Video: Death in Transit—Cremation, Spectacle, and Looking Off-Center

September 26, 2019
Jyoti Puri, 2019-20 WSRP Research Associates

Jyoti Puri, Visiting Professor of Women’s Studies and South Asian Religions Colorado Scholar, presented on “Death in Transit: Cremation, Spectacle, and Looking Off-Center.”



Welcome to the first Women's Studies and Religion lecture of the year. We're delighted to have a wonderful group of research associates with us, who three of them are sitting up here with me. I'm Ann Braude, the director of the Women's Studies and Religion Program. Now I'm so happy to get to introduce Jyoti Puri, who's been such a wonderful addition to our conversations in the Carriage House this year. Jyoti is the Hazel Dick Leonard chair and professor of sociology at Simmons University.

Her book titles make me want her to name all of my books from here on out.

Really? I'm terrible at it.

You're terrible? Well, Sexual States-- Governance and the Struggle against the Anti-sodomy Law in India's Present. Really? That's a terrible title? I want to read it. And I'll just read one other of her many publications. Woman, Body, and Desire in Post-colonial India. She's written so much at the crossroads of sociology, sexuality, queer studies, and post-colonial feminist theory that she has become kind of the go-to person in this area.

But we're here to learn about her new project, her work in progress, which we're really thrilled to hear about, Death in Transit-- Cremation, Spectacle, and Looking Off-center. Jyoti?

Thank you so very much. I'm so pleased to be here, and I want to just take a moment and thank everyone who's here today. It's a moment that I want to just step back and sort of savor, as the various parts of my life come together in this room in unexpected ways.

And it's friends who are here, colleagues, colleagues in the making, students, people I shared the dance floor with. On the side I-- some of us here, we do Argentine tango. So there is a way in which this is all kind of coming together in a very nice way, and so I want to just take a moment, savor it, and also thank you for being here.

But a particular round of thanks to Ann Braude and Tracy Wall, who's right there. And it's really Ann and Tracy who've made this such a welcoming, inviting, hospitable environment to work and to teach and to think together, and along with my fellow research associates who are here. So it's just really been such a gift to be here, and I want to thank you. And I want you to know that the efforts are really appreciated.

All right, so to the business of the talk today, what I'd want to do is just take a couple minutes and set up the talk. What you are about to hear is going to be the first chapter of this book on death and migration. And it's a book that is going to look at death out of time and out of place, so that's sort of its primary aspect. And it's through the lens of funerals.

And so what you're hearing is about cremation, and I'm expecting that chapter to in fact will continue some of the work, where this first chapter leaves me and us. And then the second part of the book is devoted to burials and particularly in terms of Muslim communities, migrant Muslim communities. That's sort of the focus.

And I thought I had the arc of the project, but I'm now rethinking the last part of it, which is, I think, part of the luxury of being here and being able to kind of think afresh. So that's sort of the overall where this chapter sits in the project and the larger project. And as far as the talk today is concerned, it's going to be in three parts.

For the first section, I'm going to take some time and set up the talk itself, set up the material to follow. And then the second part of it, I'm actually reading the photographs that I will share with you momentarily, and then talk them through the ways that they've been cataloged in the library that owns the copyright for them. And then the third part of the talk goes to this newspaper report from which we get most of our information about who this was, what happened, and so on and so forth. So that's sort of the overall organization that I'm going to follow.

How do I--


Yeah. Oh, maybe this one. Great, thank you. This photograph has haunted me for many years. Sometimes a random chain of associations would bring it into my present, and at other times its visceral impact would catch me off-guard. It was really the image text that first tightened my stomach in a way that has yet to release.

The [INAUDIBLE], who archived this and other photos from early Sikh migration to the Pacific coast, had this to say-- 1907, funeral for first Sikh who died in Vancouver in 1907. No permission was granted by the mayor or others. They took the deceased to a distant forest in the middle of the night and cremated the body in the morning.

To die unexpectedly on foreign soil, to practice the rites furtively, to banish death to the wilderness of the forest, to mourn at the limits of the social. While the rest of the image got fuzzy, what stayed with me is the [INAUDIBLE] man in the foreground and off-center, standing amidst the woods and debris in the morning hours.

This, perhaps because a slice of the larger photo, circulated separately at one time. And later the two images blurred together in my memory. He is the one I remember, hands in his pocket, looking down pensively at the scene. He's the one who stirred questions about what it is like to be confronted with death in an unhomely place.

Surely, death is about temporality, a matter of the right time to go, premature loss, the long life taken too soon, a complicated dance between what is and what should be. It is, too, fundamentally about relationship to space, where we live and where we die, where our remains lie, where the marked and unmarked graves are placed, where we become ancestors.

As such, death also raises questions about place, homeland, territory, places of origin, returns, and repatriation. Would I, too, die here without reconciling with this place? A place where decades later I am yet to feel at home. At a historical moment when "send her back" chants have crept into the mainstream. The estrangement of death confronted us both.

My first encounter with death was also through image texts. Indian comic books, called [NON-ENGLISH] or immortal picture stories. Begun in 1967 by [INAUDIBLE], these illustrated stories were meant to restore us children of colonialism to a landscape of mythological stories and historical events, which is what led me to the god of death, Yama, who makes an early appearance in the Vedic texts that become the foundation for upper-caste Hinduism.

This particular story is about Savitri, who marries Satyavan, despite knowing that he would die a year later. When the god of death comes to take Satyavan's soul, she follows him through the forest and into the mountains. In this space time, where life and death are suspended, Savitri outwits Yama, who continually defeats-- admits his defeat and restores her husband's life.

Like most recuperative projects, these comic books were hardly innocent. The cover itself is a snapshot of the pitfalls of gender, sexuality, caste, and color. And Savitri's name has gone from standing in for the perfect wife to the purely ironic. Still, the fable provides an early introduction to the significance of the impermanence and liminality in understanding life and especially death.

