When Fanuel Moffat started working at the Hindu crematorium in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, he never expected to be more than a security guard. That was in 2003. Ten years later, he deals not with robbers and thieves, but dead bodies. Bright Mhango writes.
I got curious about the practice of cremation a long time ago when I saw it in a movie, Strike Commando. When I moved to Lilongwe a while ago and saw the sign at the crematorium along the Blantyre-Lilongwe M1 Road, I just wanted to know more.
My quest took me to the Hindu Temple in Area 2 in the city. After introducing myself and my mission, one of the seers of the temple got me on his car and I was soon being driven to meet the person who is the custodian of Hindu culture and the one who would ably speak on cremation in Malawi.
After a few mazes, I was in a shop that sells braids and mesh and as soon as I was introduced, I was shown into a backroom, given a Coke and the guardian, Jayantilal Thakrar, who is the head of the Hindu Temple in Lilongwe, joined me.
Do not be scared by the long name or his designation. Thakrar is more Malawian than many Malawians; he has been in the country for 71 years, he can juggle Chichewa, English and some serious Hindu as he wishes.
And he knows his gods: in his office, next to his accounting files, there is a recess where there is a picture and models of Hindu gods with an incise stick standing in front of the lot.
He has a religious tattoo on his wrist and his son, who runs the shop, has one on his forehead.
The Coke and warm welcome did not derail me from my mission. After listening to a crash course in Hinduism, I still fired my question: Why do Hindus burn their bodies?
Thakrar thought about it for a minute, scribbled some Hindu terms in his receipt book and lowered his reading glasses to look at me.
“The body is made up of several elements: water, air, fire, earth and vacuum. When we die, we have to burn the body to make it return to its original elements and the ashes we immerse into the river or sea because they also belong to God,” he said, slowly.
He insisted that there is nothing cruel about cremation because the dead know nothing.
To Hindus, the body comes with a soul and the soul never dies. Once the body dies, the soul is born into another body, such that Thakrar is probably in his 20th life.
Cremation, I later learned, is only done on bodies of those from six years upwards. Women are not allowed at the cremation owing to their alleged faint traits. But this is not final as the brave ones who can live with seeing their loved ones in flames can attend.
“Burying contaminates the earth,” said Thakrar, to which his son added that it is not just Hindus who do cremation; Chinese, Koreans and some Europeans do it too, he said.
When a Hindu dies, a priest is invited to do prayers at the deceased’s house and then the body is taken to the crematorium where further prayers are conducted, rites performed and then the body is left in the hands of Fanuel Moffat.
Moffat comes from Dedza; he is daringly termed Gauo by those who know him. He is a rickety but serious character.
“I was employed as a guard, but soon they invited me to the cremation, showed me how to do it and that was it. I was surprised by the practice because I had never seen it before, but I wasn’t scared. I have seen dead people before and conducted burials,” he said.
Moffat has overseen 46 cremations. He keeps records of them all and he insisted that his dreams are normal, that he still loves his wife and two children the same way.
His job doesn’t make him any callous, he insists.
The burning process
Moffat also rubbished my assertions that he might have some juju to make him courageous; he says he is a Catholic and knows his God well.
“First, they notify me about a cremation, then they bring the body. They do the prayers and then I get the body, lay it on six logs. In between the logs, we put tinder and over the body, we form a triangle of smaller wood engulfing the body wholly.
“Then, I light a stick with a fireball in front of it which is given to the relatives. They light up the body. After the fire catches, we move back and relatives soon go away and leave me alone here,” he narrated.
Now, here is where it gets creepy; everyone has left, the crematorium is a quiet place with a high fence and spanning almost two football grounds and there he stays, making sure that the body is burnt to ash. In laying the body, he has to put wood close to the body’s face.
“The legs and arms burn quick, but the hip area for women and the chest for men take time. I see it all, burning fresh, annals and as it burns, I have to keep the fire burning by restacking the firewood,” said Moffat.
The six underlying logs are coated with ghee and this makes ghee, not the burning flesh, dominate the air. The body is also sprayed with sesame seeds which Thakrar said make the body to burst quickly and burn effectively.
It takes five hours for the cremation to complete and the bereaved family returns the next day to collect the ashes.
Thakrar said the prayers continue up to the 13th day after which they believe the soul leaves. The prayers are for gods to do what they will with the soul. He said in Hinduism, Karma or deeds matter, such that the life one lived will determine whether they are born rich or poor, healthy or diseased in the next life.
I asked Moffat if he has fallen in love enough with the cremation to the point of thinking about going the same way. He vehemently refused, saying he is an African and wants to be laid at Mayani in Dedza, his home village.
He is just an employee, he said.
I agreed with him. I am also just a journalist, I want my whole body (if they will find it) buried at Khata Village in Mlowe, Rumphi, next to my father and mother.
If I am unlucky, I will burn in hell, not here in Lilongwe.