Navigating Death, Anxiety, and Hindu Cremation Rituals

April 15, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

Ghats along the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal


I'm fascinated with death and what happens afterwards, but not in the way you may think. There's no macabre fascination with death; instead, there's a deep desire to understand and come to terms with it and the hope that there is more once we pass from one realm to the next. What happens when we die? Do we return in another form, shaped by past lives?


As for my death, for as long as I can remember, all the way back to a very young age, the thought of dying has frightened the absolute shit out of me, and I would have terrible anxiety attacks if I allowed myself to think about it too deeply. I would have a rising sense of fear and panic in my chest – an empty, hollow feeling rising from the depths of my chest into my throat. A feeling that is almost impossible to explain, but it's terrifying when it happens. I would cry hysterically, and my parents would try to console me. When I was about six or seven years old, visiting my father (my parents separated when I was six), I remember asking my father about dying. I'll never forget his reply:



"What happens when we die?"

"Kiki." (my nickname)

"It's like a bird in a cage. The cage door opens, and the bird flies out. The bird is like your soul. So, when you die, your soul leaves your body like a bird flying out of a cage."


I'm not sure how much sense it made to me then, and to be honest, it didn't help the anxiety attacks, which continued for many years.


Daddy had a veritable library of books on dying, death and the afterlife.


My father died in 2004 of renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer). I cared for him for a short while before his death. It was cruel, and he suffered, but he refused palliative care. My brother and I were with him when he died. I'm not sure whether all those books helped him.


My mother has no fear of death. Nothing. I admire this. I wish I could feel the same way.


I first experienced funeral pyre cremations in Kampala, Uganda, at the Hindu cremation site when attending the funerals of friends who had chosen to be cremated in this way. I did not find the cremations frightening, alarming or confronting. I felt a great sense of peace and an overwhelming feeling of liberation when watching my friends' bodies burn on the funeral pyre. What did happen was the realisation that this is what I want to happen to my body when I die.


My visit to Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, was my first experience seeing the Hindu death rituals close up. It was almost like a conveyor belt of bodies. One body would be moved from the slab at the bank of the Bagmati River, and another would be put in place. I didn't find the scenes distressing or disturbing; however, being an empath, I felt deep sorrow for the people who had lost their loved ones.  There is a practicality about the Hindu cremations that one has to admire.


As believers in reincarnation, Hindus believe that only their body dies. The soul is reborn in a different form after death. They believe in Karma, the idea that past actions determine future outcomes, and to escape the cycle of reincarnation, one must attain Moksha, a state of ultimate freedom where a person experiences oneness with Brahman, the Supreme Self or God. Moksha is a state of knowledge, peace, and bliss—something we all wish to attain (well, I do).


I've had the privilege to care for people as they pass from this life, yet I've also encountered the distress of witnessing the slow deaths of people whom I felt utterly powerless to assist.


I plan on visiting Varanasi, one of the world's oldest and holiest cities in India, where pilgrims come to Maa Ganga (Ganges) for rituals and cremations, to immerse myself in these traditions, which I hope will enhance my understanding and to help me make peace with the inevitable cycle of life and death. I can either continue having anxiety attacks or embrace the fact that mortality is an inescapable part of life.


**Respect and love to those I photographed, and may their loved ones rest in eternal peace.

Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu, Nepal



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