As profound as first impressions are, they are also partial. And stories are often more complicated than at first glance. It is not clear how the [INAUDIBLE] came to annotate this photo as such, for even though the mayor have may well have denied permission, and the cremation occurs in the suspended space of the woods, this is not a furtive act of disposing the body.

Seeing the image with fresh eyes, I register-- I register the cluster of white men and boys on the right, gazing intently at the scene. The suited man, his body stretched to get a clear view of the proceedings. It is more along the lines of a spectacle, a point confirmed by the Victoria Daily Colonist's report of numerous onlookers, including newspaper representatives and other spectators.

What also catches my attention is the casket, draped in dark cloth and out of place in a sacred cremation. During a later search for this image, I realize that there is a second photo, taken at the same cremation, showing the fire and smoke billowing up from the pyre. These two photos were cropped into five segments that circulated on the web at one point, further blurring the distinctions between material and digital reproductions.

On the surface, cremations appear to be about the intransigence of time and the irrelevance of space. Open-pyre cremations, such as this, have been assumed to leave few traces, as the remains and debris absorbed into the environment. Considered poor archaeological data, the destructive effects of cremation have defined [INAUDIBLE] until quite recently.

At the hands of scholars keen to recover the moments and scenes as yet lost to history, new technologies and intellectual approaches are seeking to breathe life into ancient cremations. But the challenges of even recent recoveries become apparent during a visit in July 2018 to the Royal Burial Park, the largest municipal cemetery in British Columbia, and formally a site of open-air cremations.

As a staff member drives me through the rolling, grassy hills, there is no obvious sign of the cremations performed around the former quarry, which had initially been allotted to six in March 1924 for open-pyre cremations. Unlike the gravestones marking the cremated remains in the temples of Kamakura, Japan, carefully designed to let the deceased and the living mingle, monuments are not permitted, according to the guidelines of Sikhism, leaving the task of recovery to the more trained archaeologists.

But if an archeology of cremation, and this is a phrase that I borrow from Tim Thompson, if an archeology of cremation is understood in a Foucaltian sense, it clears the path for rewriting established histories of mortuary practices in the West, such as those influential accounts that either neglect cremation altogether or constitute it as modern Western practice.

For example, Stephen Prothero's definitive account, Purified by Fire, and which is really just really a wonderful book in a lot of ways, is more precisely the history of white settler cremation in America. Baron Joseph, Henry Lewis, Charles [INAUDIBLE] incineration on December 6, 1876, is established as the turning point of modern cremation, while indigenous and migrant communities are footnotes in this account, the bearers of pre-modern practices, in contrast to which modern scientific cremations were championed at the time.

Retelling these stories from the penumbra would not only pluralize the genealogies of cremation in North America, but they would also correct representations of the West as a discrete and autochthonous category. Rethinking the histories of cremation in the US from the perspective of migrant communities would also mean giving religion its due place in this story.

The increasing popularity of cremation is typically narrated as the erosion of religious beliefs and the secularization of death. But in fact, looking at it from the perspective of Sikh migrants becomes a way of highlighting the centrality of religious beliefs and practices. It is, too, a means of exploring religion significance to the discursive collisions between the pre-modern and the modern, between culture and science, between faith and progress.

This would require investigating the encounters and tensions between white settlers and Sikh migrants over open-pyre cremations. It would require exploring the extent to which these encounters were mediated by settler colonialism's impact on crematory practices among native communities.

And what of the death rituals of other migrant groups, for example, the Japanese? In other words, centering cremation, religion, and migration foregrounds geopolitics while revealing a rich tapestry of transnational linkages that unsettle standard accounts. Furthermore, if an archeology of cremation is understood more broadly, beyond its disciplinary confines, then traces of crematory practices are everywhere to be found.

Stories, texts, visuals are part of the rich archive left through the cremation of bodies and witnesses long gone. As I see it, these photos are windows to life worlds and historical moments. Specifically, the religious cultural disposal of migrant bodies in the context of settler colonialism, empire, and internal and external-- and transnational migration.

Even as photos render the most ordinary into the extraordinary, they are part of the spectacle that they capture. They provide glimpses into what Vincent Brown has termed mortuary politics. And as many black visual studies scholars have emphasized, photos also exceed the limitations to reveal critical possibilities of understanding and imagining.

To an extent then, it's about how we read these photos. They are the bridges to then and now, to how the deaths of the predecessors are still relevant. The past is never really the past, and the present is never really the present, even if they are not the same.

So this is the part two, an archeology of image text, where I'd use the catalog categories to read the photos. So one of the categories is time. What images due to time and the time in which they are taken are the central matters raised by the date 1907. The gray hues of the two photos make it difficult to fix the time of the day when they were taken, but what is clear is that time lapses across them.

The first of the photos is a moment-- is one moment of the funeral proceedings, the moment when more than 20 fellow Sikhs are perhaps reciting the [INAUDIBLE] with their hands folded and eyes downcast before the coffin placed on a pile of logs with brushwood in the foreground. So I'm referring to the first, the one on top.

The second image is taken later, centering the funeral pyre, showing the flames at the bottom and billowing smoke billowing from the smoke-- slope click of the camera. As time shifts, so does the perception of space. The angle of the camera closes in on the burning pyre. The light is different, and fewer South Asian men remain, while white bystanders have taken their places.

And I'm not sure how well you can see that in the second photo, but they are now in the background over there. The Sikhs in these photos are likely among the men, and they were almost entirely men, who traveled in small groups of four and five-- four to five after 1904. Although the transits of the British Empire, stretching from the metropole to numerous colonial outposts, brought Punjabi men to the Pacific Coast at the end of the 19th century, they began arriving in larger numbers between the years of 1904 and 1908.

