A Death Affair at Pashupatinath

Pahupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Pashupatinath Temple is one of the most esteemed Hindu temples in the country of Nepal. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva, or more accurately, to Lord Pashupati who is considered to be an incarnation, or avatar, of Lord Shiva himself. The temple sits along the Bagmati River through Kathmandu, which eventually flows into the Holy Ganges. The temple itself attracts thousands of Hindus around the country and beyond, serving as a destination for several festivals as pilgrims gather to pay respect to the Shiva linga (an abstract sort of statue/idol that serves as a physical representation of Shiva). Only Hindus are allowed inside the temple itself, while non-Hindus can roam around the surrounding courtyards or take in the grand temple from surrounding terraces or from across the Bagmati.

Although the temple itself is reason enough for worshippers to gather, many elderly Hindus make the pilgrimage for a potentially more earnest occasion: to await and face their impending death.

It’s believed those that die and are cremated along the banks of the Bagmati will be reborn into a human soul or beyond. This comes from the Hindu belief in the idea of reincarnation and karma, the idea that our actions in this life serve either to our benefit or our detriment in the next life, and specifically determine how “good” or “bad” our reincarnated soul’s life may have it the next time around (it’s a lot more complicated than this, and I don’t understand A LOT of the details). “Bad” could constitute a few things but one thing that most agree on, being born human is considered a pretty good thing (say compared to being reincarnated into an animal).

So on a hot and smoggy Saturday morning, I took a walk to this special area, to bear witness to one of the most human experiences of all: death.

I reached the area and roamed the grounds, admiring the beautiful architecture of the main temple and the hoards of families in the surrounding courtyards, performing pooja (some form of worship that can be a small form of daily worship or a more elaborate temple ritual as I was seeing). Women were dressed in beautiful red saris, and the men donned their best, many with the classic Nepali topi (traditional hat worn by upper caste Nepali men). Large familial parties scattered the terraces, making offerings of flowers and food. Some families were preparing full on multi-course meals to be enjoyed there.

After a time, I made my way to the grounds entrance back across the Bagmati as I noticed a family gathered in procession towards the steps along the riverbank, near the steps of the on premise hospice. Several men were supporting what I assumed was a limp corpse shrouded by cloth. The mound was placed perpendicular to the bank and the cloth was moved aside to reveal the lifeless face of an elderly woman.

Someone gently opened the woman’s mouth and one by one each family member approached the body, cupping handfuls of the river and sprinkling water over their beloved’s body, specifically over the hands, feet, forehead, and into the mouth. I was stunned as I noticed this ritual was observed by all, even the youngest of the family members.

Once each member had payed their respects, the men began undressing the body which was still dressed in conventional clothes. They kept a light cloth over the front protecting the body from the public eye and an additional orange and red scarf was subsequently used to fully wrap the corpse, which was cautiously transferred to a bamboo stretcher, wreathes of marigolds placed neatly along the body.

The body of this woman was hoisted onto the shoulders of some of the men and a procession, led by other family members and a smaller man playing some sort of horn, moved further along the banks to the cremation platforms. A cremation worker assisted in directing the corpse to be placed onto a neatly configured pile of wood and straw. I see some of the men beginning to remove their shirts and begin to circumnavigate the body – I learned that the sons are the main ones performing the funeral rites. This lasted for at least 20 minutes until a flaming wick is handed to the men who begin lighting fire to different parts of the funeral mound, until at last, a man whom I assume to be the eldest, placed a flame into the mouth of the corpse.

The body is finally left to rest as the mound catches and the family respectfully steps away from the platform. Several ceremonial rites appear to continue. As I remain watching, the sons are brought small stools and someone starts shaving their hair off.

I have only experienced a few close deaths in my life, all before the age of 14. I remember my Abuela Silvia’s most vividly – I think I was 8 or 9. We had come down from Wisconsin to Miami and I remember being asked if I wanted to go to the hospital to say my final goodbye.

I chose not to go. I didn’t want to watch someone I loved so dearly leave this world, preferring instead to stay at Abuela Aimee’s crying as I waited. I remember Papa J arriving afterwards to pick me up. Abuela Aimee prepared him lunch and I watched confused as he silently sat on the terrace that sunny afternoon. He seemed so calm and I have a foggy memory of confronting him, angry that he wasn’t crying for his mom. This man cries over chick-flicks, why was he so in control?

As an adult, I can look back on that time and I’m pretty certain Papa grieved and I would assume cried a good bit before he’d arrived to get me that afternoon or in the weeks prior and after, but in all honesty, I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about it.

I cried non-stop at the funeral.

There was so much about watching the whole process of death at Pashupatinath that I did not understand, but what struck me the most was how comfortable the family appeared in the presence of death. In the west, or at least in the States, it feels like we are so removed from the actual process of death. We may sometimes have the experience of watching it happen, waiting in the hospital as life slowly slips away from our loved ones, but after that, someone totally unknown to us, takes over. An embalmer prepares the body and then we pay funeral homes to arrange for the body to be cremated or to be placed in a casket, random men carry the casket into a hearse, dig the grave and bury the body. An open casket isn’t uncommon, but I’m sure I’m not alone in having before had the thought of “Is it going to be on display..?” We stay as removed as we can, mourning such an unfathomable event, ignoring the fact that literally every single one of us must one day face the same fate.

No one at either of the ceremonies I watched in Pashupatinath was crying from what I could see. They were definitely solemn and respectful, but death seemed to be something they were culturally more resilient towards. The only explanation my brain can find being that maybe it’s easier to accept death if you believe we have infinitely more lives to live, versus a coin flip at eternal life in heaven or hell.

Regardless, it was incredible to watch death being embraced in such a way. There was no pretending it wasn’t happening or holding it at arms length, each family member had to literally touch it. It was done in the presence of the public, no less real or part of every day life than the hubbub of the city right beyond the ground walls.

Although death is still something I haven’t fully accepted and I certainly still found myself wiping tears from my cheeks as this old woman’s life slowly turned to ash, watching the whole process made it seem less abstract, a little less scary, and a lot more beautiful…

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