In our culture, even in this era of extreme openness, there are still some things that we keep private. Last year when my father died, I remember asking my mother if she wanted an open casket at the funeral. And while she wanted it open, there is a feeling of vulnerability when your loved one is laid out for people to see, even if those people are friends and family.
So when you see a culture that performs its funeral rituals with complete openness, it is sobering as well as shocking. I wasn’t prepared for it and that made it more unbelievable. As it stands, I’ve thought about this funeral many times since we returned from Nepal two weeks ago.
Funerals and cremations in Kathmandu are conducted outdoors in public. There are no funeral homes and the whole process doesn’t go on for days. In Nepal, your loved one is cremated within minutes after death.
When death is near, the ailing person is brought to a river, sacred to Hindus, where he is placed on a bamboo gurney. After death, the body is shrouded in an orange cloth, decorated with marigolds and carried to a concrete pillar for cremation.
Straw is placed on top of the body as friends and family stand close. Across the river, a lone trumpeter, surrounded by a company of military soldiers, plays a song. The body is set on fire. Once burning, the crowd slowly disperses.
In a Hindu ritual, a son shaves his head, honoring his parent who has just passed away. With sorrow clearly on his face, he is surrounded by friends and strangers who mourn with him.
With the wind blowing, it is impossible to avoid the smell. Strangely enough, it doesn’t smell like burning flesh, but like burning wood. In four hours, all that is left are ashes and they are swept into the river, flowing away from loved ones.
Sometimes we come across things that are difficult to explain to our children. This was hard, especially when Feisty Spice kept asking, “Whose daddy is it? What his name?” Our response, “I don’t know” wasn’t enough for her. Finally, she just stopped asking.
While traveling these last few years, there are several events that periodically occupy my thoughts. This will be one of those.
Why is it that we air dirty laundry on the internet, but when some event like death burdens us, we keep it private? By sharing our feelings openly, even with strangers, maybe our burdens could be made lighter, because it is through our emotions for family and friends that our cultural differences fade away.
You can read about Pashupatinath and other sites in Kathmandu on the UNESCO World Heritage Site webpage.