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Published: October 28th 2017
Given our always advancing ages, I would guess many (or most) of us seniors spend time thinking of death, what it will be like, what -- if anything -- happens afterwards, and pondering how does anyone actually prepare for death? I've heard that the Dalai Lama, at age 81, wakes each morning at 4AM to meditate for hours in mental preparation for death. Here in Kathmandu, Nepal, the people also focus on handling the bodily remains; with such a large and poor population in the city, having a system in place is imperative. And so as part of our tour, our group went to see the cremation ceremonies along the banks of the river Bagmati. Running below Nepal's oldest and holiest Hindu shrine, the Pashupatinath temple, the Bagmati eventually flows into the holy Ganges, carrying along the askes of millions of cremated bodies. I had wondered where this river flowed, where all the pollution and disease particles went; how people bathe in the sacred Ganges River, knowing what is in the water, is beyond my understanding. But this also is not my culture. This outdoor crematorium is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week all year, available to those who can afford the approximately $60 - 70 cost, but also for those families who cannot pay. The oldest son lights his deceased father's body; the youngest son sets the fire for his mother's. Women do not usually witness the cremation of a family member or relative, but they wash and bless and prepare the body beforehand. As we stood across the river staring down, we observed one body in the process of being cremated; we also witnessed another, including the preceding ceremony before watching one young son's starting the fire for his father's body. A sobering sight, but very well organized and respectful for all, mourners and deceased alike.
The air was filled with smoke from the cremations. There are ten platforms here, but only two were in use this morning. Small boys from nearby slums walked and splashed in the polluted river, pulling magnets on strings to try to collect coins tourists had thrown in. It was interesting to have seen this, but I was ready to leave long before we actually did, having already had intimate familiarity with experiencing a cremation very up close and quite personally, as I had met and spoken with the deceased.
When I volunteered at the AIDS orphanage in Cambodia, one year a father died while I was there. Wayne, the director of the orphanage, organized the children's and volunteers' collecting wood for the onsite crematorium, and joined the community in the wat (temple) for prayers before the cremation. Everyone who wanted, including most of the children there, witnessed and touched the body lying in its wooden box before Wayne and other men in the community lifted the coffin and pushed it into the opening of the crematorium's firebox. The dead father's young daughter witnessed it all, and after a day of burning, after the ashes and bones had cooled, she was allowed to take a piece of bone or two out of the ashes in remembrance. Death is not a stranger in Cambodia; especially with the country's quite recent history, and living at an AIDS orphanage, it is a topic frequently discussed. Death is the ultimate experience, the result of having been alive. These Asian countries handle death in a much healthier way than Westerners do, but still, who likes to dwell on it?
The rest of this day was more pleasant, visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bhaktapur, full of temples and artisans' shops. Bhaktapur is listed as one of the places to see before you die; along with our group, may other travellers were doing just that.
After these experiences, a lovely, extraordinarily scenic drive on truly terrible "roads" took us to Nagarkot, almost a mile high in altitude. We spent two nights at the Club Himalaya Nagarkot, which after all the hotels we stayed in throughout this trip became my favorite. (But of course I couldn't know that then.) Looking out the windows in my room it felt like we were nestled in clouds, such a beautiful vista overlooking the valley far below. When the sky is clear we are told that it is possible to stand on one of the terraces and see major Nepali Himalayan peaks including Mt. Everest, but that has not been our luck so far. We are simply living in beautiful clouds, high up in clear, cool air, watching for sunrises and sunsets that do not show themselves to us.
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