The dubious virtue of being subjects of the British crown should have automatically allowed them into Canada, but they were frequently prohibited due to nativist and white supremacist policies, which were being actively honed through efforts to exclude Chinese migrants at the time. 1907 was a pivotal year in the history of Sikh exclusion from the Pacific Coast. It was a moment when racial violence against Sikhs and South Asians more broadly came to a head in Bellingham, Washington, close to the Canadian border.

But the foundations for the violence that tore through the region were laid the year before. Police harassment, widespread discrimination, and the anxieties of gender and sexuality set the stage for the expulsions that followed in 1907. Sikh men's long, unshorn hair and turbans fueled speculation of women disguised as men. If gender passing was helping rationalize anti-immigrant sentiment, then allegations that Punjabi men were being disrespectful to white women added fuel.

As the numbers gained strength by 1907, racializations and idioms of invasion justified the ensuing racial violence. Place. After hundreds of Sikh men who entered the Pacific Northwest through Vancouver in 1906, one such group from [INAUDIBLE], which is Jalandhar District of Punjab, made their way to Tod Inlet to join others who had already found work.

Although the second photo is erroneously placed in Vancouver, the first photo is correctly located, and this is in the Vancouver Public Library, at Tod Inlet, which is outside of Victoria, British Columbia. Known as [NON-ENGLISH] by the Saanich First Nation, this area was inhabited by them for some 2,000 years prior to European arrivals.

Over the years, they migrated between [NON-ENGLISH] and the neighboring Gulf Islands over the winter and summer seasons, returning in 1904 only to find that their village site and its surrounding Oak Meadows were being taken over by white settlers for a cement quarry. In a now familiar pattern of advancing settler capitalism by appropriating indigenous land, and relying on the labor of brown migrants, especially after the formal end of slavery, the Vancouver Portland Cement Company operated in this area between 1904 and 1921.

The 40 or so Sikh men worked primarily as stokers and firemen at the kiln in the cement factory. At $0.10 an hour, they were paid less than their white workers, working long days six days a week and having to do overtime, even in the night, when ships needed to be unloaded. Tuberculosis and silicosis were rife as a result of the constant dust from cement and coal, despite efforts to wrap the mouths and neck with extra cloth.

Since the Chinese laborers unloaded the coal, they were particularly at risk for tuberculosis and silicosis, and witnessing numerous such deaths drove the Sikh men out of the area by 1910. The meager conditions under which they lived, the self built shanties, four to five men sleeping in each shack, and the lice which carried the typhus meant that the risk for illness was constant.

Not surprisingly then, [INAUDIBLE] also died in 1907 from what was known as consumption, a form of pulmonary tuberculosis. Photographer's studio. While the photographer's studio is noted as unknown in the first photo--


I hope that's not a sign for me to stop.


OK. I'm monitoring time. OK. While the photographer's studio is noted as unknown in the first photo, credit for the second image is given to H.C. Barley, a well-known photographer from that period. Originally from Colorado, Barley stands out as a landscape photographer of the Pacific Northwest, best known for his pictures of the construction of the White Pass railway.

Barley was known to risk life and limb and even make the laborers stop mid-task to get the perfect photo. His work reveals a photographer who makes stunning landscapes yield to his camera, arranges the people who did the hardest-- hazardous work on this railway, and gets them to freeze for the perfect image.

The cremation photos, too, have a-- the cremation photos, too, have a structured quality to them, but they do not appear to have been posed, raising the question of whether these photos can be credited to Barley. And I can say more about that, in case people are interested in the Q&A. Oh.

More likely, however, a seasoned photographer using a box camera, possibly a Kodak Brownie or a viewfinder-- a viewfinder camera favored by professionals at the time, took the two pictures. The quality and clarity of the images further suggests that someone with a steady hand, if not a professional accustomed to shooting at low-shutter speeds, took the photographs.

What supports the likelihood of the images as professional handiwork is the camera's positioning, which allows the viewer unfettered access to the scene of the cremation. This may well have been the first time that these South Asian men and their deceased kinsmen figured into photos, but the historical mix of colonialism and photography had previously rendered them subjects.

Photography arrived in India within months of its development in Europe and gained more traction after the watershed 19-- sorry, 1857 rebellion. While Sikhs were featured in Indian colonial archives, primarily as soldiers and warriors, photographers in the North American context recorded them in their capacities as migrant labor.

Images of Sikh men in the Pacific Northwest, arriving into ports, working on railroad construction and such, are present alongside the cremation photo in the archive that was first assembled by [INAUDIBLE]. In these colonial context, photography functioned as a colonial arm, serving its racialized, anthropological, and forensic needs.

Photography and other visual representations have been crucial to generating what Robert Berkhofer Junior has called the white man's burden and were being used actively by the turn of the century across Canada and the US to document the arguably vanishing Indian at the time. Cremation and other funerary rites images have been an important part of this cataloging, and the archive in places such as Royal British Columbia Museum has numerous such images.

Dated to 1889, one such photo has been glossed as cremation of chief's wife, Alaska. Sorry, chronicling-- no. I don't know why I'm sort of-- I stumble-- no. Documenting, shall we say.


Oh, chronicling.

Chronicling, that's the one. Thank you. There's the event, this image presents a body just off-center, flanked by nine mourners with downcast eyes and two women, seated on the ground, expressing sorrow with hands on their heads. The lower part of the body is draped in a Chilkat blanket, which is both hereditary and a sign of high rank among the Northwest native peoples, while another Chilkat blanket provides a backdrop for the body.

This and other such photos are part of the broader colonial and post-colonial archive that have documented an entire range of crematory practices among select indigenous communities across the continent. At the same time, what is missing from the archive are commentaries on how these practices were disappeared, raising the question of how we can get, for example, Federico de Laguna's detailed account on cremations among the [INAUDIBLE], but no indication of how these practices came to be supplanted.

