The irony that an average Indian's carbon footprint may actually be larger in death than in life is certainly not lost on Vinod Kumar Agarwal. Agarwal, the head of the environmental group Mokshda Green Cremation System based in Delhi and a mechanical engineer by trade, recently devised a raised pyre that reduces the amount of wood required and, thus, the greenhouse gases emitted by over 60%.
"Our faith tells us we must do our last rites in this way," said Agarwal, who has become concerned that the traditional fuel-intensive nature of funeral rites of Hindus that practice open-air cremation using firewood has drastically increased carbon dioxide emissions. The main problem with cremation, as he puts it, is that "all the ashes go into the rivers and carbon dioxide is creating global warming."
Indeed, out of the 10 million people or so who die each year in India, close to 85% of the population practice cremation, according to the latest UN statistics. This results in the cutting down of an estimated 50 million trees and the production of approximately 8 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. The idea for the cremation system he later built came to Agarwal in 1992, after he witnessed a particularly unpleasant funeral in which the family carrying out the cremation experienced difficulties trying to light the sparse damp wood it was using. Out of frustration, the family eventually decided to simply toss the partially burned corpse into the Ganges river. Estimating that it should only take about 44 pounds (22 kilograms) of wood to cremate the average body (as opposed to the excessive 880 pounds, or 440 kilograms, typically consumed in a 6 hour long formal Hindu cremation), he built his first pyre in 1993, an elevated brazier (i.e. a metal pan or cooking device) under a roof with slats to maintain the heat, which allowed air to circulate and feed the fire. While seemingly a good idea (it only used about 100 kilograms of wood and reduced the process to 2 hours), nobody was buying it. This prompted Agarwal and his team to "get religion on our side." Following consultations with a diverse array of priests, environmentalists and bureaucrats, he decided to embellish his system by incorporating marble flooring and a statue of the god Shiva. He dropped any reference to the use of iron due to its association with "the dark force" and used a chimney that caught the particle matter produced by the fire and released cleaner emissions. Agarwal's group has experienced more success since then and has already installed 41 pyres. It expects to install about 20 more this year. Faridabad, a city located 19 miles (30 kilometers) from Delhi, performed 15 of its 75 monthly cremations using his system. "It is good from the religious point of view and also from the point of view of the pocket," said Amir Singh Bhatia, who runs the city's Seva Samiti Swarg Ashram cremation ground. He hopes that the system will slowly catch on with mainstream Hindus and predicts that the next generation of Hindus will be converted to these "greener" pyres. His overarching goal is fairly modest: "My main mission is to save humanity. To save trees for mankind, for the coming generations."