"The Mysteries of Life are More Present"

An Ethnographer's Experience of Death in Nepal

December 7, 2014

Jeffrey Potter as been documenting life in a village in eastern Nepal since 1994. During a trip there in 2000, he was present for the death of a young man named Harka — an experience that he says was both profound and unexplainable. Potter shared his story with us, as well as a variety of sounds and images which you can find below or on his website.

I was in this village called Benchong in eastern Nepal, and I heard that a boy in the village had fallen. Apparently, he was cutting fodder from some of the higher branches on a tree. He fell from the tree onto a layer of stones on his back, and he was paralyzed.

I sat with him and I watched his lungs fill with fluid until his eyes rolled back, and I think those were his last breaths. The funeral would be the next day, and so as the evening wore on, fewer and fewer people were awake, and I decided to make a little room for myself and curl up there.

I had a dream that Harka came to me, and he said, “I’d like to say goodbye to my mother. Can I just borrow your body? I’ll come in through you and communicate to my mother, and then I’ll go.”

In my dream I started to feel him come into my body, and I could feel in my dream that I was starting to panic. And so I told him, “Get out. Get out of my body, I don’t want to do this.”

I awoke from that dream, and on my lips was a Kulang word, “mother.” I think it was really that moment, when I woke up and I realized it was a dream, and there was Harka’s body just a few feet away from me in this dark, smoke-filled house, on this cold winter night... and, yeah, Harka came to me.

When the sun came up, everything became very different. The elders oversee the funeral. A shallow grave is dug near the house, and then, really, it’s up to the community as a whole - with the leadership of the elders - to show him the path, and to basically say, “You’ve gotta go find this. Leave us and find the path.”

The desire of that spirit to stay where it’s known, and where it’s comfortable — even if it can’t communicate, even if it can’t connect — is very strong. So the idea is to make it so that the spirit doesn’t want to stay.

I’m a different person when I’m in Nepal. There’s no doubt about it for me. I feel that there’s so much of our life that’s explained for us here, and that if you can’t find an explanation for something, it’s not hard to find somebody who will explain it for you.

Not all of Nepal is like the community where I’ve lived and worked for most of my time there, but the mysteries of life are a little more present, and death is the great mystery of life. As much as we may try to answer it here in the United States, or in the developed world, I don’t think we have a better answer for it than any other place that I’ve lived. In Nepal, when I’m there experiencing the same things that they are, I find myself searching for answers as well.