I was walking through my hometown airport, waiting for my flight number to be called, when suddenly I had this intense desire to vomit. It was almost lunchtime and one of the food vendors was cooking chicken on the other side of a barrier and the smell of burning chicken fat began to waft over into the hallway. I don’t get nauseated easily and when I thought about why I was reacting this way to chicken, my thoughts traveled back in time and place to the cremation grounds of the Shiva temple called Pashupatinath in Kathmandu, Nepal.
For a long time I’ve had this interest in death and how myself, my family, my culture and how other cultures dealt with it. I had heard that in Asia that death wasn’t hidden but held out there for people to see, contemplate and come to grips with. In America, we give our dead over to professionals who tend to the body and make arrangements in a very, shall I say, antiseptic fashion. In Nepal, at the cremation grounds death is not hidden but very public and the family tends to their loved one face-to-face.
For this reason, when I visited Nepal, I went to a Shiva temple where outdoor cremations were being held. There I witnessed a family prepare one body, a woman I assume was the matriarch of the family. First the body was brought down to the river and river water was poured into her mouth. Other rituals were also performed and while this was happening a bamboo litter was being made. When the rituals were over and the litter finished, the woman’s body was placed on it and taken to the funeral pyre. This pyre was made of split logs and dried grasses, perfect for its function. After the body was placed, it was covered with grass and after circumambulation by a male member of the family, the pyre is set burning.
Initially there is little smoke but then there was more and more. I had the idea, as I noticed that the smoke was wafting over a footbridge, that I could stand in the smoke and test something I was told many years ago about the effects of people of the smell of a burning human. I was told that firemen who break into a house on fire always become nauseated if they walk into smoke from a burning body, some even vomit. I had never experienced anything like this so I was curious to see if this story was pure hyperbole or if there was some truth to it.
Standing on the bridge inside the smoke plume I initially smelled only wood and grass. Then I began to detect the rank odor of burning chicken fat, obviously this was what a burning human being smells like. I don’t know how many BBQs I had been to and had smelled this before and it didn’t effect me and it didn’t bother me then.
However, months or years later, when I smell burning chicken, beef or pork fat at a BBQ, I do become nauseous. I have to stay upwind or crosswind to be near the cooking without becoming ill. It is strange that this experience at Pashupatinath would have this effect on me, delayed that is. Nevertheless, I’m glad I had it as it got me closer to understanding and accepting the human condition.