Shetal, a 40-something businesswoman in Mumbai, has an abstract tattoo of a mother and child on her arm. “Look closely, you can watch my pulse near my son’s head,” she says. This is not a regular tattoo. It is in memory of her 24-year-old son, Karan, who died in a bike accident in early 2016. There is perhaps no greater grief in the world than a parent losing their child. It was no different for Shetal. People have different ways of dealing with loss; to hold and honour the memory of their dear departed.
For Shetal, it was a tattoo. Two months after Karan’s death, she decided to get a tat in her son’s memory. One different from the others on her skin. She went to her long-time tat artist, Arun Ronald Alva of Al’s Tattoo Studio in Bandra, Mumbai, and requested a cremation tattoo. Cremation tattoos are memorials of a special kind. A bereaved person requests the tat maker to add a very small portion of the deceased’s ashes to the ink. When the design is finally engraved, skin becomes a living memorial by literally incorporating a loved one’s mortal remains into the survivor’s body.
To make the tattoo, a tiny amount of funerary ash is mixed with the tattoo ink, after it is baked at extremely high temperatures to kill infection. The mixture is thoroughly crushed into the finest of powders to get an even combo. In the UK, companies like Engrave Ink create the mixture in special high-tech labs. They have clients the world over and adopt stringent tracking systems.
The recently-released film Game Over has used memorial ink in its storyline, where the inks are switched by mistake. However, in real life, extreme care is taken since such cases are both rare and sensitive. In his 22-year-long career as a tattoo artist, Alva has received only 10 such requests. “Hygiene and safety factors have to be taken into consideration while inking cremation tattoos; which is why we don’t do it often. Especially in India, where there are no mandatory licences, inspections and safety protocols in the tattoo industry, one must proceed with extreme care,” says Alva.
Tattoo artist Aditya Panchu of Hart Tattoos, Chembur, Mumbai is sceptical of the practice. He says, “I understand that for some people, such tattoos go beyond just creating a design on their skin. But many times, feelings become irrelevant in practical matters. There are hygiene and safety issues to consider.”
Panchu and Alva are right to be cautious because client safety ought to be the first priority in an industry that is viewed suspiciously by many. Religious notions, superstition and ideas surrounding purity and pollution in the case of death add a thicker layer of complexity to memorial tattoos.
Energy healer and therapist, Shilpa Sawant from Pune differs. “Memorial tattoos could help a grieving person in the initial stages of healing to cope with loss. Death is the end of physical presence on earth—dehaant. These tattoos can reduce the intensity of the loss, since they are the literal remains of lost existence. They acts as palliatives when the ones left behind are at most vulnerable,”she says.
Bengaluru-based psychotherapist Dr Ritesh Reddy agrees with her, “Getting such a tattoo as a coping strategy can aid a survivor to heal. Even the physical pain of the needle puncturing the skin could distract them from mental agony. It may even be a cathartic experience, provided it is a properly guided process. However, the placebo effect of the remains of a dear departed remaining in with them for the rest of their lives or rather inside them is unlikely to make much difference. Contemplative exercises, however, could be more effective in the long run to deal with grief and heal.”
Memorial tattoos are deeply personal, emotional and profoundly symbolic statements. “His soul is with me, but I also wanted his physical form to be inside me like when I was pregnant with him. I wanted his physical part also to stay safe with me,” says Shetal. The karma of grief finds unusual ways to immortalise loss and escape pain.