Thoughts on death, poverty and community

In Dhading (a region of Nepal North East of Kathmandu) the jungle covered mountains stretch out mile after mile with tracks snaking along the sides of the steep slopes and views that you really can’t capture something like 90% of the homes were destroyed by the earthquake. DSC_0065_1We lived here for just four days but will remember the experience for a long time. Our job was to salvage building materials from earthquake damaged houses and bless people in whatever ways we could.

Most of the people we met here were poor and the older ones uneducated, they had lost their ancestral homes past down from generations, they had lost loved ones and most of the few possessions they had were buried in the rubble were we digging through. Despite this painful reality when we talked with the people it was hard to recognise them as victims who had suffered terrible loss. Generally the people seemed resigned and accepting of their situation, you could almost say they were content with their situation, they continued to smile, laugh and were pressing on.

Women working together rice harvesting
Women working together rice harvesting

On the morning we left Dhading Eva was invited to have some breakfast with two young ladies – their mother had a wound that we had been dressing each day so there was a connection there. In the middle of a single room was a small wood fire stove with some pop corn roasted on it. Four ladies from three generations of the same family shared this room. All the men were gone. They sat eating roasted corn and milk for breakfast and were happy. They cared for each other worked hard and somehow made a life in these circumstances. It is hard to feel sad for people who don’t feel sad for themselves and it really makes you question the value we place on lifting people out of poverty, educating them and seeking to improve their lives when they seem to have so much contentment despite their situation. I have considered whether or not its just a case of “ignorance is bliss” but I really think there’s more to it than that.

When we were planning our trip I was fearful our limited counselling skills would be stretched beyond their limits as we sort to help people recover from the earthquake. We have spoken in depth to enough of the victims to know that the damage is definitely there but somehow the psychology here is different. When I think of England or perhaps Europe and of so many people (including myself) who are really not in difficult circumstances but are so often discontented, un happy or depressed it really makes me question the value we place on all the things we have that are so lacking here. It seems like we avoid looking at our problems and from confronting our discontented selves, we surround ourselves with things and all to often try to medicate away reality.

Back in Kathmandu city, and a few weeks later, taxi fares had tripled due to the petrol rationing so we took one of the last busses to the airport. We had around five hours to kill waiting for our friends Dave and Helen to come but that was fine as we hadn’t eaten. We found a road side cafe and tried to order some food but the staff spoke no English and then a young lady sat in the back corner of the place came to our rescue helpfully shouting the translation and inviting us to join her. She had done exactly the same as us by catching the last bus and now faced a long wait so was happy for the company. Prachi exchanged small talk and then invited us to walk to a near by Temple with her. As we approached Pashupati it became obvious that this was no ordinary Temple but something way more significant. As we wondered deeper into this world heritage site the conversation steadily became deeper until we stood watching families on the other side of the river lit by fires on which their dead relatives were slowly being cremated before their eyes – See the non gorey video here

Burning the dead - Pashupati
Burning the dead – Pashupati

Death is something we rarely talk about in the West. Cremations and funerals are sanitised; its all polished timber boxes, sing some songs, curtains closing, smoke goes up a chimney, throw some earth, off to the wake, have a drink and move on (or try to). In Hindu culture the family watches as the body burns, they light the fire and sit in vigil till the body is ash that can be swept into the river and washed away. (Tonight there was just one body per fire but after the earthquake three families shared each fire). As I stood there I began to think that although this must be the most hideous experience somehow it could be a more helpful way to deal with grief and loss than our way of hiding from the reality of loss and death. It may well be inappropriate to say but after this experience I also noted how it’s not only human death that we sanitise. Dashain is a bloody Hindu festival where millions of animals are ritualistically slaughtered but even without any festivals animals have to be killed before they can be eaten and in Nepal there is no convenient slaughter house to hide this in. It is done on the street outside butchers shops every day. I’m not sure if it’s simply because death is confronted or whether it has more to do with the religious belief in reincarnation but somehow there is definitely a healthier mentality towards death regardless of religion.

More often than not poverty is defined by the absence of wealth or “social mobility” but when we define poverty why don’t we take into account contentment? Here we meet many poor people who are content despite their circumstances. When I have considered these things I have started to conclude that one of the greatest poverty’s is loneliness. In community we understand our place, our purpose and our identity. When the networks that surround us fragment we suffer a poverty of character, of experience and a sense of grief.

Many people here are grieving as their network has been torn and loved ones lost but the majority still have some sort of network and a community to support them – that’s simply Nepalese culture. In my limited experience the further away you go from the Kathmandu the stronger that sense of community gets. The same lack of any real community is generally true in cities all over the world and the lack probably increases with the size of the city. As a Christian I believe God himself is community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I believe that we were made in his image and therefore we are designed for relationships. When community breaks down psychologically we suffer the greatest poverty. We should value relationship more than things. We should build community where ever we find ourselves and see how much of our discontentment simply disappears. The four ladies in their little room had each other and faced their situation together. They were united in their struggle and united in their grief. They went through life and death together. Together we can help one another to face life and death. Alone we flounder . . . . . May be that is why we read time and again in the bible God reminded his people to care for the widows the orphans and the refugees?

Jesus help us to really communicate, understand and love each other as you did. Help us to strip away the things we surround ourselves with, help us to see beyond the differences and see the struggles of our fellow inhabitants of this shrinking globe. Help us to truly build community. As Jesus prayed; let us be one as he is one with his Father. Help us to understand the prayer “Forgive us our trespasses in the same way as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

Its my hope and prayer that our time in Nepal will change us and shape us more into Gods image and he is a community.

Good fun with the kids from the village
Good fun with the kids from the village

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on death, poverty and community

  1. Wow – I am sooooo glad you went for long enough to grapple with this kind of insight/question. May the rest of your time there be ‘rich’… Please greet David for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another fascinating and thought provoking insight. Reading your account of the Hindu approach to death brought to mind the Mexican festival ‘Day of the Dead’ which is celebrated at the beginning of November. A carnival for the soul ……a joyous occasion remembering the dead and something that we in the West might frown upon as rather ghoulish!
    You are spot on when you talk about the way in which we surround ourselves with more and more ‘stuff’ in an attempt to pad and protect us from the reality of life.
    Keep up the good work….love to you both xx


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