Catholics in Nepal have accepted cremation amid a shortage of Christian burial sites
Catholics pray before storing the ashes of a relative in a columbarium of a Catholic church in Nepal's capital Kathmandu. (Photo supplied)
When Sher Bahadur Bogati, a Nepali Catholic from Kathmandu, died on Oct. 25, his family arranged for a funeral Mass at the Assumption Catholic Church in the city the next day.
Local Catholics joined in mourning the death of 83-year-old Bogati, father of Silas Bogati, a Catholic priest and vicar general of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal.
The following day, after a requiem Mass, his body was cremated and put in a columbarium administered by the church instead of a traditional Christian burial in a cemetery.
This is just another example of how religious minorities like Christians have accepted, albeit reluctantly, the new way of revering their dead loved ones in the Himalayan Hindu-majority nation that suffers from a shortage of burial grounds as land is scarce and an expensive commodity.
The word "columbarium" is derived from the Latin word columba (pigeon) and originally referred to a pigeon house. A columbarium is a sepulchral building containing many small niches for cinerary urns or ashes. During the early Roman Empire era, columbariums were common as cremation was the typical custom.
Due to practicality, cremation and columbariums have become an acceptable norm for Nepalese Catholics, according to a church official.
Catholics who live in less populated places away from Kathmandu bury the dead, sometimes alongside Protestants
“Catholics have accepted the fact that in a country like Nepal, where burial is not common, a body needs to be cremated after Mass and ashes should be kept in a columbarium. All three Catholic churches in Kathmandu Valley have been doing it for years now,” Chirendra Satyal, 62, a Catholic and director of media and communication of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal, told UCA News.
Satyal, a father of three based in Kathmandu, pointed out that when an aunt of his wife died recently, her ashes were kept in a columbarium of Godavari Parish Church in southern Kathmandu.
Catholics who live in less populated places away from Kathmandu bury the dead, sometimes alongside Protestants, Satyal said, adding that some even take the bodies of their loved ones for burial in Darjeeling in West Bengal state of eastern India, where they have ethnic Nepali relatives.
Christian cemeteries are rare in Kathmandu. The only Catholic cemetery in the capital city belongs to a Jesuit Retreat Center, where pioneering Jesuits who revived Catholicism in the country, including the first ethnic Nepalese Jesuit Bishop Anthony Sharma, were buried. The cemetery is off limits now, even for the clergy and religious, church sources say.
Another small cemetery, founded in 1816 in Kathmandu, belongs to the British embassy, where mostly British citizens lie buried.
Ahead of All Souls' Day, Catholics clean and paint columbariums in three parishes in central Kathmandu, Gadavari and Baniyatar.
On the day when Christians across the globe pray and pay respect to their lost ones, Nepalese Catholics light candles and place flower petals in the columbarium.
However, Protestants and Evangelicals, who make up the majority of an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Nepal, have been against the cremation and columbarium system and repeatedly demanded the government should make arrangements for proper burial grounds.
Nepal, a former Hindu kingdom, adopted a new constitution in 2015, declaring itself a secular, pluralistic democracy where freedom and rights of all religions will be ensured.
Hinduism still dominates in Nepal with an estimated population of 29 million. Followers of other faiths include Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Kirats, Jains and Sikhs.
According to the 2011 census, about 81 percent of Nepalese are Hindu, 9 percent Buddhist, 4.4 percent Muslim and 1.4 percent Christian.
Some Christian leaders say that if Nepal is truly a secular state it must ensure equal treatment of religious minorities including their basic rights.
For decades, non-Hindus including Christians have been secretly burying their dead in the forest, which radical Hindus strongly opposed
“Funeral rites are an individual’s basic human right,” said C.B. Gahatraj, president of the inter-denominational Federation of National Christian Nepal, reported Global Press Journal on Aug. 9 last year.
“If we take the bodies outside Kathmandu, the local communities protest. We have to hide and bury the dead at night [in another city], or under compulsion we have to cremate.”
In 2011, Gahatraj filed a case against the federal government in Nepal’s Supreme Court over the issue of burial grounds.
The court ruled that Christian burial grounds were not the state’s responsibility but also asked the government to collaborate with Christian leaders to form a committee to resolve the issue. The committee is yet to be formed.
Pradip Koirala, head of the culture division at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, said work was in progress as they were making a policy and law to address the issue of Christian burial sites, the Global Press Journal reported.
In late March of 2011, the Christian community staged a 13-day hunger strike in Kathmandu to demand a plot of land for an official Christian cemetery. The strike ended with a government promise to resolve the issue, but nothing has happened since then.
Christians resorted to protests for a cemetery after authorities of Nepal’s historic Pashupatinath temple, a UNESCO-listed world heritage site, declared that it would not allow non-Hindus to bury their dead in ancient Shleshmantak forest on the premises of the shrine.
For decades, non-Hindus including Christians have been secretly burying their dead in the forest, which radical Hindus strongly opposed, forcing the temple authority to come up with the restriction, media reports said at that time.
No Hindu wants to have even nice, well-kept cemeteries near his or her locality. This just plays upon their tolerance levels
The strike, however, didn’t bring all Christian groups into the fold.
Prominent Protestant pastor and Bible scholar Ramesh Khatri strongly believes that Christians in Nepal should accept cremation. He wants to be cremated after death because land is at a premium in a tiny country like Nepal and even the living do not have access to it.
A Protestant pastor, speaking on condition of anonymity, told UCA News that the differing views of Christians on funeral rites send a confusing message to the government, so it remains unsettled.
“If the Christians were united for the cause, the issue of burial grounds could be resolved,” he said.
Satyal argues that the idea that Christians must have burials is all wrong and that demanding a burial place does no good but “antagonizes the Hindus for no reason.”
He pointed out it is important to understand the traditional psyche of Nepal's Hindus, who grew up with the idea that graveyards or cremation grounds are “no-go areas.”
“No Hindu wants to have even nice, well-kept cemeteries near his or her locality. This just plays upon their tolerance levels.”
Satyal, however, noted that there should be a cemetery for foreign tourists in Kathmandu. “Tourists who die in Nepal should be buried there so that they do not have to be flown all the way back to their nations, which is an expensive affair, and their families may even not want them to be cremated either.”
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