Breathing in Dead People

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Death is the only wise adviser that we have. –  Carlos Castaneda

There is no way to escape the smoke coming from the open-air funeral pyres. I lean into Erika and whisper the obvious, “We are breathing in dead people.”

She shakes her head emphatically up and down with an openness to the experience that validates my clinical curiosity. There is no sickening smell from the burning bodies as I expected. It’s the viscosity of the air, made more intense by the increasing morning humidity, that makes me gag. A sticky film settles on my exposed skin, even in the canals and folds of my ears. Holding a scarf to my face, I labor to pull enough breath through the material.

I was eighteen when I first saw a dead body. She was in her mid-sixties, laid out in the grass wearing her still-wet, skirted bathing suit as if relaxing after a swim. The vine and leaf motif winding over the yellowed fabric of her suit was identical to the delicate pattern on my grandmother’s favorite teacup. The initial mundanity of the scene blurred the line between life and death.

A heart attack had brought her instantly and silently to the bottom of the lake until a swimmer spotted her and called out for help. As usual, there was a lifeguard stationed on shore, another on the wooden raft anchored two Olympic-pool-lengths from the beach, and one standing on the small float positioned midway between the two.

Even so, only death witnessed the moment she stopped living.

People hurried to shore when the warning whistle blew. I was not on duty at the time but had just finished mandatory swim practice. The guards carried the woman’s body out of the water. We knew she was dead, but resuscitation continued for almost an hour until the medical examiner arrived. I watched Dot, the fit, middle-aged, lake-front supervisor, and the young lead guard take turns giving mouth to mouth and chest compressions.

Their effort was measured and respectful, without urgency or drama, and spoke more to me about Dot and the guard, than of death.

I feel like the same observer from that summer afternoon, almost four decades ago, as I watch the squatted man, dressed in white, rise to add wood to the pyre and poke the burning body with a stick as he tends the fire. There is a similar ordinariness that erases the morbidity and gives death its rightful commonplace status, visible and natural as any other biological function.

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Hindus believe that cremation at Pashupatinath is auspicious and guarantees that they will be reincarnated as a human. Pilgrims arrive in Kathmandu from across Nepal and India to live their last weeks on the grounds and have their ashes pushed into the sacred waters of the Bagmati River which eventually flows into the holy Ganges in India.

Pashupatinath is one of the most important religious sites in Asia for followers of Shiva, the god of transformation and destruction. Only Hindus are allowed in the inner sanctum of the main golden-roofed temple that contains the Lingam, Shiva’s symbolic representation, and the enormous golden statue of Shiva’s bull, Nandi. The rest of the sprawling complex,  including hundreds of smaller temples, shrines, ashrams and the cremations platforms, is open to all visitors

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Five pyres are burning in various stages when we arrive. Our guide tells us that there are usually about twelve cremations performed daily. The corpse is washed in the Bagmati River then wrapped in cotton shrouds of orange and white and decorated with garlands of flowers. 

Male relatives carry the prepared body on a bamboo gurney from the ceremony in the temple to the pyre arranged on the stone platform, or ghat, jutting out over the Bagmati.

It is customary for the oldest son to light the kindling near the head, as to hasten the soul’s release through the mouth. When the pyre ignites into flames, the corpse is covered with a mass of wet straw producing a temporary cloak of white smoke to shield the view. It takes between three and six hours and a half a ton of wood to burn an adult body.

The cremators, who belong to one of the lowest castes, are paid a minuscule amount to keep the fires burning as the family waits. The process concludes with the ceremonial throwing of water on the ash, and the wet remains are swept into the river.

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The Bagmati River, a source of spiritual salvation and renewal for millions of Hindus, divides the temple complex as it makes its way through the Kathmandu Valley.

This morning the Bagmati barely flows. The once pristine river has become an open sewer, littered with the garbage from the city’s ever-increasing population. Two boys wade knee-deep in the stagnant water below the ghats, made grey by the ash. They are looking for fragments of jewelry that escaped the flames. Discarded shrouds and bits of marigolds float around them as they search.

I take in the scene without strong emotion, realizing that I have adjusted to the absurd density of every moment in Kathmandu, each experience weighted with infinite contradictions.

Our guide walks us up to the low hill across the river from the funeral pyres, giving us a respite from the smoke. We pass the bearded and deadlocked Sadhus, some half-naked and covered in ash, other dressed in saffron and orange robes, and all adorned with colorful tika markings, rings, and long beads. They live in and around the temple complex and rely on the alms from worshipers and tourists.

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A Sadhu, a Hindu ascetic devoted to Shiva, renounces all worldly comforts and relationships. Like Shiva, they make liberal use of intoxicants as a path to spiritual insight. A true Sadhu is viewed as the living divine, having reached enlightenment and liberated from the cycle of birth and death. However, many consider the Sadhus of Pashupatinath as glorified beggars.

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They happily pose for the camera in exchange for a few coins. Kelly, Erika, and Sarah stop for a picture. The Sadhu sitting next to Kelly mumbles through his groggy smile, “twenty dollars.”

We rest at the hilltop. The welcomed distance gives us each a space to assimilate the morning before we leave to catch our flight to Pokhara. Several monkeys appear to survey if we have anything worth stealing.

Unlike my visit to the Stupa the day before, where my sense of self dissolved, this morning I want to take possession of my shape, inhabit my body and senses fully, and pull my life closer.

