Earlier this year, an old friend, Sarasvati (Ulrike Heimann, born in Germany, long-time US citizen) moved from Santa Cruz, CA, USA to Tiruvannamalai to be near Sri Ramanasramam and Arunachala. She had moved many times in her life and said that this would be the last one. Recently she had taken sick. We had gotten her a doctor’s appointment and Carol went to her house to take her. Sarasvati was unconscious when Carol arrived. Rajan broke into the house to gain entry and called for an emergency vehicle. Sometime during the 20-minute wait for the ambulance, Sarasvati attained Mahasamadhi.
In India, when this happens, events move fast. There is a most powerful tradition that the body is to be cremated that day. So I, accompanied by Rajan, our driver, the person who gave Sarasvati the most support over the last few months, had to go to the police and to government offices to properly register the death. Meanwhile, Carol, helped by other of Sarasvati’s friends, waited at her apartment to prepare the body.
This blog entry shows photos of how the now-empty body of Sarasvati was prepared, transported to the cremation grounds, and then cremated. Some who are sensitive to death and dying may not want to read any further.
This day, the day of Vaikunta Ekadasi, is a most propitious day for death. It is the day when the Devas open up the gates to heaven.
The significance of Vaikunta Ekadasi can be traced back to the Padma Purana. The Purana indicates that Lord Vishnu took the form of ‘Ekadasi’ – female energy – to kill demon Muran. This happened during the month of Margazhi. Impressed by ‘Ekadasi,’ Lord Vishnu told her that whoever worships him on this day will reach ‘Vaikunta’ (heaven).
Like all Ekadasi days, devotees fast on this day and observe vigil the whole night. Some people indulge in meditation, Japa and singing of Hari Kirtan. Rice is avoided during ekadashi days as it is believed that the demon Mura finds a dwelling in the rice eaten on Ekadasi day.
It is widely believed that the gates to the heaven open – the Gate of Vaikuntha – on the Vaikunta Ekadasi day. It is one of the most auspicious days in Lord Vishnu Temples in South India.
Sarasvati was a woman in whom spiritual interest had long bloomed. She was a yoga teacher for many years in South Florida, then moved to Santa Cruz, CA in the early 1990s to be with Nome, of the Society of Abidance in Truth. Her love for Bhagavan Sri Ramana was evident to all. With her deep interest in the devotional side of practice, her interest in pujas and such rites made her, in a way, better adapted to life in India than we are. She was very happy living in Tiruvannamalai.
Sarasvati at the recent Deepavali (Diwali) celebration.
My activities that day really started with a visit to the local Police. We needed to file papers to register the death of a foreigner.
We dealt with the desk sergeant. The process took several hours, and included a visit to a Police Inspector, at his home on this holiday, for a needed signature.
When we got back to Sarasvati’s house, there was a car being decorated for the procession to the cremation ground. Besides the flowers decorating the outside of the vehicle, many were strewn inside. Sarasvati loved flowers.
A stretcher was similarly decorated, so her body would lie on a bed of blossoms.
The body had been cleaned up and dressed. A big mala was around her neck. A coin was on her forehead.
She was lifted onto the stretcher.
And carried into the waiting van.
All signs of tension had left the body. The women who prepared her told of the big smile on her face.
Patricia and Carol rode in the van, accompanying Sarasvati on one last trip.
Flowers were being strewn behind the van by Patricia.
The van drove down the street in front of Ramanasramam. Arunachala looked down, unmoving, on the procession.
I drove in front of the van. There were several rickshaws in the procession. The speed was walking speed. It is hard to keep a scooter balanced and upright going that slow.
We stopped briefly at a tank just outside town. The body was brought out of the van and placed on the ground. Camphor was lit.
People stood around the body reverently.
She was then placed back in the van.
And the procession continued to the cremation grounds.
As we stood watching, with Arunachala in the background, still visible in the dying light …
the funeral pyre was being finished. It has layers of wood, auto tires, and cow dung cakes.
The body was lifted out of the van …
And placed on the funeral pyre. It was handled so lovingly by these men, rickshaw drivers. About a dozen of them stopped their work today, one of the busiest (and most profitable) of the season so far, to help Rajan and myself with the cremation.
Some people had brought additional flowers. They were placed on the body.
Sarasvati’s body was now laid out, ready for what is to come next.
The peaceful look remained on her face.
Sarasvati loved pujas. Now a final puja is being performed for her.
As one element of it, everyone in attendance gave a milk offering, three handfuls of milk, dropped on the makeshift stone lingam at her head. I was touched by this way of including everyone in rites to bless her and say goodbye.
Now, with the lingam in a pond of milk, turmeric and vibhuti, the puja was over.
The body was now covered for final preparation for the cremation.
First another layer of dung patties were laid out on the body.
All but the face was covered.
Then a layer of sugar was added, to accelerate the fire.
A last look at her face before it was covered.
Incense was lit and placed around the body.
Camphor was lit.
More wood has been placed on the body.
Lumps of camphor are placed on the top of the pyre.
Since she has no eldest son here, it was my task to light the camphor to start the cremation.
Kerosene was added to get the fire going strongly.
Now the cremation fire is burning brightly.
People sang and watched and paid their last, mostly silent, respects. Some take photos.
The lingam at her head can still be seen, its flowers still intact.
The faces of the onlookers are somber.
The fire will burn until 2 or 3 AM. One of the men stays with the pyre, adjusting the wood with a pole to keep it burning well.
The next morning, the fire has consumed all the remains.
Arunachala looks over the cremation site. This is just how Sarasvati would have wanted it.
We have said goodbye now to the body. What was burnt was that which comes and goes. What remains is That which never changes, was never born and never dies.
I have to again say a few words about the rickshaw drivers. These men are thought to be “low class” by many Indians and Westerners. What we saw this day was how they stepped in and took on the role of family to Sarasvati, a Westerner with no family here. They did this readily and freely, without asking for anything. They were loving and unstinting in their care for Sarasvati on this day. I offer them my deepest thanks.