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(Im)possible Chicago #17

Up and down the banks of the river, the bodies of the dead are cremated on the ghats.

The corteges arrive before first light, trunks heavy with the dearly departed and bundles of kindling. Some come the night before and park in line to have a better chance at claiming their preferred spot for the day, for instance, the same landing where generations of their family have been set ablaze.

At dawn the pyres are lit. The ritual takes the entire day, so it isn't a drive-by affair. Someone must always be there to tend to the fires, to feed it when needed, and to gather up and return to the pyre limbs and fleshy bits that might break off and tumble down to the water. Meanwhile, all the worldly possessions of the dead are washed on the river, and that means their beds, cabinets and crockery—not just their clothes—are carried down the steps for a ritual cleansing. There is also a feast.

Naturally, smokes billow out from the river, carrying with them the smell of charred bodies and the plaintive wails of lamentations. By mid-day, the city is filled with a gauzy smog.

So bright are these burnings at night that they can be seen by orbiting astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station, as a bracelet of radiant fireflies. At around midnight, when the last of the cremations should have finished, the ghats are hosed down in preparation for the next day's conflagrations.


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