Nepal tragedy takes toll even on cremation overseers

KATHMANDU - As veteran cremation worker Khadga Adhikari placed a handful of uncooked rice and a coin on the chest of yet another young victim of Nepal's earthquake, his own heart was filled with sadness.

"I don't remember much about most people I cremate," said Adhikari, who has spent 30 years preparing funeral pyres. "But when you are handling the body of a child, it hurts deeply. It's not their time to die." Ever since the capital Kathmandu was devastated by a 7.8-magnitude quake on April 25, Adhikari and his colleagues have been struggling to keep pace with the flow of bodies found buried under the rubble and mud.

Such has been the workload that there were even fears at one stage of a shortage of wood to cremate the victims who, in accordance with Hindu tradition, are swaddled in white cloth and then placed on the pyre.

In a rare moment of rest, the 55-year-old Adhikari told AFP that despite a lifetime dealing with the dead, even he was distraught at having to witness so much grief.

On the night of the quake, Adhikari had to cremate three children including a six-year-old boy, whose family members wept throughout the ceremony at Kathmandu's famed Pashupatinath temple.

Funeral pyres are traditionally lit by the oldest son of the deceased so the idea of parents overseeing the cremation of their children is particularly painful.

Adhikari shuddered as he recalled wrapping the broken body of the young boy in the white shroud before ritually placing the rice and coin on top.

"You expect old people to die. When a small child dies before his or her time because of a disaster, I feel a lot of pain," he said.

By the time the sun rose on the morning after the quake, he had burned the bodies of two more children and several adults, sweeping up ashes and sending hissing clouds of smoke into the air as he struggled to wash the funeral platforms between cremations.

It was, he admits, "the most difficult night" of his life.

The pyres that line the banks of Kathmandu's Bagmati river turned the Pashupatinath temple's open-air cremation complex into a virtual sauna, the heat and dehydration dizzying Adhikari as the bodies kept coming.

"Everyone was in so much pain and I remember feeling so weak, like the energy was seeping out of me with each pyre," he recalled.

"But people had bodies to burn. Where else could they go?"

Bodies on ice

Adhikari is one of 27 men who perform funeral rites at the sprawling temple complex, a World Heritage site which has seen hundreds of cremations since the quake.

As the scale of the disaster became clear the government decided to provide free firewood for relatives of all victims, who would otherwise have to pay some 2,000 rupees ($20) towards each funeral.

Scores of unidentified victims were burnt in mass cremations at the temple and in villages across the mainly Hindu Himalayan nation, while morgues have struggled to store bodies pending police and family verification.

At Kathmandu's Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital, attendants have resorted to piling ice on top of bodies or storing two corpses in a facility meant for one.

"Our morgue's capacity to store 20 bodies is not enough even on regular days... when a disaster like this strikes, the pressure is overwhelming," said Pramod Shrestha, head of the hospital's department of forensic medicine.

"We are using ice, sometimes doubling up bodies in refrigerators - it's non-stop work, we still have 37 unclaimed cases," Shrestha told AFP.

Amid the unfolding tragedy, Pashupatinath has seen a spurt in worshippers thanks to its apparent resistance to the quake which left most of the complex unharmed, said Govinda Tandon, member-secretary of the Pashupati Area Development Trust.

"People believe that God was protecting the temple, he saved it... since then, more and more people have been coming here every day," Tandon told AFP.

For Adhikari, who has burnt more bodies in the past ten days than in an entire month before the disaster, the memories of the youngest victims reflect "God's strange ways".

"According to our Hindu traditions, this temple is a blessed place and whoever is cremated here goes to heaven... I guess it is my good fortune to do this work, because I am sending souls to God."