It’s Allen Ginsberg’s parinirvana today, the (eighteenth) anniversary of his passing.
Here’s Herbert Huncke, “godfather of The Beats”, on “the invisible body” – on witnessing funerals (“I’m inclined to think it was Hindu, but I’m not sure”) – burning ghats, Indian ritual (Huncke footage, courtesy documentarian, Laki Vazakas)
Here’s Allen on the burning ghats (from an interview, 1994, with Suranjan Ganguly)
SG: What was your experience of the burning ghats (of Benaras/Varanasi)?
AG: I went there several time a week and stayed there very late at night. For one thing, I was amazed at the openness of death, the visibility of death which is hidden and powdered and rouged and buried in a coffin in the West. To suggest the opposite, the openness of it is like an education which is totally different from the cultivation of the notion of the corpse as still relevant and alive and “don’t kick it over”. There they just lay it out and burn it and the family watches the dissolution, they see emptiness in front of them, the emptiness of the body in front of them. So I had the opportunity to see the inside of the human body, to see the face cracked and torn, fallen off, the brains bubbling and burning. And reading Ramakrishna at the time – the dead body is nothing but an old pillow, an empty pillow, like burning an old pillow. Nothing to be afraid of. So it removed a lot of the fear of the corpse that we have in the West. And then I saw people singing outside on Thursday nights and other nights too. That was amazing, and the noise was rousing, very loud, and I would sit around, pay attention and listen, and try and get the words . I saw lady yogis meditating in the ash pit….
SG: In the (Indian) Journals, there are so many graphic details of bodies burning – (almost) as if you were getting high on death..
AG: I don’t think I was. After all, death is half of life. I was just describing life as I saw it.”
Gelek Rinpoche, Allen’s (Tibetan) guru (and witness of his passing): “There is no question that Allen was concentrating on the Mahamudra and Vajrayogini and that is how he went. It was a very successful death. Of course, to us it is a great loss, no question about that, not just for us but for society as a whole. However for him, he began his own celebration and it really was a celebration. And I probably should not say that we are very happy, but on the other hand we all have to die and you could not have a better death than that. We all wish to continue but we cannot. I said to Allen when he gave me the news, “We always think we could go on for some more years , but look at your life, you are seventy years old and have made a tremendous contribution”…I told Allen, “I don’t think that in the (19)60’s you thought you were going to live that long”. And he said, “No, definitely not. If I had thought so, I would have taken care of myself a little better.” Then I said, “you are seventy now, and although it is not a very long life, like one-hundred-and-fifteen or so, it is also not a short life either. So it is ok.”
Rosebud Feliu-Pettet, in her moving and definitive account of Allen’s last days (of his compassion, of the bodhisattva): After being diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer the previous Friday at Beth Israel Hospital, (he) had been told he had maybe two to five months to live. When I heard the news, for some reason, I felt strongly that it would not be that long – I felt that he would go very soon. He had come back home Wednesday in good spirits, organizing things as ever, making plans for the coming days. But someone (I forget who, perhaps it was Bob Rosenthal) had said that Allen, personally, felt that he had very little time left. A month or two, he thought. So Wednesday he was busy, writing and making phone calls to his friends all over the world, saying goodbye.Amiri Baraka. said Allen called him and said,”I’m dying, do you need any money?”