Thursday, January 27, 2011

Going to a funeral

Funerals are never something you really want to go to. But when it's for a 92 year old woman you've never met who died peacefully in her sleep, and you've never been to a Buddhist funeral before the idea of it doesn't seem too bad. At 92 she well outlived the Nepali life expectancy of 67 years.

Much like a Tam wedding, a funeral is a protracted, multi-day event involving many people, much food and a good deal of socialising, dancing and more eating.

It was an hours trek to the village – once again we left so late that we were scrambling in the dark by time we drew near – many of the party having walked all the way from the main town 4 hours away.

The tent that was erected for the funeral

That night was all daal, rice and sel roti - which is the default party food, and great for serving to large crowds. Thankfully, unlike weddings, funerals are a vegetarian affair so there was no need to worry about what I was eating this time.

The first day was a flurry of activity, it appeared there were mainly close family around, and lots of priests who had come from across the community to help celebrate the event. There was a large tent set up, and inside funeral offerings were set up. These are called torma, and are red sculptures made of flour and decorated. They look amazing all set up - from a distance they reminded me a lot of Russian Orthodox architecture. These sculptures take a whole day to make and are destroyed after the event.

I should probably mention there was no corpse, Buddhist funerals are about helping speed the spirit on to the next phase and much less about the corporal farewell that Western funerals are so focused on. The body had been cremated a fortnight ago and the local cremation site. This event was being held 21 days after death – These Buddhists have a thing for odd numbers, and especially seven.

The day after many more people came from all over the place. There were more prayers, more eating and hundreds of candles made of butter were lit in batches of 108 (another auspicious number). As soon as they were burnt down they were refilled, left to set, and relit giving the whole affair a buttery odor to mix with the incense.

[photos will follow when I'm back in KTM]

That afternoon, evening and late into the night there was dancing – but I'm afraid I missed this as I had to leave to call my little sister on her birthday. Also, after two days of sleeping on the floor being spooned by middle-aged women and woken at 4 am I decided it was about time I got some sleep in my own hard bed.

It was definitely a great experience, and I'm glad I was invited along. Again, no one really questioned why a Christian was there talking part, in fact a lot of people were very kind in explaining what was happening. Once again my halting Tam conversational skills were a bit hit and I met a lot of really interesting people. There was some weeping (and a very awkward moment involving me climbing over a hysterical 70 year old who threw herself down in a doorway and couldn't be moved) but on the whole it was a very positive and optimistic affair.

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