Death in a Christian home in the Kathmandu Valley brings more than just sorrow. It commences a family’s search for a way to bid a dignified goodbye to their loved one.
The biggest obstacle for mourners is finding a place to bury the dead in the Kathmandu Valley, a region in central Nepal that is home to the mountainous nation’s three largest cities and hundreds of smaller towns and villages. But despite its size, the area has no public cemetery for its Christian population, which numbers just over 100,000 according to the National Christian Community Survey report released in December 2022. (Kathmandu’s British cemetery includes only the remains of expatriates, and its Jesuit cemetery is no longer in use.)
“We can cremate our dead, but we cannot bury them,” said Suman Dongol, who manages Koinonia Patan church in Kathmandu.
Hindus, who comprise 81 percent of the population, cremate their dead. Nepali Muslims have access to two graveyards attached to their mosques in Kathmandu. (Among those who follow indigenous faiths are the Kirat, who comprise 3 percent of Nepal’s population and are said to be the earliest inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. They typically bury their dead but face a similar plight as local Christians.)
No known Christian existed in the country in 1951, when modern-day Nepal was founded and its young government prohibited proselytizing and conversion. A year later, however, Nepali Christians from India established the first Protestant church.
By the early 1970s, there were about 500 baptized Christians in the Hindu Kingdom. Evangelism efforts carried a possible criminal sentence of three years in prison—and successful evangelism, six years—but Christians continued to tell people about Jesus. By 1990, when a democratic reform movement decriminalized conversion, there were an estimated 50,000 Christians in the country.
According to the 2011 census, Christians in Nepal made up 1.4 percent of the population, but since the 240-year-old Hindu monarchy ended in 2008, Nepal has witnessed a huge jump in that number. According to recent reports, the last decade has seen a 68 percent increase in the total number of Christians, who today are estimated to be around 3.5 percent of the country’s nearly 31 million people.
Not all Nepali Christians have been denied access to burial grounds. Local governments have provided graveyards to Christians living in Biratnagar, in the eastern part of Nepal, and those in Butwal in the south.
Funerals in those parts of the country have left some witnesses “overwhelmed.”
“There were 500 people, singing, with flowers, walking through the jungle, and they buried their loved one in a very dignified manner,” said Dilli Ram Paudel, the general secretary of the Nepal Christian Society.
“It is only in Kathmandu Valley that Christians don't have a burial ground,” said Manoj Pradhan, a leader at Nepal Christian Fellowship.
For many Christians, no burial ground means no funeral. As a result, throughout the years, Christians have sought various remedies to their burial problems. According to reports, Christians began to bury their dead in a forest near the historic Hindu Pashupatinath Temple in April 1990. But in 1998, the government banned all burials there after the country’s oldest temple was designated as a UNESCO heritage site and its worshipers had claimed the forest as their own.
After strong protest from the Christian community, in 2009, the authorities granted Christians access to once again bury their dead in the Shleshmantak forest. Yet the win was short-lived; following protests across the country from the Hindu community, the government reinstated the ban in 2011.
“According to our culture, we erect crosses or stone over the graves, but they did not like that,” said Paudel. “It is a heritage site for Hindus, and we understand their stance.”
Christian communities made several efforts to secure burial lands in the Kathmandu Valley from 2008 until Nepal adopted a new constitution in 2015. Christians in two different districts purchased land but faced opposition from Hindu fundamentalists and an unsupportive government.
“Now nobody can go there and bury,” said B. P. Khanal, Nepal’s coordinator of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.
In 2011, these challenges prompted Christians to stage a hunger strike until the government promised them a land for burial. But 12 years after this agreement, the government has yet to follow through with its promise and dedicate any burial land for Christians.
Nepal’s Catholics did not participate in the 2011 protests and have adopted what they believe to be the most practical solution to this dilemma.
“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, a spokesperson from the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal, told UCA News in an interview in 2021.
Evangelicals say that they are only following what they have learned from the previous generation of believers.
“Everyone should be buried. We have heard this over and over, and it is a tradition that Christians across the world follow,” said Khanal.
Other burial “solutions” have left Christians similarly frustrated.
“We bought private lands at many places on our side of the valley to bury our dead, but the villagers objected to it. They said that having a cemetery near their village with the dead buried there made them fearful of ghosts. Every time we would try to bury someone, we would need police protection to do so,” said Paudel.
The majority of Nepali evangelicals have been forced to cremate their loved ones or travel significant distances to other cemeteries in their country—or even in India—to perform burials. Some, however, negotiate agreements with the few churches who own private land.
"The problem is that not all churches have their private land and not all churches who have their private land have access to bury the dead. The community [villagers and neighbors] normally do not allow us to bury,” said Dongol.
Nevertheless, many Christians are still willing to risk the anger of their neighbors.
“We have to hide through the jungle and must have a quiet funeral ritual with very few people in attendance, hushing the process and doing it all so secretly to avoid any retaliation from anybody,” said Paudel. “We fear the neighboring villagers, the government, the harassment of the police, and then worry about the possible exhuming of the bodies, if the villagers come to know about the burial later. All of this is very painful.”
All of this serves only to “antagonize Hindus for no reason,” said the Catholic spokesperson Satyal.
“Many of the graves are unmarked to avoid detection. The burial ground is used as a garbage dumping site, and at times foxes dig up the buried bodies. There are also cases of bodies being dumped on top of one another," he said in a 2011 interview.
Those who do opt for cremation must rely on Hindus to share their cremation spaces, as Christians lack their own. Christians also lament the lack of access to a traditional firewood procedure, as many find electric cremation machines cold and families consider it emotionally taxing because of the manner and speed of incinerating the body.
Christians’ wide-ranging views and practices regarding burials have made it challenging for them to present a clear request to the government.
“If the Christians were united for the cause, the issue of burial grounds could be resolved,” a Protestant pastor who asked to remain anonymous told UCA News.
But, as for now, the duration of these ongoing burial challenges reinforce many Nepali Christians’ feelings of marginalization.
“As a citizen of this country, we have a lot of rights, but we are not able to use those rights. Who will lobby for us before the government?” said Pradhan. “There is no Christian member of parliament or member of the legislative assembly who represents us who will speak for us.”
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