Next category, topics, and it says funeral rites, ceremonies, East Indians, East Indian Canadian, Sikhs, Sikh Canadians, cremation, men. Those are some of the entries. Inasmuch as the two cremation photos are a function of the anthropological gaze, it is also possible that the recording of the funeral was at the behest of Sikh migrants. Close to home in Punjabi cities like Jalandhar and Ambala, these men would have come across local studios and visual modes that are quite different-- that were quite different from the colonial.

Thus, alongside anthropological photos of Sikh mig-- as migrant labor in the American Northwest are pictures of Sikh men dressed in all their finery, including their military uniforms and colonial insignias, earned as soldiers, and sharp European suits, photographs that are in the idiom of the family photograph. And I'm taking that this is after Marianne Hirsch, her notion of the family photograph.

Also, early on, images were commissioned at the opening of the first gurdwaras, that is, Sikh temples, before would stand members of Sikh communities and in a few cases their Mexican and Mexican-American wives. Surely then photographs are not just about the colonial gaze, but also about what Courtney Baker has usefully described as the variegated practice of looking.

Furthermore, migrant communities have left an extensive record of the ephemerality of death and iterative practices of homemaking in some cases. Dating from the late 19th century into the early 20th century, many such images exist of funeral gatherings and processions among Japanese migrants in Hawaii. These panoramic photos were part of customs that were previously established in Japan, freezing the moments when the dead are still part of the living.

The women dressed in their kimonos, holding flowers and umbrellas, the men in neat suits and hats in hand, the formally dressed children form a genealogical portrait that binds together not just the histories of those who are gone with those who remain, but also what is especially important to the story of migration. Here we are. We are here.

Yet these complexities are mostly lost in the two photos of the cremation with the camera's intrusive presence. The angles lay bare the scene of the cremation for the viewer, setting the stage with the first-- I'll just go back to that. Sorry, I'll begin again. The angles lay bare the scene of cremation for the viewer, setting the stage with the first photo, the focus on the casket, the downcast mood of the South Asian kinsmen, and then the blaze which will gradually consume the body over the next several hours.

Post-modern photography was hardly unusual at the time, but the cremation photos are of a different ilk.

Consider here an image, attributed to [INAUDIBLE], the first photo studio in Asia established in the 1860s. In the image, circa 1870s, of a body being prepared for cremation, all is revealed to the viewer for probing visual consumption. Her prostate body on a pile of logs in a shallow pit, her tonsured hair, her uncovered torso. The priest performing the last rites, the four women squatting around the body, and a young man with the vessel in hand.

Imprinted "Burning Heart, Calcutta," the photo is taken through a lens that is entitled and unembarrassed, offering a snapshot of the generic funeral, a how it's done here glimpse. The up-close view arouses, titillates, satisfies, and perhaps even horrifies the distant viewer, blurring the lines between pornography and posthumous photography.

Is it meant to be absent? Yes.

Yeah. It's just it's very freely available. It circulates a lot, but there's something so profoundly disturbing about this image that it made sense not to repeat it. But the woman in the center of the image-- and I think that's why this image is still important to talk about-- but the woman in the center of the image, squatting on the ground, her head covered with the end of the sari, arms on knees, and hands interlocked, returns the camera's unrelenting gape.

Her face is perhaps moved by premature loss, but also what looks a lot like disgust as she looks straight into the camera. At the center of the gathering in the cremation image, too, one of the Sikh migrants, his body partially turned away from the camera, his hands folded in prayer, looks back at the camera. While his expression is harder to speculate on, his look is yet another reminder that some encroachments don't diminish across time or space.

Format. The two images are available as copies and source negatives. The first image is listed as a postcard, a yellowing postcard, the back of which is addressed to Miss Lucy Cousin in Victoria. The stamp is almost a month and a half after the image was taken. Described as a copy print, the second image is larger in size and is addressed to a Mr. C. Cousin and dated exactly a month after the photo was first taken.

At the time, it was not unusual for photos to be developed into postcards and picture cards, which helped popularize the photo as commodity in an age of mass visual reproduction. Reading lynching picture cards alongside other visual formats, such as stereographs, Jacqueline Goldsby emphasizes the aesthetics of visual technology that shaped how lynching was depicted and seen by a national viewership.

Even though by the late 19th century, picture cards were widely popular in the US, being easily handled, collected, and exchanged, the power of these images, she compellingly argues, lay in their scarcity, unpredictability, and irregularity. Cremation images at the turn of the century were hardly being mass produced, and there's a significant difference between the role that images of lynching played in the making of American modernity and the role that seemingly pre-modern immigrant practices have played in affirming the national modern in Canada and the US.

The few cremation images that do exist in the public sphere, though, have multiple lives. Although Vancouver Public Library claims copyright for the two images, they're also to be found at the Victoria City Archives. I'm only able to see copies since the photos are technically on loan, and the name of the donor cannot be revealed due to privacy laws, which is most ironic, considering the violations of privacy that have already occurred.

All I'm told is that it is someone with a Christian name. The versions at the British-- at the Royal British Columbia Museum are also copies, and their brown paper backing makes it impossible to see how they may have been used. And just here's just to share this with you. I don't have time to read the image, but here's another-- here's an image of another cremation that was also circulated as a postcard. And you can see the back of it.

How then to understand the fascination with these cremation photos and their traffic as postcards? So this is the last part, which is about the newspaper account and where that leads us. All what we know about [INAUDIBLE] death comes primarily from a report in the conservative newspaper, Victoria Daily Colonist. It's how we know that the cremation occurred around 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning of April 10th, 1907, at Tod Inlet or [NON-ENGLISH] that [INAUDIBLE] was from Ambala. He arrived in the summer of 1906, he developed consumption, and that his brother was part of the last rites.

We learn also about Sikh beliefs and rituals that are meant to inform or entertain the curious viewer, but the descriptions are misleading. Even though the newspaper rightly identifies Sikh as opposed to the generically Hindu. So there is a lot in that time period, and that carries over where anybody from the subcontinent is just sort of loosely identified as Hindu, regardless of any sort of attention to religious differences.

