Many power outages, lost drafts, plane rides, and intermittent attempts at sleep later, I’m slowly moving back into life at home. Kathmandu was an amazing adventure, and two experiences in particular will long leave an impression on me, and, I expect, others in my group.
The first is our visit a few days into the trip to Pashupati Temple, a sacred temple on the Baghmati River where Hindu funerals regularly take place.
After strolling through the temple grounds, we arrived to a hospice facility situated along the water. There, I met a family huddled around the patriarch of the family, a 78-year-old man suffering from cancer. Unlike the scenes of the dying I’ve witnessed (and been encouraged to embrace) in the US, this gathering was quite different.
In Nepal, a long life is measured by an expected life span that is far shorter than we more advantaged Westerners might anticipate. Upon reaching his sixties, this man was considered to have experienced a full and fortunate life. When the man was diagnosed with cancer, the family knew that he would live as long as he could at home and then be moved to the hospice where he would wait for death. His illness would not be a financial burden to the rest of his family, and his final gesture in life would be to give back to those who now surrounded him in the hospice.
I didn’t know what the man’s name was or even what kind of cancer he had, but as I paused to thank one of his sons on my way out of the facility for allowing a small enclave of Westerners to observe their close-knit family from afar, the man gestured for me to stand alongside him and other members of the clan.
He gently guided my hand to the father’s hand, shrunken and cold. Though the son conversed in Nepali, his expression and nods towards his father’s protruding ribs that lifted slightly with each breath conveyed enough of the story for me to understand the pain and suffering that had been and continued to be endured.
As I left the facility, two funerals were underway. Just steps from the hospice, I focused on a pyre being prepared for one of the bodies.
Our group decided to cross the bridge to observe the first funeral from the other side of the Baghmati. Perched high on a series of steps, we watched as the body, wrapped in ritualistic orange and yellow garments, was carried first to a smaller, sloping concrete slab and laid down gently with the deceased’s feet dangling in the water.
The family of the woman, and a priest, participated in a series of rites. Each member approached the body, poured water into the deceased’s mouth, and placed coins on the woman’s eyelides. The face of the woman was uncovered only at this time; otherwise, her entire body remained wrapped.
Then, the body was lifted onto a higher platform. There, the woman was covered in a white cloth and several layers of straw and branches. After discreetly removing the woman’s worldly clothing, the men who carried her body placed the woman on top of the pyre.
More offerings and circling of the body occured. The fire was started, and the family swiftly moved away. The family member they knew was gone. She had entered another realm the moment she took her last breath.
I was struck by the passion and rawness of what I had observed. Life and death situated, literally, side by side. Patients in the hospice and their families could peer outside the window at any time and see the funerals taking place below.
Family members openly grieving, wails audible from the other side of the river. Family members willing to leave behind the earthly body of a loved one, accepting the rapidity with which we all leave this world and enter another.