January 30, 2013

Watching the Bodies Burn: A Lesson in Life & Death. ~ Bess Prescott

Photo by: Bess Prescott

Kathmandu, Nepal.

I wander down the road from my safe haven in Boudhanath to the infamous Pashupatinath cremation grounds. My historian self is curious to see the final (un)resting place for the royal family murdered (by their son? By the Maoists? By their own irrelevance and bumbling incompetence?) some 10 years earlier.

I was not prepared: smoke, ash, crowds, a circle of chanting saddhus in a dark room offering me the peace pipe—which I might not have declined had I known I was about to be confronted with a fresh corpse and, unable to turn away, watched as it was consumed by fire on the banks of the river.

From a mouth full of flames to gnarled, blackened toes.

Pashupatinath cremation ghats
(Photo by: Bess Prescott)

The Nepalese see no irony in placing an old people’s home a stone’s throw from the cremation ghats. I appreciate the lack of pretense, the willingness to face the reality that the elderly will die soon, and the most efficient and hygienic thing to do (in a city where disease would spread rapidly along open sewers) is to house them close to where their bodies can, with dignity, be delivered from this world. The people are still useful; the old men carry wood as fuel for the coming bitter winter months, the women cook, wash their faded clothes and spin yarn.

Despite a lack of the comforts of first world nursing homes, there is a reality here that seems preferable to those places in the west where people go to die.

The last time I visited my great grandma in her nursing home, I was sickened by the forced cheerfulness of the annoyed and tired staff, the pretense and denial, and the harsh efficiency that robbed such a wonderful lady of the respect and the dignity that she deserved. The artificial extension of her life (pacemaker, drugs, endless operations) took from her the ability to end her own life. “I’m ready to go,” she whispered into the ear of her long-forgotten great granddaughter, “why won’t they let me?”

The residents of the Pashupatinath home carry themselves with dignity. They are nearing the end of their lives and they are not trying to pretend otherwise, not trying to distract themselves with mindless television and pain-numbing, perception-twisting drugs.

They are not trying to put off the inevitable. Rather they are merely living out their days in silent recognition that they are numbered, and they are given no choice but to be useful until the end. There is no option of life support, of lying drugged and confused in starch-stiff sheets under fluorescent lights with catheters and attentive nurses, the smell of bleach and urine making already labored breathing even more unpleasant. Here, the main perfume is of burning—wood, rubbish, incense.

And, unmistakably, the stench of burning flesh.

At the cremation ghats
(Photo by: Bess Prescott)

It’s a reminder that we in the west could use, our days are indeed numbered. It is no use pretending to be immortal.

Instead of spending our lives placating our consuming fear of death, instead of trying to immortalize ourselves with big houses and careers and achievements and the other details of our desperate, sterilized lives, we need to stop.

To pause on the banks of a filthy river, staring at a body as it is consumed by flames.

To throw our ego in the heat of those flames and breath the smoke of our own mortality.

And decide how we can best use the few days that we are so lucky to have left.

I understand now why Tantrics meditate in cremation grounds, one cannot long avoid a confrontation with reality. Try to pretend that life is all sunshine and rainbows as you stand witness to the only certainty of life—death.

Tantra says that we are light and dark, joy and sadness, life and death. And then, it is all perfect. Because it must be.

And a cremation ghat is the ultimate evidence that things are as they are. Impermanent. Changing. Perfect. There is nothing that is good or bad, virtuous or evil, except that we make it so.

And what do all our judgments come down to? So much smoke and ash. The ash smeared bodies of the ghostly sadhus, bearing witness to this endless dance of life and death. Youth and age.

If things are as they are, why spend this short life worrying, resisting the flow, hoping for exception, for some sort of mystical salvation.

As my Nepali guide Dinesh liked to remind me as I struggled through steep Himalayan trails: “up and down, up and down – life is like this, isn’t it?” It is only in the total, radical acceptance of the endless dance, the contraction and expansion of this world, that we can find freedom.

For if we are not scared of death, then what is there left to fear?

The Buddhists talk endlessly of annihilation: of the recognition of the emptiness of form, the preparedness to make bodily sacrifice to honor that recognition.

To die in every moment, and, thereby, to live.

For it is only through the experience of darkness that we know light, it is only sadness that shows us joy, and it is only death that gives us life.

Life is like this.



Bess Prescott is a reformed corporate insolvency lawyer and itinerant yoga teacher on a twelve month adventure to see the world (usually upside down from a headstand), get uncomfortable, meet cool people, walk edges with them, go skinny dipping, be afraid (and do it anyway) and learn a bit more about this yoga thing. You can email her at [email protected].


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Assist: Olivia Gray
Ed: Kate Bartolotta

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