Adding fuel to the funeral pyres

Suka Bahadur Tamang, 60 (above) has spent half his life chopping logs that arrive at the Timber Corporation of Nepal's depot near the Pashupati temple which supplies wood for the traditional funeral pyres.

From early morning to late at night, Tamang is ready with his trusty axe to supply the wood needed for funeral pyres.

Day in and day out, in the fenced compound next to the country’s only electric crematorium, the seven staff work round the clock to ensure that the demand for wood is met. But Suka Bahadur is the only one who chops the wood by hand, the others use electric saws.

"If the crematorium runs out of wood at midnight, we wake up and start chopping wood," he says.

Even in normal times, the depot operates 24 hours to ensure a constant supply of wood for the cremation of bodies at the ghat on the banks of the holy Bagmati river. But never in his 30 years here has he seen a crisis like this. Demand for wood for the funeral pyres has risen so much that he is over-worked.

"My workload has increased a lot and I am chopping much more wood than I used to," says Tamang whose chopped logs now mostly go to the temporary crematory that has been set up in the open space and banks of Bagmati River for Covid-19 victims.

One of the incinerators at the electric crematorium had to go for repairs, and the other which can only handle 16 funerals a day even if it works non-stop, could not cope with the demand. On Wednesday alone Nepal recorded 168 deaths with 9,238 new infections, with 3,924 in Kathmandu Valley alone.

Before the pandemic, the depot supplied an average of 7,000kg of wood to the crematory every week. In the past ten days, it has dispatched over 100,000kg of after receiving orders from Pashupati Area Development Trust.

The corporation normally sources the logs from government owned forests around Nepal. But since the pandemic hit, it has started buying logs from the private sector as well.

"We did not need to supply logs to the electric crematorium before. But now we have to send it there as well," explains Drona Prasad Pokharel, Depot Chief at Pashupati.

The electric crematorium in Pashupati has been set aside for Covid-19 patients, with the Nepal Army handling the bodies. And while it does not require logs to burn the bodies, the temporary platforms set up in the open space inside its compound as well as the banks of Bagmati River to cremate the bodies require nearly 300kg of logs for each pyre.

The Trust has set up 35 new pyres inside the electric crematorium compound and 16 along the banks of Bagmati for Covid victims.

Says Pokhrel: "Every year, we supply around 2.5 million kg of wood for Pashupati. This year the volume will be far in excess because of the pandemic deaths.”

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