The National Crematorium

Posted on May 05, 2009

While Bhutan is a poor country, one could be excused for not seeing this. A modest air of prosperity pervades the entire nation. What is all comes down to is a pretty fair and equal distribution of wealth. Combined with a government that actually tries to do well for its citizenry. What a concept. This includes cradle to grave benefits, free medical care for all (though this being Bhutan, one can choose between traditional Bhutanese medicine, or western medicine, or a combination of both), free and universal education including overseas university for all qualifiers, and as befits a Buddhist land, where upon death cremation is the norm, free cremation.

Each dzonghag (district) has its crematorium. After cremation the ashes are returned to the family, these are mixed with clay and formed in molds, about the size and shape of a cupcake, (known as chortens) sometimes the top painted, looking all the more like frosting on the cupcake. These are then placed in any place deemed auspicious, usually a mountainside or stream side but sometimes even window sills, so that grandpas essence may emanate from these sites. Hundreds, even thousands of these small chortens crowd ledges along side mountain roads. Eventually they crumble and become again soil.

It soon became too hot (this is what state of the art gets you, extreme heat) and they went for the exit doors. Which also were too hot to handle.

The National Crematorium is in Thimphu, the capital. We see it along side the river. Dorji explains that with more bodies to cremate here, the government decided it needed a more efficient way to cremate the deceased. So imported a new state of the art oven from (I kid you not) Germany. (Were a group of Germans brainstorming about business opportunities and they chanced upon crematory ovens, you'd think at least one of them would have had the sense to say "Ach Klaus, ve cannot make dat." But some minds are impervious to irony). The new oven was installed, and on its maiden voyage, so to speak, the bereaved families gathered inside as is the custom, to observe the cremation. It soon became too hot (this is what state of the art gets you, extreme heat) and they went for the exit doors. Which also were too hot to handle. Only the quick intervention of those outside who heard their frantic cries, and promptly opened the doors saved them.

The German oven now sits abandoned and unused, the Bhutanese prefer their traditional method.