Ellen Leitzer had the opportunity to witness a Hindu funeral in Nepal and wrote the following incredibly detailed description. I am honored that she agreed to share her insights in today’s guest post.
Rita died early yesterday morning from pneumonia and sepsis at Tribhuvan University’s Teaching Hospital, one of Kathmandu’s public hospitals. Her medical care and the hospital’s sanitary conditions were extraordinarily sub-standard and contributed to her death.
I spent a good part of the last 45 days advocating for her within Kathmandu’s public health care system based on ongoing information provided to me by physician friends in New Mexico. I am so grateful for the help and support of Drs. David Wachter and Aroop Mangalik.
According to Hindu custom, Rita was taken by ambulance from the hospital to be cremated at Pashupatinath, an important Hindu temple site along the banks of the sacred (and very polluted) Bagmati River. The Bagmati flows downstream into India’s Ganges River.
Sheri, my Canadian friend who introduced me to Rita, and I reached the hospital at 7:30 AM and sat by Rita’s shroud-covered body in a hospital courtyard with Rita’s husband and other male relatives until the ambulance arrived. We then boarded a dilapidated, rented bus and headed to the funeral site.
Rita has four daughters and one son. Her daughters and female relatives were not allowed to attend her funeral. Little did I think that almost two months ago when I visited Pashupatinath as a tourist that I would return to witness the cremation of a friend.
Rita received a first-class funeral ceremony. Her body was covered by an orange-and-red shroud, over which a red powder was sprinkled. Butter candles and incense burned nearby and then we all paid our respects by placing marigolds on top of her corpse. She was then hoisted onto the funeral pyre.
A Brahmin priest blew a conch shell three times as her grieving 19-year old son Saroj circled her body holding a burning wick that would be used to light the ghee that had been poured on top of the shroud. Saroj was to have placed the wick into her mouth, a starting point for the cremation, but he was not up to the task. At that point the Brahmin priest took over.
Once the fire started, bundles of hay were placed around and on top of Rita’s body and the flames consumed her. (Throughout the ceremony cell phones with their varied tones continued to ring and be answered despite the solemnity of the occasion.)
Sheri and I left Pashupatinath while Rita’s body was still burning and made our way to her home 20 kilometers south of Kathmandu by micro-bus and bus. Rita’s home is on the outskirts of a small village that is surrounded by rice paddies. As Sheri and I approached the home we saw scores of women dressed in red sitting cross-legged on the porch and roof. Rita’s daughters were distraught and friends and family attempted to console them.
At one point a 24-year old cousin came to pay her respects but did not enter the house. This delightful young woman, whom I had met a few days earlier at Teaching Hospital, informed me that she was menstruating and therefore was unclean so could not enter the home nor touch anyone.
When she left I gave her a big hug and said that I was not a Hindu and felt fine about touching her. (In rural areas, menstruating women are forced to sleep in cow-sheds with the livestock. It is not uncommon for adolescent girls to be molested by local men on such occasions.)
I learned a lot about Rita today. She was married at the age of 15, raised five truly wonderful children, and became an active community leader as a member of the Nepali Congress Party. She also ran a small NGO that focused on helping women.
Rita’s home was built as the result of her hard work. She earned money working for other farmers and built the family home 11 years ago with the proceeds from her labor. Her most recent project, that is not yet completed, was adding an indoor bathroom to the home. Rita’s husband, who was orphaned at the age of 3, works at Kathmandu’s Maternity Hospital.
Late in the afternoon Saroj and the family’s male relatives approached the home, single file through the rice paddies. They had stopped at a holy pond nearby where Saroj was bathed and then dressed in white garments and a turban – his head had been shaved. He was wearing sandals made of straw and carried a copper urn that contained holy water.
Saroj sat alone on the porch while the men prepared a room for him. He is unable to touch anyone for 13 days, must sleep on a bed of hay, and prepare his own food – rice (without salt), fruit and water. During this time Saroj must spend his days in prayer to ensure the safe passage of his mother’s soul into the Otherworld.
Saroj is very concerned about the uncertain future that his two unmarried sisters face. When a death occurs the family is considered unlucky and no one wants to marry into such a family.
I was also reminded of how under-valued women are in Nepal. One woman, Dhana, who came to pay her respects, is also active in the Nepali Congress Party. Dhana is educated and a woman of means. Her two sons were educated in the U.S. and work abroad.
She begged the Party to give money to Rita so that she could receive medical care in a private hospital or even India where the care is better and more advanced. Rita had done so much for the Party, I was told, yet the Party did nothing for her. Dhana said that had Rita been a man, the Party would have contributed a considerable amount to the cost of her medical care, including paying for care in India.
Interested in Hindu post-death religious rituals and ash scattering in the River Ganges in India? HinduPratha.com can help. They also facilitate ash scattering in the Himalayas for all faiths. For more information CLICK HERE.