to the use of iron after priests pointed out the metal was considered inauspicious because of its association with "the dark force."

The latest model also has a chimney that traps much of the particle matter produced by the fire and releases clean emissions.

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