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Beyond Goodbye: Understanding Funeral Customs and Beliefs in Bhutan

Bhutan is known for its unique culture and religious traditions. One of the most significant events in Bhutanese culture is the death of a person, which is not seen as the end of life, but rather the start of a new one. Today we will explore the various funeral customs that are practiced in Bhutan, including the different ways in which the dead are disposed of, the rituals and ceremonies that are performed, and the beliefs surrounding death and rebirth in Bhutanese culture. We will also examine how these customs differ in urban and rural areas of Bhutan.


Funerals in Bhutan

There are several funeral customs in Bhutan. Traditionally, most people have chosen to cremate a deceased person close to their own home or on a riverside so that the ashes and body parts can be conveniently discarded in the water.



In Lingzhi (north-west Bhutan), dead bodies are left on a mountainside for vultures and other scavengers to eat. The corpse is sliced into 108 pieces by the residents of the Merak and Sakteng settlements (eastern Bhutan) , who then throw them into the river. Whereas, in the Lhop (south-west Bhutan) community, a deceased person is often buried in the ground.



Common funeral rites


A Bhutanese funeral. Image: bhutantoday


Although most rituals are a combination of pre-Buddhist and Buddhist elements, the rituals surrounding death and the disposition of the dead body can be divided into two categories: pre-Buddhist practices and Buddhist practices.


Death is regarded as the most significant occurrence in Bhutan. Death is not considered to be the conclusion of life, but rather the start of a new one. A person is obliged to follow the fundamental guidelines of amassing merit throughout their lifetime. A lama is expected to carry out “phowa” practice just before passing away in order to transfer the awareness, which exits the body through the fontanel, breaking the connection between the consciousness and the still-living body.


A lama or astrologer creates the death horoscope, or shintsi, immediately after a person passes away. This is used to determine a person's cause of death and it also details the rites that must be performed to guarantee a specific reincarnation. The directions from which the body should be removed from the house, the manner in which the corpse should be disposed of, the offerings to be made, the ceremonies to be performed, and the astrological years of the people involved are just a few of the often minute details.


The body of the deceased is typically placed in a wooden box with colored scarves on top and bound in the position of a fetus. An effigy of the dead person is then placed on a little shrine, and offerings of prepared food, fruits, torma (ritual dough), and alcoholic beverages are offered as part of pre-Buddhist ritual customs.



Remembering

On the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and forty-ninth days after someone has passed away, rituals and prayers are repeated. For a specific number of years, rituals are also performed on the day of the person's death.


49 days

The consciousness is believed to wander the “bardo”, the transitional condition between death and rebirth, for forty-nine days following death. People also believe that it is the duty of the surviving family members to heighten the merit of the departed in the wandering realm so that they can find their path to rebirth and ultimately to enlightenment. Extensive ceremonies are carried out by the monks and priests to help the soul transition from one incarnation to the next.


Butter lamps. Image: Vicky

Darshing: Prayer flags

Eighty-eight prayer flags bearing the "Om Mani Padme Hum" mantra are raised in memory of the deceased. Writing wishes on the cloth of the flag is customary. The messages in the flags raised by the grieving may include hopes of rebirth of the deceased in the joyful realm of Buddha Amitabah.

White prayer flags for the deceased. Image: triptobhutan


In order to benefit all sentient creatures, especially the deceased, representatives from each family bring donations in cash and chant the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra. Both copious amounts of food and liquor are consumed. The majority of people will prefer to attend on the significant days, particularly the cremation day and the 21st, when the primary rites are carried out.


The households that can do so will continue to pray every day for twenty-one or forty-nine days straight. Additionally, they carry out all the rituals and practices the astrologer advised for the good of the living and the dead.



Funerals in urban areas of Bhutan


In urban areas, the city provides people with crematoriums near rivers called "Duethrey", where the dead bodies are burned. The rest of the rites are performed in the homes of the deceased by the family members. These cremation areas do not really have funeral services, and people associated with the deceased, such as friends and family, hold the entire cremation ceremony. So, when a person dies in Bhutan, it often becomes difficult for the family to manage the emotional distress and financial burden of the funeral. Nonetheless, duethreys are better options in cities where burning dead bodies beside one’s house is not so much of a convenience.


Tachogang crematorium Paro. Image: kuensel



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