A Hindu Cremation in Nepal

In an ancient temple in Katmandu, the eldest son (in white head scarf) is
"waiting for the task for which he had been born: to light his fatherís
funeral fire." (photo courtesy of Donald Heinz)
Editor's Note: Anthropologist Carolyn Brown Heinz was in Nepal during the last week of a research trip to northern India, where she was researching the lives of women ascetics, when she and her husband, Donald Heinz, dean of HFA, experienced a ritual cremation. She generously agreed to share her story of the event, rare for a Western visitor.

The corpse was wrapped in a white cotton cloth overlaid in an ochre one. A garland of small white flowers stretched along the length of the body. It had been deposited at the top of the steps leading down to the Baghmati River, as if abandoned. No one seemed to be tending to it, no one sat beside it grieving, passers-by did not glance at it. A few yards away women were shampooing their hair and washing pots in the river, indifferent to its presence.

Don and I, however, were electrified. We were to leave Katmandu later in the day, and had come here several times for an opportunity to witness a cremation, but without success. There was almost always a body burning, but we never arrived in time for the ritual itself, when the chief mourner, usually the son, touches the torch to the wood as his supreme and final filial act.

We had spent the previous six weeks down on the plains of North India. I had been interviewing women ascetics at Rishikesh, a sacred city on the Ganges where the river emerges from the first range of the Himalayas. Don was finishing his book on death, The Last Passage (just published by Oxford).

Although seeing corpses being carried to cremation grounds on stretchers accompanied by the slightly frantic chant of "Ram Ram satya hai" is a common sight and sound in any town in India, actually witnessing, let alone photographing, a cremation is not easy. For me, a woman anthropologist, there are gender problems; wo-men do not go to the cremation ground. They stay at home while the men take care of this terrible but essential ritual work. Photographing a cremation is yet another problem; at Banaras no one can get anywhere near a cremation ground with a camera. But here in Katmandu we witnessed our first complete cremation, and it remains among the most moving experiences of my life.

We had stopped at Pashupatinath, an ancient temple complex in Katmandu whose principal deities are Shiva and Kali. The long stretch along the Baghmati River is devoted to cremations. A bridge divides the royal site upriver, from the commoner cremation sites downriver. The Baghmati feeds into the Ganges, which spills out into the Indian Ocean, the ultimate point of dissolution and regeneration for king and commoner alike.

It was on the downstream side of the bridge that we encountered the solitary body, wrapped and waiting for its destruction by flames. Before long, the family arrived, including the widow and daughter. The widow, newly robed in white, stood alone in front of her dead husband and wailed a long, mournful cry. Then she and her daughter were led into an alcove where they could watch and cry in private. The only son, dressed in white dhoti and head scarf and struggling to keep emotional control, awaited the task for which he had been born: to light his father's funeral fire.

The men, kinsmen and friends of the dead man, did almost all of the ritual work. They lifted the body onto a stretcher so they could purify the corpse in Ganges water. They carried it to the bier and laid the body on top, headed downstream. They opened the shroud to expose his face to the sun, also a god. Each man circumambulated the body, adding ghi [clarified butter] and sprinkling a little purifying water on the face of the corpse. The dead man's brother broke down in sobs and had to be led into the alcove with the wife and daughter. Finally the son was led forward, clutching a bundle of straw, to do pranam to his father's feet for the last time. This simple, everyday gesture of respect undid his composure. His face wet and distorted with grief, his hand full of straw shaking so badly they had trouble lighting it with the fire they brought from home, the son had to be assisted to put it to the wood. Slowly he was helped to circle the pyre, laying the flame that would burn his father's body and release his soul.

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

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