Between Death & Life

A family grieves the loss of their son as they move through his ceremonial cremation at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
— Jesus, Matthew 5:4

The first time I looked at death up close, I was twelve years old. My family & I were driving up the Malaysian peninsula from Singapore (where my dad lived at the time). I watched as a man on a motorcycle was hit by a bus. I’ll never forget the image. A local shop keeper came out to the road and covered the man with some old newspapers as our car slowly rolled by. If that taught me anything it is that life is fragile and in the developing world, you’re never far from that reality.

In December of 2013, I travelled to Kathmandu to direct a film on the work of East-West in Nepal. We weren’t off the plane for 30 minutes when, again, I was confronted with an up-close view of death. 

As the sun dipped low in the sky, we stopped at Pashupatinath Temple, home of Bhasmeshvar Ghat — the most-used cremation site in the Kathmandu Valley. In the Hindu tradition, the dead are ceremonially cremated & their souls are carried toward heaven by the holy water that carries their ashes away. These ceremonies take place in ghat’s or bathing spots. And the lustral waters of Arya Ghat — in which the royal family are cremated — flow through the Pashupatinath Temple complex.

The air was thick with grief, smoke and ash. 

I settled into a place in the crowd & watched as a grief stricken mother laid her son to rest. The lessons of my youth coming back to me. The young man was studying in the United States — in Texas, no less — when he was hit by a car. His wailing mother was a stark, startling reminder that life is fragile for us all.

As I stood there on the banks of the Bagmati River along with hundreds of tourists, dozens of grieving families and the temple workers and holy men, I couldn’t help but grieve too. 

We are all suspended in this space between death & life, between a creation groaning like a grieving mother and the redemption of the Sons of God. It seemed to me, I was staring at a metaphor as around the clock the dead brought their dead in hopes that these waters, polluted by death and animal excrement, might be the vehicle that spans the gap between death and life. Then it occurred to me; we aren’t so different, really. Both that grieving mother and I have put our faith in the water, both hope the water carries us back life.

If this has taught me anything it is that life is what we are all hungry to find and in the developing world, you’re never far from that reality.

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