To Die at the River

“. . . Train fare is cheaper when you’re alive.”

Hilary Hauck’s poem of the River Ganges is a powerful statement of death and of life.  You can read more about Hilary’s work here.

 

Street sleepers line both sides of the avenue
like colorful rows of dolls.
They’re old or sick the guide says. Train fare
is cheaper when you’re alive.
He leads us to where time hasn’t changed,
alleys glowing oil-lamp yellow,
so narrow we meld our backs
to the stone walls to let a sacred cow pass.
A loudspeaker chants
impersonal prayers, bells toll.
The buildings end on a terrace
above the cremation ghat,
where lucky bodies bandaged
in cloths wait their turn.
Smoke of flesh emanates,
we cover our faces with scarves
but he says it’s an insult to
imitate Indian dress
so we breathe in the dead.
Only the wealthy can buy
a thick sandalwood pyre,
the poor make do with scant scraps
whose flames are unable to devour whole bones.
Attendants pick through cooling ashes
and body remnants,
pocketing gold the dead
had meant to keep, sweeping
the bones into a basket to be tipped
into the well-fed drift of the
Holy Ganges,
where by day crowds bathe and
float islands of flowers on leaves
and pray for those able to die here,
because they are the ones that escape
the eternal cycle of life,
spared, by moksha, from reincarnation,
released into heaven
for a final kind of death.

– Hilary Hauck