Photos via the BBC
In the remote, flood ravaged region of Bihar, India, a scarcity of trees has led the local people to adopt an alternative to traditional cremations. They've begun using cow dung in the burial ritual instead--a move that saves an entire tree for every ceremony. Strange as it may seem, the people in Bihar have no aversion to cremating their dead with cow dung--it's entirely socially acceptable, rapidly growing as a practice, and is now done by 40% of the population. And it's one of the oddest and best conservation stories to emerge in some time.
The Bihar region, known for its famed mango trees, is also subject to harsh flooding--it regularly loses entire orchards to storms. And since it's so sparsely forested--only 7%, according to the BBC--access to trees is increasingly restricted as the population grows.
The Bihar have traditionally used only the wood of these mango trees in funeral fires to cremate their dead. But this ritual consumes an entire mango tree, and with their numbers dwindling, the people in Bihar looked for an alternative. Enter the cow poop.
Using cow dung for fuel because it's plentiful, economical, easy to co-opt into the ceremony, and is perfectly acceptable as a sacred element in the rite. The feces are dried and fashioned into a long, rod-shaped cake that resembles a wooden log. The cakes are then arranged in three tiers that create a sort of scaffolding pattern and set into a pit that's been previously dug out. The body is placed directly on the structure, and the cremation rite takes place.
And though the concept of being cremated on dried cow feces will certainly strike many as unseemly, it's important to note two things. First, that cows are considered sacred in India, and that it's in no way undignified to receive such a burial. Secondly, that these people have gone to great lengths to change their practices to conserve their environment with innovation--which surely required some dedication and perseverance. The people in Bihar should be applauded.