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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.