Cremation by Guy de Maupassant
Last Monday an Indian prince died at Etretat, Bapu Sahib Khanderao
Ghatay, a relation of His Highness, the Maharajah Gaikwar, prince of
Baroda, in the province of Guzerat, Presidency of Bombay.
For about three weeks there had been seen walking in the streets
about ten young East Indians, small, lithe, with dark skins, dressed
all in gray and wearing on their heads caps such as English grooms
wear. They were men of high rank who had come to Europe to study the
military institutions of the principal Western nations. The little band
consisted of three princes, a nobleman, an interpreter and three
The head of the commission had just died, an old man of forty-two
and father-in-law of Sampatro Kashivao Gaikwar, brother of His
Highness, the Gaikwar of Baroda.
The son-in-law accompanied his father-in-law.
The other East Indians were called Ganpatrao Shravanrao Gaikwar,
cousin of His Highness Khasherao Gadhav; Vasudev Madhav Samarth,
interpreter and secretary; the slaves: Ramchandra Bajaji, Ganu bin
Pukiram Kokate, Rhambhaji bin Fabji.
On leaving his native land the one who died recently was overcome
with terrible grief, and feeling convinced that he would never return
he wished to give up the journey, but he had to obey the wishes of his
noble relative, the Prince of Baroda, and he set out.
They came to spend the latter part of the summer at Etretat, and
people would go out of curiosity every morning to see them taking their
bath at the Etablissment des Roches-Blanches.
Five or six days ago Bapu Sahib Khanderao Ghatay was taken with
pains in his gums; then the inflammation spread to the throat and
became ulceration. Gangrene set in and, on Monday, the doctors told his
young friends that their relative was dying. The final struggle was
already beginning, and the breath had almost left the unfortunate man's
body when his friends seized him, snatched him from his bed and laid
him on the stone floor of the room, so that, stretched out on the
earth, our mother, he should yield up his soul, according to the
command of Brahma.
They then sent to ask the mayor, M. Boissaye, for a permit to burn
the body that very day so as to fulfill the prescribed ceremonial of
the Hindoo religion. The mayor hesitated, telegraphed to the prefecture
to demand instructions, at the same time sending word that a failure to
reply would be considered by him tantamount to a consent. As he had
received no reply at 9 o'clock that evening, he decided, in view of the
infectious character of the disease of which the East Indian had died,
that the cremation of the body should take place that very night,
beneath the cliff, on the beach, at ebb tide.
The mayor is being criticized now for this decision, though he acted
as an intelligent, liberal and determined man, and was upheld and
advised by the three physicians who had watched the case and reported
They were dancing at the Casino that evening. It was an early autumn
evening, rather chilly. A pretty strong wind was blowing from the
ocean, although as yet there was no sea on, and swift, light, ragged
clouds were driving across the sky. They came from the edge of the
horizon, looking dark against the background of the sky, but as they
approached the moon they grew whiter and passed hurriedly across her
face, veiling it for a few seconds without completely hiding it.
The tall straight cliffs that inclose the rounded beach of Etretat
and terminate in two celebrated arches, called “the Gates,” lay in
shadow, and made two great black patches in the softly lighted
It had rained all day.
The Casino orchestra was playing waltzes, polkas and quadrilles. A
rumor was presently circulated among the groups of dancers. It was said
that an East Indian prince had just died at the Hotel des Bains and
that the ministry had been approached for permission to burn the body.
No one believed it, or at least no one supposed that such a thing could
occur so foreign was the custom as yet to our customs, and as the night
was far advanced every one went home.
At midnight, the lamplighter, running from street to street,
extinguished, one after another, the yellow jets of flame that lighted
up the sleeping houses, the mud and the puddles of water. We waited,
watching for the hour when the little town should be quiet and
Ever since noon a carpenter had been cutting up wood and asking
himself with amazement what was going to be done with all these planks
sawn up into little bits, and why one should destroy so much good
merchandise. This wood was piled up in a cart which went along through
side streets as far as the beach, without arousing the suspicion of
belated persons who might meet it. It went along on the shingle at the
foot of the cliff, and having dumped its contents on the beach the
three Indian servants began to build a funeral pile, a little longer
than it was wide. They worked alone, for no profane hand must aid in
this solemn duty.
It was one o'clock in the morning when the relations of the deceased
were informed that they might accomplish their part of the work.
The door of the little house they occupied was open, and we
perceived, lying on a stretcher in the small, dimly lighted vestibule
the corpse covered with white silk. We could see him plainly as he lay
stretched out on his back, his outline clearly defined beneath this
The East Indians, standing at his feet, remained motionless, while
one of them performed the prescribed rites, murmuring unfamiliar words
in a low, monotonous tone. He walked round and round the corpse;
touching it occasionally, then, taking an urn suspended from three
slender chains, he sprinkled it for some time with the sacred water of
the Ganges, that East Indians must always carry with them wherever they
Then the stretcher was lifted by four of them who started off at a
slow march. The moon had gone down, leaving the muddy, deserted streets
in darkness, but the body on the stretcher appeared to be luminous, so
dazzlingly white was the silk, and it was a weird sight to see, passing
along through the night, the semi-luminous form of this corpse, borne
by those men, the dusky skin of whose faces and hands could scarcely be
distinguished from their clothing in the darkness.
