Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Participation in a funeral procession with incense © Alok S. Tuladhar

Death: Funeral as a Departure to a New Beginning

According to newa, a Buddhist belief system, death is one of the ten major events in one’s lifetime. While death is the end of a life, it is also taken as a beginning of another life, a cycle that continues until the state of Nirvana is achieved. Hence, death rituals, apart from funerals and lamentations, include rituals carried out to prepare the deceased for the journey after death.

Believing firmly that the ultimate truth of life is death, families associate themselves in a social organization called guthi, which help carry out the funeral rituals. Guthi members are informed as soon as a person dies, and they are responsible for arranging resources like the decorated covering sheet and the funeral palanquin required for the cremation. The daughters of the deceased are responsible for sharing the word of death to the neighborhood by taking the name of the deceased while crying out loudly. The space around the dead body is disinfected using cow dung. The sons of the deceased then use a needle to prick the body of the deceased as a symbol of confirming the death. Personal belongings of the dead, like his straw mat, a set of clothes, etc. are disposed in a crossroad, called chhwasa, nearest to the house that determines a community’s boundary, and declares the death to the community. The daughters of the dead bid goodbye by offering a blanket and stay at home. Guthi members prepare the funeral palanquin, and the dead body is carried to the cremation site, which is usually beside a river, accompanied by musical instruments played in a procession.

Once the dead body is prepared for cremation, the sons perform a ritual of serving water to the deceased to symbolize a last offering to the physical body. Next, a mound of river sand, called pinda, is prepared and used to represent the physical body to be cremated, prior to lighting the pyre.

The immediate family members of the deceased come together for the thirteen-day mourning period, which includes intricate rites and rituals of offerings for the deceased as well as purification of the relatives. Since Buddhism believes life-energy journeying to another entity/ies after physical death, the death ritual also includes symbolic activities believed to facilitate a new life of the deceased. As the relatives come back from the cremation site, they disinfect themselves with a ritual called chwokabajihwolegu in which the person is circled with a handful of beaten rice that is then disposed of in the chhwasa to help relieve negative energy that may have been attached to the person from the cremation site. Secondly, this ritual helps bring family members back to their normal senses (from a state of shock), and food is served.

On the second day of mourning, all relatives and the guthi members visit the mourning family and take care of their food and wellbeing. This culture mainly depicts the social milieu and its role during the difficult state of the mourning family. The third, fifth, and seventh days after the death are dedicated to special worship to wish for better placement of the deceased in their next life. A special feast, lwocha baji, is served to the mourning members on fourth day. The seventh day is the last time rice is offered to the deceased, and symbolizes bidding formal goodbye. Members wash clothes and clean the house on eighth and ninth days, and on the tenth day, each member of the family involved in the mourning process goes through a cleansing process by taking a bath and clipping the nails. Also, men shave their hair and eyebrows in the process. On this day, sons and the spouse of the deceased wear white clothes, and continue to wear them for the whole year as a symbol of lamentation. On the twelfth day, members consume meat and other edibles that they avoided until as part of mourning in a feast called gha su bhwoe. The thirteenth day concludes the mourning period for all relatives, except for the children, spouses and parents of the deceased, with an elaborate worship ritual.

Apart from major worship rituals each month for a year, the forty-fifth day and the hundred and eightieth day are also important, when half-day rituals take place to remember the deceased and wish them a better place of birth in their next life. The death rituals of the year consider the deceased’s journey until their new birth in another realm. After the second death anniversary, responsibility of the deceased is completely handed over to their new destination, and death rituals are complete. In the following years, the deceased is remembered annually.

Note

The number of mourning days and a few other details vary according to different clans even within the newa. Only the case of the Udaaya clan is taken here.

Resources

Ritesh Bajracharya and Nitesh Bajracharya (practicing priests of the Bajracharya clan based in Kathmandu).