Graveyard Shortage Reveals Broader Religious Tension

The Nepalese Constitution in 2015 pledged to respect all religions. But the country’s Christians say a lack of cemeteries to bury their dead means they still lack basic human rights.

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Graveyard Shortage Reveals Broader Religious Tension

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

This Dhading district cemetary is so crowded the pastor sometimes digs up older graves and stores the remains so he can reuse the spaces.

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LALITPUR, NEPAL — When Pastor Sher A.C.’s mother- and father-in-law died a few years ago in Kathmandu, the capital, he didn’t know where to bury them. Both times, he tried a nearby village, but residents there said outsiders couldn’t use their burial grounds. Another town also turned him away.

Finally, A.C. settled on cremation.

“It was their wish and the family’s wish to bury the deceased,” says A.C., a common last name that stands for Akheli Chhetri, whose mother- and father-in-law died in 2013 and 2014. “They did not want to be cremated. We were unable to fulfill their wish.”

He couldn’t find a Christian cemetery because they are a rarity in Nepal. In Kathmandu, the only Christian graveyard belongs to a church.

A former Hindu kingdom, the country ratified a new constitution in 2015 and declared itself a secular, pluralistic democracy that would respect all religions.

But A.C.’s plight offers a stark example of Nepal’s ragged progress, as constitutional changes have yet to take root in a society where non-Hindus say they still battle for equal treatment.

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Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Pastor Sher A.C. had to take his father- and mother-in-law to a Hindu cremation site because he couldn't find a Christian burial space. He says that when a family member dies, “the tension for us is where to take the body.”

Though Hinduism remains the country’s dominant faith, Nepalese society includes Buddhists, Muslims, Kirats, Jains and Sikhs, among others.

The nation’s new openness to minority religions has ignited tensions in recent years. Muslims have lamented that they too cannot find places for burials, and Tibetan Buddhists in the country say they must celebrate some holidays in private, including the Dalai Lama’s birthday.

It’s hard to say how many Nepalese are Christians. The 2011 census counted about 376,000, but Christian leaders place the total somewhere between 2 and 3 million. They estimate that about 12,500 churches cover a spectrum of denominations – from Presbyterian to Pentecostal – which gather in tiny house congregations as well as bright sanctuaries packed with thousands of worshippers.

Yet the growth has not led to more Christian burial grounds, says C.B. Gahatraj, president of the Federation of National Christian Nepal.

“Funeral rites are an individual’s basic human right,” he says. “If we take the bodies outside Kathmandu, the local communities protest. We have to hide and bury the dead at night [in another city], or under compulsion we have to cremate.”

On the Nepalese New Year in 2014, Shanta Maya Gurung’s father-in-law succumbed to diabetes at a hotel in Kathmandu. His relatives wanted to lay him to rest there, but they found no burial ground.

They instead returned him to his home district of Dhading, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) northwest of Kathmandu, at a cost of 35,000 Nepalese rupees ($291).

“I felt like this was not my own country,” Gurung says.

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Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Shanta Maya Gurung's relatives wanted to bury her father-in-law in Kathmandu, where he died. But the only available burial ground was in another town.

A.C., 53, recalls that when his mother-in-law passed away, he considered burying her behind the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, then decided against it. “It was a risk because we had to hide and take the body at night,” he says.

In Lele, a village of lush hills and fields 21 kilometers (13 miles) south of Kathmandu, A.C. was told that the local community does not allow Christians to bury their deceased there.

Then he found a spot in Dhulikhel, a municipality 32 kilometers (20 miles) east of the capital, but that didn’t work either.

“We were asked to lie and tell the community that the deceased was a local from Dhulikhel,” says A.C., who is also general secretary of the National Churches Fellowship of Nepal, a coalition of indigenous congregations. “We did not want to lie.”

A year later, when his father-in-law died, he faced a similarly anguished search.

Some Christians thought such challenges would recede after Gahatraj filed a case against the federal government in Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2011 over the issue of burial grounds. That year the court ruled that the lack of Christian burial grounds wasn’t the state’s responsibility, but said government ministries and Christian leaders should create a committee to address the issue. That committee has not yet been formed.

Government officials say they are committed to addressing the shortage of Christian burial sites.

“We will follow the Supreme Court’s ruling,” says Pradip Koirala, chief of the culture division at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation. “We are making policy and law for it. Work is in progress.”

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Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Christian graves are vandalized in Lele, a village in Lalitpur district. Residents protest the burials because they say when Christians conduct them here, animals dig up the graves and scatter body parts in the village.

The head of the Interreligious Council Nepal says Christians do not suffer discrimination.

“Practicing one’s religion is not a big problem in Nepal, even if they belong to a minority group,” says Keshab Prasad Chaulagain, the council’s founding general secretary. “People can practice their religion and faith following the constitution and laws of Nepal. Different religions coexist in harmony.”

Christians in Kathmandu say they have taken deceased relatives to cities as far as 175 kilometers (109 miles) away, only to find that burial grounds were full or communities turned them away.

The site where Gurung’s father-in-law lies is used by Christians, Buddhists and Nepalese people of Gurung descent. Between 150 and 200 graves cover 4 acres, but Supasing Tamang, a pastor in Dhading, says there is not enough space.

“We [Christians] dig up a grave that is 20 years old and put the remains in a bag and reuse the space,” says Tamang, who adds that they inform families when they do this.

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In Lele, Christians must go to a nearby town to bury or cremate their loved ones, and the transport can cost 20,000 to 30,000 rupees ($166 to $250).

Some Kathmandu churches bought land in Lele for burials, but locals resisted. They blocked access to cemeteries, and if a church did manage to hold a burial, Lele residents dug up the body, Gahatraj says.

Bachchu Ram Sijapati, a 62-year-old Lele resident, says local community members didn’t know Christians had bought land for burials. Otherwise, he says, townspeople would not have sold the property in the first place.

Days after some burials, he says, body parts lie scattered around the village, scavenged by dogs, vultures and eagles.

“There would be parts of a leg or bones,” Sijapati says. “It would stink.”

He adds, “We did not stop them because of religion or faith. We respect all religions.”

A.C. and Gahatraj hope the government will soon address the shortage of Christian burial grounds.

“We are not happy to see our family members cremated,” A.C. says. “This is our religion and our belief. This is our right as Nepalese citizens.”

Shilu Manandhar is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kathmandu, Nepal. She specializes in migration and wildlife reporting in Nepal.

Translation Note

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated the interviews from Nepali. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.