Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

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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.

Head Constable Shankar Rawal
His name was Shankar Rawal, Head Constable for the Kathmandu Police. He had spiky black hair, a thick moustache, and was dressed in a black and maroon tracksuit. He'd come with his brother and nephew to cremate a friend. Clearly in a reflective mood, Rawal quickly dispensed with surface banter.

"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.

Cremation Ghats on the Bagmati
As the sheet caught fire, Rawal laid loose bundles of thatch atop the pyre. The thatch fueled the blaze and obscured the body's form once the sheet burned away.

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


Comments (post your own below)

A very evocative piece, Mike. And a very special moment for me as a reader. Thank you.

Posted by: Meng-hu on May 12, 2003 10:12 AM

Wow, this is a very harrowing account. Did they not say anything about you taking photos of the funeral pyre? I thought that was extremely taboo.

Posted by: Todd Adams on May 12, 2003 12:13 PM

Mike, sua jornada me inspira a cada dia. Estas esperiencia com o corpo em cremação, é bem estranha. Interessante eles terem deixado vc tirar fotos.

Rezo para que Deus ilumine sua mente e continue sua fantastica viajem. Não se esqueça do Brasil.

Arley - Brasil - Rio de Janeiro

Posted by: Arley on May 12, 2003 06:40 PM

Powerful stuff! Both the writing and the video experiences display the magic of your travels.

Keep on living and sharing as we all enjoy the fruits of your hard work.

Posted by: Dave Wente on May 12, 2003 11:06 PM

Very moving, Mike.
It was inspiring to talk to you yesterday. Hope Asia treated you well and hope to meet you in real time in a real place sometime.

Posted by: Bijoy on May 13, 2003 05:06 AM


I like the angle you chose on this story: stoic and investigative, yet still sombre and respectful. The folks back at UM would be proud of some pretty fantastic journalism.

Posted by: craig lycke on May 13, 2003 07:21 AM

Another great entry my friend! I anxiously await your Egyptian adventures. You may have to step up the posting as you explore the kingdom of the Nile. The hungry viewer in me has no patience!

swamphawks ho!!!

Posted by: Chad on May 15, 2003 12:31 PM

Very moving. Interesting to see another culture's view on life and death. This is something I would not be able to stand and witness, so thank you again for sharing your travels with us.

Happy Trails!

Posted by: Jen B on May 16, 2003 08:57 AM

im with chad. must have more updates.

Posted by: craig lycke on May 16, 2003 01:53 PM

Thank You. The most spiritually profound and sound thing I have read in years.

Posted by: luckythirteenxxx on May 19, 2003 10:25 AM

Heya Mike,

Great piece. Shankar's acceptance and immediate candor with you during a very sacred time in life is riveting. It is ironic how some people regardless of race or culture can read people right away and immediately connect or dis-connect.

Posted by: Ricky Pierson on June 9, 2003 04:19 PM

Shankar Rawal, Head Constable for the Kathmandu Police, unexpected humanity of and from a cop was touching towards an abandoned human.

Surprised that "karma" and "rebirth" did not come up during the discourse.

Posted by: Upendra on June 12, 2003 05:29 PM

What a great story. Good luck with your travels.

Posted by: Tracey on June 13, 2003 12:18 PM

This was fascinating for me to see because I was at this same place several years ago when I visited Nepal. The thing that made me sad was not so much the body burning, but that when it was all done the body (ashes that were left) was dumped into the river. Just a short ways downstream were mothers and children in the same water. Small children were playing in the water while their moms washed the clothing. It made me sad to think of how easily disease must spread this way, etc. The children of Nepal are so beautiful. Okay, I'll go away now :).

Posted by: tns on June 16, 2003 03:26 PM

Grow, grow for us in spirit and understanding and continue sharing life with your fellow travelers on this spaceship called Earth.

We have begun a journey into the stars while not yet fully understanding the paths on our planet. You have been chosen by destiny to help us learn...

May Truth, Justice, Equality and Love be always near your heart.

I travel with you, if but in spirit.
Armando Barreiro
"No birth is an accident,
No experience is without meaning,
And no life is without value."
--Gary Zukav

Posted by: Armando Barreiro on June 17, 2003 07:41 AM

A sensitive and well handled account Mike. As a Intensive Care Nurse i handle the dead frequently and dont think much about it these days although each time brings its own little ceremonies. Your story reminds me of the importance of celebrating the life of the individual which the body as a vehicle contains. Whatever happens before or after is a mystery whereas the time you get here is the only thing you can be truely certain of. Ashes to ashes...

Posted by: Andrew Di Donna on July 15, 2003 08:11 AM

Comments closed.


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