A Nepalese Funeral, A Public Cremation, and Sharing a Stranger’s Grief

1 May

Kathmandu  Outdoor CremationIn 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.

Outdoor Funeral in Kathmandu, Nepal

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.

Preparing a body for cremation in Kathmandu

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.

Grieving son shaving his head while parent is cremated

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.

Cremation site Pashupatinath

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.

Check out other travel blogs on delicious baby, budget traveler’s sandbox, and R we there yet mom.

Family Travel Friday


27 Responses to “A Nepalese Funeral, A Public Cremation, and Sharing a Stranger’s Grief”

  1. Kathy Ver Eecke (@WorkingForWonka) May 1, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    Oh my goodness. That is unbelievable. From beginning to end.

    How do the ashes get from the cement pillar down to the water? Are they carried there by family members, or do they just eventually blow into the water?

  2. Jenna May 1, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    What a stirring account. Your best writing to date. So much left unsaid which provokes amazing thought.

    In this life, we are judged by how we handle change. Every moment of every day brings a change to conquer. The only thing in life that doesn’t change is death. So, how inept are contemporary Americans at grieving loss and facing the un-changeable reality of death? It takes my breath away every single time.

    Your writing took my breath away. Well done.

  3. redeyefamily May 1, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    There are people who sweep the ashes into the water. I assume that they are paid for providing their services, but I’m not sure. In the first picture, you may be able to see them wading in the river.

  4. redeyefamily May 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    Thank you, Jenna. Change is difficult and death is hard to face. You said it beautifully.

  5. Jessica May 4, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    What an amazing telling! It is so jarring to my sense of how death is handled in America, but maybe this way is better-healthier. i have a feeling i will be thinking about this all day, I can only imagine it will be a part of your memories always. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Lisa May 4, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    What an incredible thought-provoking experience – I can understand why it hasn’t left your mind. My kids are considerably older than yours (15 and 8) and I’m not sure that they would have handled seeing a public cremation very well – probably because our society shields children so much from the reality of death. I expect that people raised in cultures that are more open with their death rituals deal with their grief much better than we do.

  7. Sonja May 4, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    Wow. Very interesting post and interesting experience. Wonder how my children would have reacted.

  8. redeyefamily May 4, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Thank you. You said it well. It was jarring. I, too, can’t stop thinking about it.

  9. redeyefamily May 4, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    That was my thought exactly. I think that by getting it out in the open, and letting others see it,it has to be healthier in the long run. It was a shock to see it, but I think that if we had known about it, we may not have gone. Just like you said, we had no idea how our children would react. We’ve tried to shield them from certain things, like we didn’t go to see things pertaining to the killing fields in Cambodia, but strangely enough, death comes to find you, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

  10. redeyefamily May 4, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    Thank you Sonja. It’s kind of strange because I keep thinking about it, but neither of the children have mentioned it since. And, I don’t think it even fazed my son. He didn’t even ask one question. But then again, there were cows walking all around us, and I think he was more interested in them. But who knows?

  11. Mary @ The World Is A Book May 5, 2012 at 2:56 am #

    This is such an interesting post that has given me chills. What a profound experience for your whole family. I can certainly understand why Westerners would be shocked with this whole ritual yet cannot look away. I will surely remember your post for awhile too.

  12. redeyefamily May 5, 2012 at 8:04 am #

    Thank you Mary. I’m glad you could experience this with me.

  13. InACents.com May 7, 2012 at 9:14 pm #

    I’m pretty open minded too, but I’m not sure I could stomach such an open display of human sacrifice.

  14. redeyefamily May 7, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    I understand what you mean. It didn’t really hit me emotionally until later, though. I think I was more concerned about what to tell the kids, so I felt I couldn’t react too much at the time.

  15. customtripplanning May 10, 2012 at 6:45 am #

    Thank you for sharing this. It shows, in a very profound way, that there are many cultures…many ways to live life. Also shows that no matter the differences between us, we all share certain inevitable events. Dealing with the death of a loved one is universal and perhaps there is much to be considered here that can be adapted to our own mourning process.

