A Cremation in Kathmandu, Nepal
This is the closest I've ever been to a dead body, I thought as I sat on a bench on the banks of the Bagmati, a holy river near Kathmandu which, like the Ganges in Varanasi, is a popular place for cremations. Swathed in a white sheet with a square of golden cloth covering its head and shoulders, a corpse lay atop a stretcher on the ground less than seven yards from my feet.
Unlike the other cremations taking place on the ghats, which drew large groups of family and friends, just three men were gathered for this funeral; they sat on a bench directly next to mine. Surprisingly, one of them turned and hit me up with the old "Hello, where are you from?" bit. From the beginning, though, it was clear that the guy was after nothing more than a chat.
"So many people miss the purpose of life," he said. "They seek material things: gold, cars, money, houses. But these things don't bring satisfaction. The Buddha said, 'Satisfaction is not certain, but death is certain.'" Rawal nodded toward the corpse. "My friend didn't know what was important in life. He was just about to turn thirty."
"That's my age," I interrupted.
"Mine too," Rawal said. He carried on: "He lost his mind over a woman, and it consumed him. First he began to drink. A little, then a lot. Then he began to use drugs." Rawal pantomimed a syringe against his forearm. "His family disowned him. He slept on the street. He was a burden on society."
A Hindu who quoted Buddha and the Bible, Rawal went on to assert his belief in a single God that different religions call by various names.
"Although we have different skin colors and different religions… Although you call yourself an American and I call myself a Nepali, our blood is still red, we're all the same underneath. We…"
Rawal's friends interrupted him. It was time to prepare the body.
I asked Rawal if he'd like me to leave. "No," he replied. "Stay if you like."
The three friends unwrapped the white sheet that covered the body. Inside, the naked corpse was encased in a sheet of thick clear plastic. The friends opened the plastic and set about rubbing the body with a mixture of powder and water drawn from the holy river.
The frail brown body was malleable, and the friends manipulated it gently, moistening every bit of skin with their bare hands. The dead man's flesh hung loosely upon his small frame. A stitched-up seam ran the vertical length of his chest; there had been an autopsy. I glimpsed the lines of a crude tattoo on his right shoulder.
Somehow, that tattoo was the saddest thing I'd ever seen.
The three friends set about their work with grave expressions, but nobody wept. They handled the corpse with tenderness and also a sort of nonchalance. Rawal's brother uncovered the head and carefully massaged the powder and water onto his deceased friend's face.
Preparations complete, the men rewrapped the body in the white sheet and carried it on the stretcher to the waiting funeral pyre. They made three clockwise revolutions around the pile of logs before placing their friend atop. The nephew took a torch from a fire burning nearby and made several circumambulations around the corpse.
Thick yellow smoke poured off the pyre as the flames gained momentum. The friends stepped back and watched as a man who worked at the ghats shoved smaller sticks into strategic locations.
Rawal returned to his seat on the bench and watched the pyre burn. "Now we wait for three hours," he told me. His face was expressionless as he looked toward the fire.
"Are you feeling sad?" I asked after a short while.
"A little," he replied. "He was a bad man, and he caused many people pain. But it's still sad to see someone go. Especially after all the little dramas."
Looking at me, Rawal motioned with his head toward the clear afternoon sky and said, "Now, for him, comes the greatest drama of them all."
Posted on May
12, 2003 04:59 AM