14-20 November 2014 #732

Solving a burning problem

Kathmandu Valley will have to wait till August next year for its much-delayed first electric crematorium
Sunir Pandey

LAST REST: The new electric crematorium with Pashupati in the background with the Bagmati alongside.  
It is believed that anyone who is cremated in Pashupati bypasses Baitarni – a deep and treacherous mythological river of purgatory seething with blood and pus and inhabited by crocodiles and flesh-eating birds – and goes straight to paradise.

So, when the city authorities revived the idea of building an electric crematorium, it made perfect sense to locate it along the banks of the holy Bagmati, just south of where the funeral pyres currently are. An earlier municipality plan 30 years ago to place it at Teku didn’t work out because of local opposition, and the imported furnaces are rusting in a warehouse.

The Pashupati Area Development Trust (PADT) was given the task in  2009, and construction was supposed to finish three years ago. There are further delays, and officials say electric funeral services will take at least till August next year.

“Our team was always on schedule but we faced delays because of problems with various contractors,” PADT’s Govinda Tandon told us this week.

The Trust has faced delays not just from contractors. In 2011, the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO objected to various new construction around Pashupati, which is a World Heritage Site. 

One of these developments cited by a Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) review of Nepal’s world heritage sites was the electric crematorium.

“The HIA was produced too late in the process to affect the position, design and layout of the facility and this procedural omission must be rectified in the future. It is clear that the 30m chimney will have a severe visual impact upon the property,” the committee concluded.

Since then, UNESCO’s position has softened after PADT sought to allay fears that the crematorium would be an eyesore. Tandon doesn’t expect any major objections at the committee’s next meeting.

UNESCO’s representative in Nepal, Christian Manhart, says he is satisfied with PADT’s efforts. “We think the visual impact of the chimney will not be as severe because it is located at the periphery of the Pashupati monument area and PADT have agreed to paint it brown or leave the original metal colour and plant trees around the crematorium, which will not make it too prominent.”

The two furnaces are being readied for opening by August next year.
Still, when observed from Tilganga the crematorium does look foreboding and industrial, even with its temple-themed architecture. The  chimney stands three times taller than the building itself, dominates the gilded roof of Pashupati in the distance, and reminds one of Bhaktapur’s smoking brick factory. 

But engineers at the PADT say there will be complete combustion in the chambers and the amount of smoke emitted from the chimney will be much less than from the traditional wooden funeral pyres at the ghats.

Manhart, too, says UNESCO is positive about the electric crematorium for ecological reasons. Each funeral consumes up to 250kg of firewood and there are at least 35 cremations a day at Pashupati alone. Most of the firewood comes from community forests in Dhading, and the electric crematorium will save more than 9,000 kg of firewood a day.

Electric funerals will also keep the Bagmati cleaner, which at the moment is severely polluted downstream because of the ash, charred logs, and clothes of mourners are all ritually thrown into the river. In addition to drainage pipes to divert sewage, PADT engineers say the crematorium will restore the Bagmati.

For Kathmandu residents, the crematorium will mean cheaper funerals in future. It can cost up to Rs 9,000 for a traditional firewood cremation, but an electric cremation could be done for as little as Rs 2,500, and could be reduced further with subsidies. Relatives will also spend less time with one hour per electric cremation, whereas they have to spend up to three hours for traditional funerals at present.

The Rs 130 million crematorium will have two electric furnaces and a third will be added to meet future demand. Kathmandu’s population has risen by 2 million since the first plan for electric crematoria was mooted three decades ago.

PADT believes that Nepalis are culturally ready to accept electric crematoria, and it has also become an environmental necessity for a Valley of 3 million people.   

Electric funeral

Like in traditional funerals, electric cremation burns bodies by the process of incineration, but instead of wooden pyres the combustion is through an electric furnace.

The body is placed on a trolley which moves it into the combustion chamber. It is laid out on a shallow bed lined with refractory bricks that can withstand high temperatures. The chamber has holes at the bottom, through which the flames shoot into the chamber. The vault is closed before cremation starts.

Since traditional funerals are unhurried and relatives of the dead need time carry out necessary rituals, all the facilities of the ghat will also be present inside the crematorium. When the body is being cremated, smoke is piped out of the chamber to a venturi scrubber that filters out particulates before being released by through chimney. The water used in cleaning the smoke is piped into the sewage drains.

Cremation takes between 60 and 90 minutes based on body mass. After it is fully burnt, the ash is collected and handed over to relatives to carry on with remaining funeral rites.

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