If I closed my eyes and imagined myself somewhere else, it would have been in a happy place. Like, at a Memorial Day barbeque. Chris would be grilling burgers on our lanai; I would be setting out our favorite broccoli salad—the one with the raisins, red onions and bacon bits. The kids would want to open the bag of Wavy Lays and the French onion dip. “Don’t open that until dinnertime,” I would yell. I would then open it myself when the kids wandered off. I’d shove several chips in my mouth when I made sure they were out of sight.
I would have preferred to be there. Not here.
I fished the face mask out of my yak wool jacket’s pocket as soon as I began to see the wafts of smoke billowing across the path in front of me. This would be neither pleasant nor easy. I fastened the ear loops around my right ear, then my left.
I pulled the mask up and covered my mouth, then my nose. My eyes were still exposed to the air; they burned. I would later send the clothing to the laundry service at our guest house and would take a shower. The smell of burning meat permeated and lingered.
It would be more accurate, however, to say that the smell of “burning flesh” lingered.
The smell of cooked meat, the billowing smoke—it was all caused by burning bodies. It was 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. Barely 24 hours before, the bodies had been people: they had laughed; they had cried; they had probably known they were going to die. Their families had gathered around them to say their goodbyes.
It was hospice.
I am at Pashupati Nath on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, an area that consists of 518 temples and monuments. This is the biggest shrine in Hinduism. It is also one of the holiest places, where the dead are prepared for their eternal ritual. It was recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is dedicated to Pashupati, an incarnation of the Hindu god, Shiva. “Pashu” means “living beings”; “Pati” means “master.” According to maptia.com, “Pashupati is the master of all living beings in the universe.”
The grounds are crawling (literally) with monkeys. The “sadhus,” who are ascetic “holy men,” are seated around the area, covered in the ashes from the funeral pyres. They have unshaven beards and long hair. They wear orange robes; although, some are naked. Naked yoga sometimes occurs. (We did not see this when we visited.)
In Hinduism, those who are cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River and whose ashes enter the water will have their sins washed away. In turn, they will be closer to their eternal goal, which is referred to as “moksha,” “nirvana,” or “samadhi.” This goal is essentially a release from the cycle of life—of death and rebirth. All living things are trapped in this cycle, a belief that ultimately results in the caste system.
The bodies are prepared by the oldest son, who is the “lead cremator.” Before the cremation begins, he bathes himself in the river. The women step aside: they are not allowed in the area while the ceremony occurs.
The bodies are wrapped in white or red (red, if it is a woman whose husband is still alive). Water is put in the deceased’s mouth. The big toes are tied together with a string and a Tilaka (a mark on the forehead) is applied. The body is put first on a ghat near the river and is then set on the pyre with its feet facing south.
There were currently no less than six cremations happening, just across the trash-strewn “river.” At this point, in early January, the Bagmati River seemed less like a river and more like a trickle of water. (Although I grew up along the banks of the Mississippi. So, my standards of what constitute a “river” are slightly skewed.)
The water was filthy. A little girl of seven or eight had taken her shoes off and had waded into calf-deep water. Smiling, she fished something out of the water. She lifted it up triumphantly to show her brother who was kicking rocks on the riverbank. I wondered what she had found. At that age, my daughter would have collected rocks, mulch, ribbons—it didn’t take much to pique her interest.
“Look at that,” my friend Michael said as he leaned in next to me. He pointed to an active pyre. I looked just as a leg—from the knee down—tumbled out of it and onto the ground.
The man tending the pyre, perhaps the lead mourner, grabbed two sticks. He deftly picked the limb up and flipped it back into the fire. The charred foot remained visible. I wondered who this person had been — what his or her contribution had been to the world. To me, he/she would always be associated with, “that time I saw the foot fall out of the fire at Pashupati.”
The air was heavy with not only smoke and ash, but with sadness. This was a place of sorrow and of death. I could feel it; it was acute. I believe I could feel it even more so: my dad had been cremated hardly a month before on the other side of the world.
We had sat in a small room at a dark paneled wood conference table on rolling caster leather office chairs. A young woman sat in the corner. She wore foundation that was several shades too light and a dress that was at least two sizes too small. She didn’t say a word, but fetched water for us and, occasionally, documents off the printer.
The shock of his death had barely set in. Not even 48 hours before, I had rushed to the hospital as fast as I could. I didn’t make it on time. I had instinctively known this. When I had pulled over to call my mom, the hospital’s chaplain answered her phone. Never a good sign.
“Thank you for being with her,” was all I could say. Several hours later, I kissed his forehead. He looked like he was sleeping.
My brother, husband and I sat with my mother in a weird, uneasy silence across from a rotund man in a cheap suit. He was nice, straightforward, and considerate—everything you would want in a funeral director, although I had no experience with this. It had been a preneed arrangement and had been already paid for. The date on the preneed papers my mom clutched within her file said 2015.
There were, however, several choices we need to make.
“Behind you are the biodegradable urns,” the man in the cheap suit said. We all turned, as if choreographed, to look simultaneously at the selections. They were all unremarkable, I thought; as Marie Kondo would say, nothing “sparked joy.” None were remarkable enough to hold my dad—a person who was utterly remarkable in every way. Not every daughter could say that, but I could. And I still can.
They were all slightly chintzy. He would have scoffed at the choices. We chose the biodegradable urn with butterflies on it. It wasn’t really him, but it would do: It would be going into the ground, anyway…what did he care?
The man went through the charges. He fussed around with a credit that had resulted when we decided that the burial would be performed at a later date: transportation wouldn’t be needed to the cemetery.
We designed the funeral programs.
The cardboard box in which he would be cremated cost $90.
I looked across the river at the bodies covered in orange cloth and sprinkled with marigolds. We had seen strings of marigolds draped across homes, shops, gates. Here, they were laid across the bodies before they were burned. I thought they were beautiful; however, I would never look at marigolds the same way.
His forehead had been so cold when I had kissed it. I’m sure the bodies across the river from me were also cold. Although the sun was out, it was a chilly day. The families of the deceased sat huddled together by each funeral pyre. I wondered if they felt the warmth from the fire in front of them; I wondered how it felt to know that the fire’s fuel and warmth came from their loved one.
My eyes stung. I realized I was crying.