During the dinner of my second evening here in Surkhet, there was a bundle of commotion before dinner that had Maggie shuffling back and forth from the house to the front gate, some yelling outside the front gate, and melancholic eyes all around. During dinner I found out that just outside our gate was a 25-year old woman, dying of a perforated organ, and that next to her was waiting an ambulance. The woman had been staying in the Surkhet (Birendranagar) hospital, a run-down and primitive clinic that can do little (I’ve been told) to solve the many urgent cases it receives. The nearest hospital that could actually do anything for the woman was three hours away in Nepalgunj, three hours of (once again) treacherous and perforated roads. Still worse for the woman, the documents needed for admission into the Nepalgunj hospital’s ER were sitting back at the woman’s house. Hence why the ambulance itself was waiting, while a man took a motorcycle back to her house to retrieve the papers. When he finally returned, the ambulance took off. Some of the children remembered the woman, as she had been one of the cooks four or five years ago before leaving to be a mother. In that evening’s family meeting, Maggie assured all her children that we were getting the best help we could find. The woman died 20 minutes into the trip.
I’ve stoically mentioned Maggie’s involvement in this, but watching her during all of this trial was a good and immediate dose of how remarkable a woman she is- the way she assertively takes control when she needs to, the way she handles tragedy and the loss of a close friend, and the responsibility that she constantly bears of having forty kids looking to her as a mother. I already knew then, as I know even better now, that she’s one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.
The following day was the cremation ceremony. All of the older kids in the house piled into the school bus and we drove 15 minutes south to a bridge over a rushing river. There was another bus there, mostly neighbors of the diseased (her family was mostly absent). Everyone disembarked and immediately trudged up a hill next to the road and, like a stream of worker ants, returned with logs. Every single person, including myself, did their part, grabbing wood from a pre-made pile of tinder in the field above the road. This location was clearly a popular location for cremations and indeed, there were two piles of ash, remnants of other cremations, along the river.
This wood was thrown down to the riverside 50 feet below the bridge, and the 8 men waiting below immediately built rough a funeral pyre just on the edge of the rushing water- this two tires inserted into the structure to provide some extra heat (monsoon season had just ended). The body was brought down to the pyre on a bamboo stretcher, carried by four men. The crowd solemnly followed. The men carried the stretcher around the pyre three full times while another man blew into a conch shell. When the woman’s body was laid into the pyre, the men covered her up with the rest of the wood, and then proceeded to douse the whole thing with gallons of kerosene. The combination of kerosene and tire made the whole thing feel pretty undignified, but I wouldn’t deny they were necessary.
The woman had a 3 year old daughter and 9 year old son, both of whom have been staying at the house since her death. In Hindu tradition, the eldest son of the deceased must light the funeral pyre. This situation did not deviate, and I watched a 9 year old boy set fire to his mother’s lifeless body, less than 15 hours after he had seen her alive.
In Pashupati Nath in Kathmandu, I had visited a quintuple stupa which, as my “tour guide” told me, represented the five elements. “Five elements?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “everyone knows Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. But the fifth element is Body.” As I watched the flames engulf (slowly, even with the kerosene) the logs and the wind take away the smoke, I thought that this was a perfect synthesis of these elements, and the reason for performing the ceremony by a river. The truth is different, though- Hindu’s believe that the Cow God (I forget the name) will carry the spirit of the deceased, once the body is burned up, across the rushing waters of the river, and only when both of them reach the other side will the spirit be reborn in the cycle of Samsara (resurrection).
This was all a very sobering experience, especially for just my second and third days. And while I would certainly never say I enjoyed it, I found the whole thing very interesting and beautiful. A riverside cremation with funeral pyre et al probably gives most people goosebumps, but it seems to me a much more natural way to go than being buried in the ground or cremation in a crematorium. I couldn’t help but think of how I would want to go when I finally say goodbye to this world, and the idea of burning into ash and sky and wind and fire along the waters of the St Lawrence river seems very appealing to me, though (gasp) surely illegal. That shouldn’t be for at least 110 years, however, so I’ve got plenty of time to think about that.
PS. Maggie’s recount of the whole episode is riveting and heartbreaking. If you remotely enjoyed what I wrote above, then I guarantee you’ll want to read what she wrote: http://blinknow.org/journal/2013/9/16/our-friend-rana.html