Open Air Cremation in India and Nepal
Warning: This post contains images of dead bodies (from a distance) as part of funeral rituals.
In the United States, we have a generally standard way of handling death. There’s visitation, a funeral, either burial or cremation, and perhaps a wake. I hadn’t often thought about how other cultures deal with death and dying, but had a very eye-opening and moving experience observing Hindu death ceremonies in India and Nepal.
Cremation in Varanasi
The city of Varanasi is sacred to Hindus, who make pilgrimages to bathe in the river. It’s often a life long goal to make it to Varanasi, either for an individual or for one member of the family to represent the others. There are thousands of people every day that come to the ghats, or steps at the edge of the water, to bathe.
Hindu’s believe that cremation releases the soul from the body so it can be reborn. Being cremated along the Ganges river is very sacred, and will release them from the cycle of death and rebirth so they can go to heaven. The cremations take place out in the open.
The cremation process starts as soon as possible (12 to 24 hours) after death. The eldest son carries out the funeral rites, and women are not allowed to attend because they are considered too emotional. The family members prepare the body by washing it in the Ganges and wrapping it in a shroud.
They collect wood and build a funeral pyre, placing the body inside. Once the fire is lit, it is left alone until it burns out about 4 hours later. This is enough time to cremate the body, but if there are any bone fragments left over they are thrown into the river along with the ashes.
Cremation in Kathmandu
The process for cremation is very similar for Hindus in Kathmandu.
The Pashupatinath Temple on the Bagmati river is the most holy Hindu shrine in Nepal, and also the site of an outdoor crematorium.
Here, there are platforms for the cremations to take place. The left side is for the poor people or commoners, where richer or more important people are cremated on the right side in front of the temple.
Our guide told us that this is a very sacred place for people to come to die, and that people near death are brought to one of the buildings near the cremation area because it will help them to die.
While observing from the other side of the river, we saw a man carried in on a stretcher by his family. Several minutes later, he had passed away and the family began the process of cremation.
Once the person has died, they are brought down to the water where family members wash their feet in the river.
The body is brought to the funeral pyre and laid with flowers before the fire is lit.
These ceremonies did not seem quite as sad as I would have expected based on my own personal experience with the death of loved ones. Of course, I only observed from a distance and it would have been difficult to discern emotional distress, but it did feel different. It’s special for people to be cremated in these holy places, and I felt happy for them that they were able to end their lives in a way that is so important to them.
Observing cremation in India and Nepal was a fascinating experience. I hope those I witnessed were indeed freed from the cycle of death and rebirth and are happily hanging out in Hindu heaven.