Located on the banks of the Bagmati River just outside Kathmandu, the Temple of Pashupatinath is one of the most important Hindu temples of Lord Shiva in the world. While Hindus often come here on pilgrimage, most westerners visit for a chance to witness the open air cremation ceremonies. It might seem a bit macabre to want to watch people cremate their family members, but watching one of these ceremonies is an interesting cultural experience. Visitors watch the ceremonies from across the river and do not interfere with the processes.
We arrived to the riverbank just in time to witness one of the more elaborate ceremonies of the day. In this case, the deceased was someone of wealth or importance and was given a prime cremation spot right on the riverfront. People of lesser wealth are cremated in one of the many other simpler sites nearby.
As they arrive, family members carry the body, draped in flowers and wrapped in fabric, on a type of stretcher into the temple and down to the riverbank. Here they wash the body’s feet and head in the holy river water and take turns sprinkling water and flowers on the body to pay their last respects.
Watching this process highlighted for me how distant our culture is from the process of death. The family members appeared to have no trouble handling and being near the dead bodies of their loved ones. In our culture it is rare for us to see a dead body, let alone handle one (unless you work in a certain profession where this is part of your job), and we outsource the tasks of cremation and burial so that we do not have to witness them firsthand.
Once the blessings are finished, they carry the body down the river to a cremation spot that has been prepared in advance.
More blessings and flowers are placed with the body before it is situated on the pire and the fire is lit. Once the fire is lit, two men tend to the process for several hours until it is complete. Many people seated on the steps continued to watch the fire burn as they mourned together.
I can’t say that watching this ritual convinced me that I would want to attend open air cremations for my own loved ones, but it was fascinating to see how different the Hindu tradition is from our own. While I know some people find the idea disturbing, a certain sense of closure must come from watching the body burn before your eyes.