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Another memory comes to me from the summer of the drowning.

As part of our lifeguard training, each of us had to pass the Walt Jacoby test. He was the conference center’s executive director. A giant of a man, he stood six-foot-seven and weighed at least 250 pounds. He played the role of a struggling swimmer, grabbing us from behind in open water. The goal was to break his hold and perform a successful cross-chest carry to shore.

On the day of my initiation, the sun was sinking behind the mountains and the light fading. The glassy lake reflected the colors of the sky. Unprepared for the reality of his weight pressing down on my shoulders, I misjudged the immediacy needed to produce the appropriate counterforce. From below, the water was the color of smoky quartz. My heartbeat pounded in my face, and for a flash, I wanted to inhale the water and give up.

Instead, the burning sensation in my chest triggered a rush of strength and focus. I pushed up his elbows that formed the corners of the box he made with his arms around my neck and descended deeper. With one powerful scissor kick, I projected myself to the side. My arms took me to the surface like the levers on a corkscrew, and I filled my lungs with a triumphant breath. An electric surge ran through my body.

Weeks later, I would recognize the same jolt as I watched the medical examiner place the swimmer in the body bag.

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.  – Alan Watts

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One of the only pictures I still have from that summer at the lake.

 

 

 

 

I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the fifth essay in a series that describes my experience.

 

5 thoughts on “Breathing in Dead People

  1. Wow. I have much to say about this post. I’ve had strong connection with India since teen years, but haven’t made it there yet. Was set to get an MSW in End of Life Care and Chronic Illness specialty beginning 2003, but former spouse only found a job in small-town Virginia, so didn’t happen. Plus I was chronically ill by that time and my daughter came along in 2004. I studied Sanskrit in college and my doctoral minor was Indian Art. Wrote a cool paper on Buddhist cave paintings at Ajanta. Amazing conversations with my advising professor, Pramod Chandra, about how death is viewed so differently in India versus the U.S.—about his own mother’s funeral which was a very joyous and celebratory occasion. I’ve “studied” India, but a life’s desire is to “live” India finally. I also was lifeguard back then. For my test my struggling swimmer wasn’t over 200 pounds, though! Wow. Endorphins and adrenaline are amazing—whether they surge due to physical restraint and possible harm or a highly emotional, such as seeing your first person right after they’ve passed. I was with my grandfather when he passed the summer I was 18. At the beginning of my visit we were still able to have conversations on the front step of my grandparents house in NJ, where I’d spent most of my childhood summers. Being 18, I asked him directly “What does it feel like to be dying”? His answer began with “Thank you for acknowledging what is really going on here—that I’m dying. Everyone else is tip-toeing around or busying themselves with the dog, anything to avoid the reality of my situation.” I was with my grandmother when she passed in the summer of 2001. Assisting her to the portable toilet, she sang songs from her childhood in Yiddish (not just German or Hungarian), giving me more clues to my maternal family history. In the last days I was there to assist hospice with morphine patches, hygiene and such. I saw her take her last breath and then that briefly liminal moment between life and death. She was fully there, then suddenly gone. These experiences (and some others) made me decide that I wanted to pursue my MSW, specializing in End of Life Care and Chronic Illness. I’m hoping to make that dream and the one of travelling to India happen still. Somehow! Sorry for the long post, but this beautifully written and thoughtful entry hit upon so many things for me. Thank you. Namaste!

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your reactions and experiences. Your conversation with your grandfather is an example of our culture’s discomfort with aging and death. As a kid, I thought about death a lot. I would get that electric panic that the self sends through the body when it contemplates its extinction. I would jump up and down or turn on the television to block out the dread. My dad died a little over two years ago. My mother and I were on either side of him when his chest jumped and face tightened with his final breath. He fell back and suddenly looked younger. I saw my father’s face soften as the emotions of a lifetime left his body. He looked oddly younger. I realized how our choices shape and contort the body. Every time we betray our finest impulses we deform ourselves, both inside and out. We experience every bit of this life through our biology. Watching the cremations in Kathmandu anchored that tender, humbling respect for our human, animal form. What a gift to be enlivened. The spark of life visits our wonderous body ever so briefly. The cremations felt like Death’s invitation to live fully – to love and be kind, to enjoy the sun on my face, and hold less tightly to old narratives. I have never been to India, but recommend visiting Nepal when you make it to India. Thanks​ again for reading and reaching out. Namaste.

      • Thank you for your insight. I agree it is a gift for our human/animal form to be enlivened and that the spark of life visits our body so briefly. We do experience every bit of this life through our biology. When my impulse led me to ask my grandfather directly about his experience with dying, his loving and honest reply emboldened me at 18 to continue asking such questions in life. At 52 I still get that shot of electric panic when I think of death. I’ve found this intriguing, as I’m quite at ease being around death…ahh, but others’. For me it is less of a concern of “what happens after death”—that I do not know. It is more that I cannot comprehend not being alive, as thus far, it is all I have experienced. Perhaps a trip to India and/or Nepal would help ease this feeling, encouraging me to live life more fully and to cling less to old narratives. I will be pondering this exquisite insight from now on: “Every time we betray our finest impulses we deform ourselves, inside and out.” You have the preternatural observational skills of a philosopher and the eloquence of a poet. Keep experiencing life…and writing!

      • You are too kind. Thanks for the encouragement. There are so many times I tell myself that it is more important to clean the fridge, or some other mindless to-do-list task, than write.

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