  16. redeyefamily May 10, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    I have learned a lot from people in other cultures. I appreciate people’s willingness to share a part of themselves with complete strangers.

  17. Theresa June 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

    Very interesting. Especially since it seems that it all happens so fast. I always thought with cremation here in the US, that there were bones afterwards that still needed to be ground? Is everything burned completely to ashes?

    I like that the son shaves his head afterwards. I have often thought we need a way to show each other that we are in mourning.

    Have your children been to a funeral before? Were they able to compare?

  18. redeyefamily June 22, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Those are some good questions. I’m not sure about the bones, but I didn’t see anything on any of the other pillars. Perhaps there are some bones that survive. I think that anything that is left is simply swept off into the river.

    The kids have never been to a funeral before, so they weren’t really sure what was going on. When my father died, we had a babysitter stay with them during the funeral. As I’ve said, I’m glad I didn’t really understand what we were going to see. Otherwise I would have tried to shield them from it and we would have skipped it altogether.

  19. Molly July 2, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    I’ve been there – years and years ago pre-child – and your photographs are bringing back such cool memories, really great shots. Found your blog through sixsuitcasetravel.com Family Blog Hop. Best, Molly

  20. redeyefamily July 2, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Thanks Molly. I’d love to hear about your experience there. It’s a very interesting place, isn’t it?

  21. NewLifeOnTheRoad (@NewLifeOnRoad) July 29, 2012 at 7:10 am #

    I think its a beautiful way to say goodbye to a loved one! At in the open air, and into the river the ashes flow. Its almost like a celebration of the loved ones life. And yes you are spot on, we dont talk about death in our society, nor do we say goodbye with such tradition. I guess telling kids would be hard, but maybe it would make more sense to see the public cremation than a funeral where everything is done behind the scenes and there is not much to explain?
    I love the idea of bells sounding and people being together. Even the shaving of the head is a wonderful tradition to have for family members ~ showing love, respect and honour in a beautiful way. I was reading and wondering about the smell, until you said it smells like wood. Happy about that!

  22. redeyefamily July 30, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    During these funerals, I was completely awed by the expression of love and grief. No matter what culture we come from, we seek to honor our loved ones. And the Nepalese do it very well.

  23. Laurence Kerr October 19, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    Hello, I’m with the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, operating out of Los Angeles County, and we have an annual Grief Conference (more info at ican4kids.org). I was wondering if I could get your permission to use some of these pictures in our Conference Registration Booklet and maybe program.

  24. Bangaru Thalli November 30, 2012 at 12:41 am #

    In the Hindu belief, the body is considered as a temporary abode to the soul inside. Once the soul has departed out of the body – we give back the body to the Elements. Fire is considered as the ultimate purifier and the agent that gives the body back to the elements. It is common knowledge that the body feels no pain after the soul has departed. I am a Hindu. My grand mother just passed away, and I am far away from my family. I know these rituals and beliefs in theory, unfortunately I am not with my family to share their grief. Actually, the thought of keeping the body around, even if buried is unimaginable to me. Once I die and I don’t need my body anymore, I would absolutely want my body to be disposed off.

  25. redeyefamily December 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. I’m sure it’s hard being so far away from your family during this time. Even though we know that your grandmother isn’t in pain or suffering, it’s still sad because youl’ll miss her. You and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers during this time.

  26. redeyefamily December 10, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Hi Laurence,

    I would be happy for you to use the photos. You can contact me at redeye dot family at yahoo dot com for any additional information or help. Thanks for asking! Amy

  27. swami samarpan July 8, 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    dear friend, you are blessed to get a time and to observe life more closely …Certainly death is an inevitable in life, and only few of us has an awareness of it, Please for your better experience explore Osho, Krishnamurti and dalai Lama’s Teaching on Death, and if possible come Nepal for the Practice of Meditation which really can reveal the Secret of Death!

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