Behind the corpse came three Indians, and then, a full head taller
than themselves and wrapped in an ample traveling coat of a soft gray
color, appeared the outline of an Englishman, a kind and superior man,
a friend of theirs, who was their guide and counselor in their European
Beneath the cold, misty sky of this little northern beach I felt as
if I were taking part in a sort of symbolical drama. It seemed to me
that they were carrying there, before me, the conquered genius of
India, followed, as in a funeral procession, by the victorious genius
of England robed in a gray ulster.
On the shingly beach the four bearers halted a few moments to take
breath, and then proceeded on their way. They now walked quickly,
bending beneath the weight of their burden. At length they reached the
funeral pile. It was erected in an indentation, at the very foot of the
cliff, which rose above it perpendicularly a hundred meters high,
perfectly white but looking gray in the night.
The funeral pile was about three and a half feet high. The corpse
was placed on it and then one of the Indians asked to have the pole
star pointed out to him. This was done, and the dead Rajah was laid
with his feet turned towards his native country. Then twelve bottles of
kerosene were poured over him and he was covered completely with thin
slabs of pine wood. For almost another hour the relations and servants
kept piling up the funeral pyre which looked like one of those piles of
wood that carpenters keep in their yards. Then on top of this was
poured the contents of twenty bottles of oil, and on top of all they
emptied a bag of fine shavings. A few steps further on, a flame was
glimmering in a little bronze brazier, which had remained lighted since
the arrival of the corpse.
The moment had arrived. The relations went to fetch the fire. As it
was barely alight, some oil was poured on it, and suddenly a flame
arose lighting up the great wall of rock from summit to base. An Indian
who was leaning over the brazier rose upright, his two hands in the
air, his elbows bent, and all at once we saw arising, all black on the
immense white cliff, a colossal shadow, the shadow of Buddha in his
hieratic posture. And the little pointed toque that the man wore on his
head even looked like the head-dress of the god.
The effect was so striking and unexpected that I felt my heart beat
as though some supernatural apparition had risen up before me.
That was just what it was—the ancient and sacred image, come from
the heart of the East to the ends of Europe, and watching over its son
whom they were going to cremate there.
It vanished. They brought fire. The shavings on top of the pyre were
lighted and then the wood caught fire and a brilliant light illumined
the cliff, the shingle and the foam of the waves as they broke on the
It grew brighter from second to second, lighting up on the sea in
the distance the dancing crest of the waves.
The breeze from the ocean blew in gusts, increasing the heat of the
flame which flattened down, twisted, then shot up again, throwing out
millions of sparks. They mounted with wild rapidity along the cliff and
were lost in the sky, mingling with the stars, increasing their number.
Some sea birds who had awakened uttered their plaintive cry, and,
describing long curves, flew, with their white wings extended, through
the gleam from the funeral pyre and then disappeared in the night.
Before long the pile of wood was nothing but a mass of flame, not
red but yellow, a blinding yellow, a furnace lashed by the wind. And,
suddenly, beneath a stronger gust, it tottered, partially crumbling as
it leaned towards the sea, and the corpse came to view, full length,
blackened on his couch of flame and burning with long blue flames:
The pile of wood having crumbled further on the right the corpse
turned over as a man does in bed. They immediately covered him with
fresh wood and the fire started up again more furiously than ever.
The East Indians, seated in a semi-circle on the shingle, looked out
with sad, serious faces. And the rest of us, as it was very cold, had
drawn nearer to the fire until the smoke and sparks came in our faces.
There was no odor save that of burning pine and petroleum.
Hours passed; day began to break. Toward five o'clock in the morning
nothing remained but a heap of ashes. The relations gathered them up,
cast some of them to the winds, some in the sea, and kept some in a
brass vase that they had brought from India. They then retired to their
home to give utterance to lamentations.
These young princes and their servants, by the employment of the
most inadequate appliances succeeded in carrying out the cremation of
their relation in the most perfect manner, with singular skill and
remarkable dignity. Everything was done according to ritual, according
to the rigid ordinances of their religion. Their dead one rests in
The following morning at daybreak there was an indescribable
commotion in Etretat. Some insisted that they had burned a man alive,
others that they were trying to hide a crime, some that the mayor would
be put in jail, others that the Indian prince had succumbed to an
attack of cholera.
The men were amazed, the women indignant. A crowd of people spent
the day on the site of the funeral pile, looking for fragments of bone
in the shingle that was still warm. They found enough bones to
reconstruct ten skeletons, for the farmers on shore frequently throw
their dead sheep into the sea. The finders carefully placed these
various fragments in their pocketbooks. But not one of them possesses a
true particle of the Indian prince.
That very night a deputy sent by the government came to hold an
inquest. He, however, formed an estimate of this singular case like a
man of intelligence and good sense. But what should he say in his
The East Indians declared that if they had been prevented in France
from cremating their dead they would have taken him to a freer country
where they could have carried out their customs.
Thus, I have seen a man cremated on a funeral pile, and it has given
me a wish to disappear in the same manner.
In this way everything ends at once. Man expedites the slow work of
nature, instead of delaying it by the hideous coffin in which one
decomposes for months. The flesh is dead, the spirit has fled. Fire
which purifies disperses in a few hours all that was a human being; it
casts it to the winds, converting it into air and ashes, and not into
This is clean and hygienic. Putrefaction beneath the ground in a
closed box where the body becomes like pap, a blackened, stinking pap,
has about it something repugnant and disgusting. The sight of the
coffin as it descends into this muddy hole wrings one's heart with
anguish. But the funeral pyre which flames up beneath the sky has about
it something grand, beautiful and solemn.