So even though this particular report correctly identifies people as Sikh, it is just-- it disregards any kind of religious differences in its description. But what strikes me is how the account is absorbed by the details of the pyre, flames, and blaze, leading to the headline "Funeral pyre ready for [INAUDIBLE] Singh."

The pyre, much like the word cremation, derives from Latin and means the pile of wood or other combustible material for the ritual burning of a body. That the newspaper representatives, other spectators at the scene, would be so captivated has much to do with the fear and fascination aroused by fire at the time. It was when great fires swept through cities such as Vancouver, Seattle, Boston, destroying lives and social worlds, accounting for why town officials would have been reluctant to give permission for the cremation to occur within town limits.

Uncontrolled fire was an ever-present danger because it still served as the engine of domestic and commercial life in North America. It was also a period in which fire was being tamed, and its gradual removal from everyday contact was both cause and effect of the Industrial Revolution and technological progress.

The concern with fire's destructive potential would also explain why Sikhs were initially allotted the isolated quarry for open pyres at the Royal Burial Park. [INAUDIBLE] kept a ready supply of wood, and two men carried the wood uphill in anticipation of the coffin that also needed to be hauled up to the site during the first two decades of the 20th century.

Drawing from an interview with a Sikh elder, the late [INAUDIBLE], describes one particular incident in an especially dry summer when the fire marshal was concerned about the stray embers that could start a fire. Implying that the burden was on the mourners should such a fire ignite, the fire marshal also made some attendants stay back to dampen the surrounding grass with a garden hose.

These official directives are among the ways that Sikh cremation was pushed to the limits of the social, and so were the woods by becoming the site for banished bodies. The fire of open-pyre funerals would have been unsettling to dominant Christian communities in the area as well. Crematory practices had been long abandoned in parts of the world where Christianity gained traction, and the resurrection of the body came to be central to soteriology.

The fire altar shrank into the votive candle, the outer fire became the inner light, even as fire's association with hell, sin, humiliation, and punishment continued. Suspected witches and heretics were burned to death. The punitive use of fire gradually declined by the end of the 18th century, and witches in Salem, for example, were hanged, not burned. But fire's punitive force continued to be exercised selectively.

While white settlers in Canada did not practice lynching, fire was being widely used in the killing of predominantly black bodies in the US in the early decades of the 20th century. In the compilation without sanctuary, for example, numerous images attached to how fire was the tool for killing or further destroying the already slayed body. It is yet another reminder that death out of time and place has too many genealogies.

Official and unofficial concerns with Sikh cremations may have also had something to do with the sexual potencies of fire. Making the case that fire is a profoundly social reality, Gaston Bachelard says that it is also primarily and therefore universally sexual. For Bachelard, fire and sexuality are not merely linguistically related, whereby they become interchangeable metaphors. For example, the burn of desire. But rather the igniting of fire, the very act of rubbing things together, is a sexualized experience, and it also serves as the basis for acts of generation.

Thus, he argues that conquest of fire is itself a sexual conquest, and this association endures in all kinds of projections about the physical and moral differences between female and male bodies, however specious these arguments may be. The extent to which fire is universally associated with sexuality and gender is perhaps a matter of empirical investigation.

But what is interesting is that it finds resonance within the early Vedic texts that were supposed-- that were to become the source of Brahmanical authority and upper-caste Hinduism in India. [INAUDIBLE] argues that the Rigveda one of the four canonical Vedas, analogizes the frictive kindling of fire to the act of procreation.

The burning of the dead was seen as the sacrifice, or [NON-ENGLISH], that is poured into the funeral fire, leading to the concept of the last sacrifice, or [NON-ENGLISH], in which the deceased is absorbed into Agni and the cosmos. And Agni here is both fire as well as the fire god. It has just sort of a broader meaning.

While these rituals of the earlier period have declined, fire persists in caste Hindu rituals of marriage and funeral ceremonies to date. But fire has also had more ominous connotations, most especially in the practice of [NON-ENGLISH], that came to take hold among the upper caste in the colonial period, but something that was represented as essentially Hindu or essentially Indian to the readers of newspapers, such as Victoria Daily Colonist.

Within Sikhism, however, fire doesn't carry the same ritual significance as it does in Hinduism. It is not a means of either liberation or purification. While the funeral is also described as [NON-ENGLISH], or the last rites and cremation is recommended, important to note is that the body is incinerated in the interest of pragmatism. Sikh wedding ceremonies pivot around the [NON-ENGLISH], rather than to hold over Vedic fire.

Partially in response to Hinduism's orthodoxies and priestly exploitations, the [NON-ENGLISH] governing the code of conduct and conventions among [NON-ENGLISH] prohibits Hindu practices, which include placing the dying on the floor and so on. The guidelines specify how the body is to be prepared, the prayers to be recited, how mourning is to be observed.

At the same time, they also note that cremation-- that should cremation not be possible, the body can be disposed of in a flowing river or in any other manner. Fire, and indeed cremation, it turns out, are not essential to Sikh tenets.

So in lieu of a conclusion, since I'm not ready to tie things up, and this is very much work in progress, and I feel fortunate to be able to share something while it is still in formation with you all, I would like to return to the South Asian man who has been the bridge to my blurred memory about the space time of death and questions of belonging.

Wearing European style work clothes and head covered in a turban, much like his kinsmen, he stands there in the photograph of the full image. His stance is comfortable, hands in pocket, rather than folded in prayer toward the focal point of the casket. Indeed, he is the one person in the entire image who is looking away from the casket as well as the camera, raising possibilities of reading that are not quite about the colonizing gaze of the camera, nor about the [INAUDIBLE] gaze of the oppressed.

What he might have been looking at is forever lost, but it raises the question of what is missing from the archive. All we can do for now is to follow the arc of his regard, which is asking us to look off-center. Thank you very much.



