Wednesday, March 04, 2015

A Cremation in Nepal

Note: Some of these pictures might be difficult to view and it might seem intrusive of us to have taken them. However, the attitude toward death and cremation is very different from ours in the west and photography of the cremations is not discouraged. 

In Kathmandu, we were taken to a cremation ceremony at the Pashupatinath Temple on the Bagmati river which eventually flows into the Holy Ganges. The temple complex is the holiest place in Nepal for Hindus. On the day we visited, the Teej festival (women's festival) was winding up and the grounds were teeming with women beautifully dressed and celebrating the occasion. The contrast between the vividly dressed, beautiful women, so intensely alive, and the cremations taking place just a few yards away was startling.

Cremations are performed in public and in Kathmandu have become a kind of tourist attraction. Tourists arrive by the busload, file into the seats and watch the proceedings from  across the river from the site of the actual cremations. Nobody seems to be offended or disturbed by this's simply accepted as a fact of life. 

The guide let us off at a gate, beyond which we had to navigate past kiosk after kiosk where Hindu religious items, small packages of pigments and various kinds of prayer beads were sold. We didn't see anyone using pigments, but I've since read that they are sometimes sprinkled on the corpse before burning. Holy men or fake Holy men, depending on whom you ask, hang out around these sites begging or offering themselves up for photos at a price and cadging handouts. 

The real holy men are known as Saddhus, and they are ascetics devoted to one God or one form of God. They take a vow that includes not having a family or home, not working for money and not sleeping in one specific place for more than three days. Revered for their holiness they're also feared for their curses. Despite their often bizarre appearance, they don't get a second look from locals - they are an accepted part of daily life and admired for the prayers they offer up for the good of all mankind. They use a lot of pigment on their bodies. 

In Nepal, a person is cremated as quickly as possible, often within minutes of death. On the temple grounds, there's a hospice and a nursing home where elderly people are nearing death and are moved after dying onto the river bank. On any given day, the body will likely wait in a line of others bodies waiting for cremation. The place is busy day and night - about 50 cremations a day take place. 
Bodies being washed on the ghats. 

We saw a young man being cremated. He must have died in an accident as we could see evidence of trauma to his face. It's likely he was brought directly to the cremation site. His family was extremely distressed and were still reeling at the news of the death. It was brutal to watch them. The sight of their suffering filled me with sadness and empathy for the mourners. It brought back to in a unexpected rush, the same grief I'd experienced when my family members died. 

The body was arranged on the ghats (stairs), wrapped in an orange cloth, washed in the holy water from the river, and sprinkled with marigold petals and garlands. In most instances, the head of the deceased is this case it was not. Also the head of the chief mourner, generally the oldest or closest male relative is also shaved. Ghee was sprinkled in the mouth of the deceased. Holy water was scooped up in plastic bottles and sprinkled on the heads of the mourners as well as on the body. The river water is very polluted - mourners no longer get into the water, as they used to.

Bodies are washed on the stairs, sprinkled with flowers and carried to a bier for burning.

After this ritual, the body was carried to a pillar for burning where it was laid over a layer of wood. Another layer of wood was placed on top, and finally straw was scattered over the top. The closest male relative walked around the corpse on the bier three times. Then he lit the fire. People milled about, some crying; some consoling the others. 
Getting the fire going.
Monkeys in gangs roamed around scavenging food from the tourists and food left as offerings by the mourners.

We thought it was odd that small boys were playing in the water so near the cremation site. Turns out they are scavengers too, diving to the river bottom (despite the pollution) trolling for valuables from the bodies that might be overlooked and scooped out with the ashes into the river. Coins are sometimes thrown in the river as offerings and the boys use magnets on a long pole, like a fishing pole to retrieve them. Police come by from time to time and shoo the kids away but they return quickly. 

Cows wander around. 

After 4 hours and the consumption of 250 kg of wood, a body is completely burned. Daily at the cremation site they use up approximately 9000 kg. of firewood. Nepal is running out of wood and it has become very expensive, adding considerable cost to the ceremony. The air we were breathing was filled with the smoke from burning bodies; the river was sludgy from the ashes being thrown into it. 

In a few months, an electric crematorium should be completed in Kathmandu which will reduce wood consumption and pollution. Bodies will be cremated in an hour. It will probably take some time for older people to accept electric cremation over the traditional ceremony; younger people understand the benefits of modernizing the process. 

After the cremation, family members mourn for 11 days during which they are prohibited from eating certain vegetables and meat. They are only allowed to wear white clothes and must not wear anything made of leather. On the 10th day, a Hindu priest will set up a ceremony where gods and goddesses are invoked and worshiped in the name of the deceased. On the 11th day family members are allowed to return to their normal lifestyle. 

"This stark Hindu funeral and those I have seen since have deeply impressed me. Once I thought this must be a grotesque custom, but I have come to respect Hindu cremation. No body is ever taken to a sterile lab where its fluids are drained by an expert class of morticians and replaced with chemicals, nor does it lie in a commercial parlor tended by businesspeople. Their way of death is an act of family love and powerful religious ritual. The body is burned within the day of death, the soul is released to new life, and the heat by which the gods brought the universe into being is rekindled."
Carolyn Brown Heinz, Anthropology, Chico State


  1. Uhhh. Doesn't appeal to me. I'm planning on doing a wienie roast when it's my turn.

  2. This just might be the most interesting blog I've ever read! And to think - you were actually there!!!
    It almost makes me want to start traveling again. (almost!)

  3. Anonymous10:57 AM

    Really fascinating. But I wonder, if they cremate the body so fast, how does a detective or CSI person solve any crimes?