Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Mongolian Funeral

Tikshay, a friend from church told me Saturday that his uncle died. The funeral was held the following Wednesday morning. It was the first Buddhist funeral I’ve ever witnessed.

We got to the family’s house just before 7am. The Monk was already there. Tea was brought to people while we waited. Then everyone filed out of the house. Just as I cleared the front door, I saw the body being carried from the house next door toward the waiting van, a microbus with the seats laid flat.

The body was laid on a pallet like stretcher made of a few new boards fastened together. On top of the body was laid two red shiny cloths - one on the body, the other on the face. Tikshay and other pall-bearers rode with the body in the back of the microbus.

at the gravesite...

The grave was dug and covered with a cloth. The graveyard had hundreds of graves with the same kind of rock and headstone that I had accompanied to the site. We got out of the truck. Some benches were set right beside the new grave. The body was carried out of the micro, and set on the benches. Some incense was lit at the head of the grave.

The Monk sat on a stool at the head of the grave and took out a book and began to read. I wasn’t able to distinguish this because sang the words in Buddhist chant. I asked Tikshay if he could understand the words. He said yes, that it was Mongolian. It was then I noticed that under the head of the body was a large brick of what turned out to be tea.

Little pastries and candy were handed out. Some people ate theirs and some threw them to the birds. (The huge black ravens that stood watch all around appreciated this part, and later one particularly husky mongrel made off with three ‘donut-hole’ sized pastries in one beak, to the cheers of almost everyone – it was the day’s lightest moment) Then the funeral party walked around the grave three times together. This reminded me of the ritual performed at an ovoo (piles of rocks on hilltops) all over Mongolia.

The ride back to the family’s home was like an off road vehicle race. The truck carrying me and Tikshay was going 50-60 km/h toward town, the shortest route to a paved road. This express route got us back in half the time. The procession of cars (four or five) drove through two smoldering dung-fires as it approached the house. We got out of the cars and waited for our turn to go through a kind of washing line before entering the yard.

Inside the house was one long table in an L-shape the length and width of the house (about 20 feet). There were probably 30 people seated on benches on both sides. We ate soup, potato salad and sweet rice with raisins. I passed on the potato salad because the soup was really good and filling. I ate some rice. Then they indicated I needed to eat some food (xool), which was the potato salad. It was good, and my eating it seemed to satisfy everyone that I was full. I guess soup, like bread, doesn’t qualify as food here.

Tikshay said it was time to go. We stood and hovered at the door for about a minute. His cousin, the deceased man’s youngest daughter, thanked me for coming. Someone was handing everyone a porcelain bowl and giant box stick of matches. I thought we were going outside to burn incense to Buddha or something. Tikshay indicated we wouldn’t hang around for whatever was next. So I handed off my matches to someone on the way out the gate. The matches and cup were handed back to me and I humorously learned that the two items were not for a ceremony, but a gift for me to take home as a memento.


Anonymous said...

Jeremy, What do Buddhists believe happens after death? -- Jefe

JorRB said...

I'm learning that Buddhism here is not closely adhered to by most people. I did hear this though:

Some people prefer a differnt type of funeral involving no coffin or grave. Some people perform a simple ceremony and leave a body on a hill. Then they come back in three days. If the body is quickly eaten by birds, it's a sign that their spirit has quickly returned to the Sky (which here is kind of considered a god). I don't aim to become an expert on Buddhism proper. It's Mongolian spritual beliefs like this one that I hope will serve as openings for the gospel, like the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill in Acts 17.