Thank you for such a rich talk. We do have time for questions after your perfectly timed presentation. And I'm going to run this microphone around the room. We are taping this, and so if you can ask your question into the microphone, it can be heard both in the room and beyond the room. So and please introduce yourselves as you ask questions. And we'll start in the very back.

Hello. I'm so sorry to make you come around the room for the very first question. My name is Casey McConnell. I'm a student here at the Div School. Thank you so much for this, Professor Puri. My question, thinking about technology and the idea of spectacle, and thinking about the various ways that technology has come through here, the photograph, the photographer's studio, fire as like with different technological valences throughout history.

I'm wondering if the presence of technology is kind of enhancing the spectacle of death, or if death in itself is so spectacular that technology can only transmit it. And I'm wondering if you have kind of thoughts on that issue.

Casey, that's a great question. How would we like to do this? If there are other questions, I can take a few together.

That's a great idea.

Because I'd love-- OK, great. Because I'd love to hear from more people. And they don't have to be also-- and this is me being just completely my self-interest. They don't have to be questions. They can be thoughts. They can be comments. Whatever you have to share, I'm open to hearing.


Thank you. It just hit me. Do the practices of the funeral rites in the cremation in British Columbia, for me they were so different looking than what happens in India. Did they create in any time, in any way a break or a change in the way that the Sikh or the Hindu community felt about their funerary rites? Because it's in a completely different environment.

To me, it was actually strange looking, and I didn't know how it affected them, as opposed to doing it in their own country, where everything would be familiar and the remains of the person would be put with the remains of other people in the community, where this was a strange, a different place.

Thank you for that.

I'm delighted to see another scholar work on death and religion. I work on contemporary ancestral rituals in the Chinese context, and especially actually death-related rituals. So it's really delight. I'm just so glad you're working on this project. I have two thoughts. The first is the economics of the funerals for the migrants. Pyres can be expensive. Cemetery plots can be expensive.

People say in China today they cannot afford to die, because the cemetery's plots are so insanely expensive. So what were the economics of the migrants? So that's my first factual question. The second is more of an associative thought, which is that in the-- when you showed me that picture, you know the picture that came to my mind was The Funeral of Shelley, the painting, late 19th century painting, because Shelley famous was burned on the pyre by the sea. That's a famous image.

So it seems that Victorians had a kind of a fascination with pagan pyre. And for them, it's more Greek than anything else. So I wonder if there's any connection between this interest in pagan pyre in general, these imagination paintings of Greek pyre burning that would be hanging in living rooms. What's the fascination, and then how does that connect or not connect with the images you're looking at?

Thank you so much. Shall I get started with these, and then as more thoughts and associations and comments come to mind? Casey, thank you so much. I think that's a really interesting question about how death gets rendered spectacle or out of the ordinary and the role of technology in terms of being able to do that. And I think it's, I think there is something there in terms of the sort of the mediated forms of technology, right?

And so in a sense, even in a sense, this project becomes part of that, the reproduction of a certain kind of spectacle, right? Even as it is trying to sort of intervene in there. And so the photographs and the fact that we have them as the traces of what happened, that technology is serving that function of both transmitting as well as sort of amplifying, making something into the extraordinary.

And I think in terms of the technology of fire I think calls for a much more ambivalent reading, because just in that moment, fire is both necessary but also something that can be incredibly devastating, right? So there is a reliance on that, but at the same time, it can also have some sort of deadly effects.

But I think you're absolutely right to point to or underscore the issue of technology and how that is sort of shaping this story, or at least how I'm telling it. Yes, there are considerable differences between what is happening at the time in their home context, in Punjab versus what is-- and that's in fact really the story that I'm trying to understand and explore and come to grips with. Sort of how does-- and I think that's really the reason why these photos, particularly the very first one, left such an impact on me, because it is raising that fundamental question about how do you cobble together a funeral when there aren't that many of you?

There are some 1,500 Sikhs, from according to what I understand, historians have sort of done the numbers. There are some 1,500 Sikhs in that general Vancouver, Victoria area, but there are 46 around [NON-ENGLISH]. How do you come together? How do you cobble this? And when as migrants, I mean, the story is that we're supposed to leave home, right? And that we're supposed to go to some place, either for a limited period of time and go back home to die. Or that if we're going to die in the places that we have arrived, it's not before they've become home.

And I think that sort of the practice, the funeral, the photographs are fundamentally raising the question about what happens when we die in places that are not ours? What do the rituals look like? How do they happen? How do they even become possible? What kind of collisions, tensions come to the forefront in the process? And how do people navigate them?

And this takes me to the question that you were asking about the economics of it all. And this is why this is just the first chapter, and there's a lot more work to be done, not just in terms of these photographs, but there are a few other funeral photographs. Not so much around cremations, but funerals of Sikh men. All the ones that I've seen involve men.

And as I'm sort of doing the research for that, the thing that comes to the forefront is also how these rituals, these funerals, were also important moments of community making, right? Where people would come together, and it was understood practice. They would all actually put a little bit of money into this sort of common pool every month, and that should someone die who didn't have money for their own, for their last rites, it's the community that would come together to do that.

And to me, that's an equally important part of this story, of the story of sort of death being out of time and out of place. And thank you for the reference to Shelley. I remember seeing it, actually, just even a few days ago. And the connection to the pagan, and that's really generative. And I'd like to think some more about it and to see in terms of to what degree it dovetails around notions of the pre-modern, right?

Because one of the things where sort of this has taken me, and I feel like that should be my starting point as opposed to my ending point, is how within the looking at the photos and the sort of the newspaper account and how the photos came to be taken in the first place to me raises the question about to what degree migrants, and in this case we're talking about Sikh migrants, but I would make the point more broadly to South Asians and other black and brown bodies at the time, to what degree migrants signify the pre-modern, and to what degree in some ways we are still stuck in notions of the pre-modern, as far as dominant communities are concerned, right?

And there is sort of all kinds of ways in which that happens, when we talk about-- and it's just not funerals. It's not just cremations or burials and the codes and guidelines about how these burials should happen. But the fact that we have arranged marriages, that we have all of the-- I'm sorry, but I'm just going to-- the idea of rapists and killers, that there's something unlawful, uncivilized, pre-modern, that is somehow essential to migrants, particularly brown and black migrants. It's not quite for other groups.

So that's sort of what I'm grappling with, and the connection to paganism is actually really interesting. I hadn't thought of that. Thank you.

Hi. I'm Kerry Sonia. I'm also a research associate in the WSRP this year. Thank you so much for your talk. I have a response to something that you just said, something that just came to mind. So I guess we can call that an association with something that you mentioned, which I found just fascinating. And then a question, actually, about one of the images on the screen.

So the first, the reaction I've just had is that I'm really fascinated by this organization that you've just described in this community, that everybody pays in to this sort of pot. And should anybody pass away, the community would then come together and offer burial rights. I mean, this is something, since I focus on the ancient world. That's my specialty. I'm thinking of ancient Roman burial clubs, where this is exactly the kind of organization that existed.

And what's really fascinating and I think a really interesting parallel is that in these burial clubs in ancient Rome, they included not just full citizens or elite members of Roman society, but also slaves. I mean, it was really including these marginalized people who also took advantage of these kinds of organizations, these voluntary associations to account for burial customs to as a sort of safety net, like after-life insurance, should they die. So that's just one really striking sort of association, I think, with what you've just described.

So the second, as I said, is a question, and it's about this lower, this image on the lower right. And I just want to make sure I understand the argument you made, or your description of this image. I think you said that at this point in the ceremony, these are all white onlookers.

Yeah, so what happens is, if you look at the one on top, where the casket is, which is one of those sort of things that is out of place, so to speak, which is particular to this moment and time and place. If you see there, they're all Sikh men who are standing in the background, right? And then when we come down here, most of those people around the trees, they are white men, white men wearing European clothing. And there are a few Sikhs that are left, but in many ways that the sort of the composition changes.

I was wondering if you could say, I mean, I just find that to be such a striking contrast. And I was wondering if you could say a bit more about, I mean, is this typical for Sikh burial practice that people in the community wouldn't stay around for the entire cremation process, to see the entire body being consumed by flame, or if this is something very particular about this scenario.

And if it is unique, can you say a bit more about what that might signify to us?

Yeah, no, I think it's a really interesting question. I think it really depends on where the sort of the context in which Sikh cremation is taking place. And I think this goes back to the earlier point about-- this goes back to the earlier point about the differences when one is in a place, such as sort of considered one's home or homeland and to some degree. Or with the sort of the practices of cremation are well-established, right? So that's sort of one aspect of it, versus what happens in the diaspora.

And there is some literature that have been finally able to find, which is talking about practices in different areas. But it's not unusual. I mean, it's not necessarily-- so therefore, I guess what I'm stumbling over is the hesitation around typical, right? Like what would be typical, given the fact that it is this particular time, it is this particular place, and what's typical now within India or in Punjab is not really going to be typical of what's happening here.

But generally, yeah, people don't necessarily stay to watch the whole process, because it actually takes a while for the body to be consumed by fire and for the pyre really to burn its way down. But the difference is that there is somebody who is attending those pyres in the Indian context.

Or now people are taking, because of the mandate, you have to take this to a crematorium. So again, once the body disappears, I mean, you can't hang around and sort of see it. You come back later on to pick up the ashes. So to me, the interesting question is how the bystanders sort of move closer to the fire. And that's why the point that I'm making, that what is at heart over here?

The wedge, if you will, in many ways is fire. And in all of its significance and signification. And so that's why sort of I want to spend some time thinking about that.

Thank you for that very enlightening talk. My name is Olga Turcott. I'm a member of the Cambridge community. I'm not a scholar, but I of course have a personal interest in this topic, so to speak. As I was listening to you, I was thinking about witnessing versus entering into someone else's space and how when we do not know the other, it no longer really becomes witnessing, but it becomes more of an intrusion.

And I was thinking about how we're also attracted by what we do not know and maybe at times repulsed at the same time. I was also thinking about what you said about home and how we want to be buried in a place we call home. And as a transnational-- I consider myself transnational, not an immigrant-- I'm really wondering whether this idea of home is ever one that we find in our lifetimes. And how important is it really to reach a point where you call someplace home, and do we live long enough to have that feeling?

And the last comment I have is a pre-modern versus modern, I would say. I would word it more like traditional versus contemporary. And I think as transnationals, we have a lot to offer to the contemporary. And I'm not really sure if pre-modern is-- maybe that's a scholarly term. I'll have to read up on that, but thank you so much.

And I'll have to think about sort of the use of the term traditional. It's just it has a lot of profound ambivalence from me, not that pre-modern doesn't. But traditional has is a very-- they're both, in many ways, they are-- did you want to speak to that? Please do. I really don't mind.

I was thinking with you as you were talking [INAUDIBLE].

And I like that very much.


Exactly. And also that tradition has oftentimes been given very, just as pre-modern has been given very pejorative connotations, right? And particularly, it depends on whose traditions you are talking about. So it's not a value-neutral term by any means. And I think you're so right about sort of that notion of home and that home is always in that sense an elusive place.

And we arrive back to find out that it doesn't exist anymore, right? And so many writers and scholars have rich commentaries on this sort of slippery notion of home. So what I'm trying to do is not sort of say that there is a home, but I am trying to sort of think about when it is unhomely, when something becomes or is made unhomely for you, right?

So that at heart I think the question that I'm asking in this project is shouldn't it matter that if you die on soil, whether that's yours or somebody else's, in terms of territory or a nation-state boundary, the fact that you die, shouldn't that-- isn't there a relationship with soil and place at that moment? Right? Shouldn't that matter? Shouldn't that carry some weight, some significance?

That the deaths that are taking place on the Southwestern border, they're not taking place because they have to. They are taking place because water is being taken away from there, because the border security has been tightened so much that it is pushing people to these increasingly perilous routes. So that's a manufacturing of it, right?

And the fact that people are dying, shouldn't that make a difference in terms of how we think about citizenship and belonging and who has relationship to this soil and land? So thank you. But yeah, so just sort of responding to some, I think, really interesting questions that you're raising or comments that you're providing.

Thank you so much for your talk. My name's Kelsey. I'm a student here as well. So last night, I couldn't sleep, and so I was watching old episodes of Vice News from earlier in the month. And one of the stories they were talking about was this group of archaeologists who are in South Korea right now, trying to find the remains of soldiers who went missing in action during the Korean War.

And there's also a huge effort, according to the story, on sort of the South Korean side to also locate some of these remains. And looking at these photos and thinking about the power differential between when it's sort of an empire is sending its soldiers out and then trying to seek these remains versus this group of people who are experiencing maybe the opposite of that sense of power and relationship.

I'm curious how these relationships of power are sort of impacting the ways that their relationship to the place, how that may be affecting this particular form of cremation or death right in Vancouver. Let me say more, because I think I'm--

You lost me a little bit, sorry.

Yeah, so the question is about how-- well, I guess it's maybe two questions. So one is about the relationship to home and whether, in your research, you come across what these folks' nonimmigrant relatives, what their relationship to their deceased relatives' cremation in another country, what that means for them.

And the other is about how because these folks operate in the margins, how that place in the society shapes their relationship to cremation and commemorating their deceased, in contrast to what's seen as like so soldiers are treated as these folks who are heroes, and their deaths are incredibly significant to the nation and to the community. And so this is a group of people occupying different power positions. I hope that makes sense.

I think so. I think if I can re-frame it, I think you're asking me about what is that relationship in terms of death and community, as far as sort of back in Punjab, let's say, versus what is happening on this soil, and given the sort of the potential significance of what happens in North America, since it is out of place, in a sense, in a way, like the South Korean context.

And I think maybe I can take the second question first is that the part of what happens right from this story onwards, and this is coming from the Victoria Daily Colonist, is that a bone or some remains are actually-- most of them are scattered or buried or whatever it happens to them, but at least some part of it is actually retained so that it could be sent back to India so that there is this sort of impulse towards repatriation in a way that even though the death has occurred here and the cremation is going-- all of that.

So I think that opens that up. And I was talking to a funeral director, who was just saying broadly in terms of migrants how on virtually on a daily basis, she's shipping bodies back home. Not just to South Asia, but any number of places. Malaysia, just any number of migrants whose who would like to-- where the bodies or the loved ones are making sure that happens.

So I'm wondering if that sort of begins to get at that, in terms of that impulse to recover, the impulse to reconnect, the impulse to have death be connected to soil and homeland, right? And which is really the framework that is operating within the Indian context, but there's a lot of internal migration also going on, right?

So this kind of unhomeliness of death is a much larger story that exists outside of the nation-state as well. Do you know what I mean? Like it's not just about international, but it's also about the intra-national, so there is a lot of mig-- so.

Well, I'll ask a question, if I have lots of them. And I do want to later talk with you about the photographs. And maybe you'd like to say something about this. I'm sure you've looked at them much more closely than you've been able to tell us. It appears to me that the photographs are not from the same location, that they are, if we look at the trees in the background, that they're taken from a different vantage.

Oh, right, exactly. Yeah.

So that there wouldn't have been the same-- it's not that necessarily that the people left, but that we're looking--

That's a very good point.

--at a different group of people. But I also want to know a lot more about the wood, and which relates to the question I was going to raise here about religious authority. And this kind of builds on the question about economics. Who guided what happened here? Building a funeral pyre is no-- well, to me, it doesn't seem obvious how to do that and how to do it correctly. And how long does it take to burn a body? And how do you know if you have enough wood, and who is going to stay there to make sure that this happens?

So I'm wondering, in this group of migrant laborers, did they feel that religious authority or is there someone in that group who was able to exercise that?

So in the larger-- I think those are really interesting questions. And in the larger area, within I think after-- this is 1907. By 1908, the first sort of the beginnings, the foundations of the first Sikh temple were laid. And it was, they had the holy book of Sikhism, and they actually rented a room, because it's not, it has sort of it-- it has a place of respect and deference.

So they were actually able to rent a room and place the holy book there. And then soon, once they had, by 1912, they had erected the first formal temple and started to get-- started to get some people who were knowledgeable about Sikhism, who could sort of-- the [NON-ENGLISH], the priests, to kind of direct this.

But more specifically, at this time, I think what's happening is collect-- and again, these are 40 of them. So the chances that they had somebody who knew a lot about religion or is a [NON-ENGLISH] in the sense of being a priest, I mean, it's possible. But perhaps not likely. So I think what's happening is the collective memory that is filling in the gap.

And also Sikhism in that sense is, as a more recent religion, and certainly there are like various aspects to it. But it's coded. It's documented in a way, right? The textual sources are there, and there are some-- they vary. But between the gurus-- there are 10 gurus in Sikhism. But the guru is the first one, and then a later guru [INAUDIBLE]. They are talking about funerals.

So it's in the text and sort of the guidelines for it. The [NON-ENGLISH], the one that I was referencing, comes up in 1950. So they wouldn't have had that, but they may have had a previous version of it that gave them some idea about what to do. But I think the sort of the physicality, the logistics of it, is happening through collective memory, in terms of what it takes for a body to burn, because it's actually not that easy to burn a body, to burn it completely, to burn it properly, to make sure that the fire remains controlled.

There's a whole sort of-- going back to Casey's point, there's a whole technology to it. So I think that that's what's happening. But those are really interesting questions.

Thank you so much.

Thank you. You all stayed! Thank you very much.

Thank you so much.