© 2023 Dr. Margaret Sheppard

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Death and Funeral Ceremonies

When a person passes away,the body is prepared by the undertakers and laid out on a special bed that will later fold up into a coffin. The chief mourners keep vigil. Relatives, friends and neighbours come to sit with them and view the deceased to show their respect. The body may be on display for up to 7 days if close relatives are travelling from far away to attend the funeral e.g. if the chief mourners are working overseas or in the Middle East.

Throughout this period all people paying their respects are served with refreshments and meals (a large expense for catering if this is for several days). It is a 24/7 hour vigil period, and many people, especially men, gather during the evening and night to sit on chairs in the family garden after paying their respects to the  deceased.

Then at the auspicious time and day according to the deceased’s horoscope, the funeral will be held. This is usually early afternoon after lunch has been served to all the mourners. The mourning colour is white. Monks attend to hold a Buddhist service outside the house. The undertakers fold up the funeral bier into a coffin and the deceased is carried out to be laid in the enclosure where the monks are seated. In front of the coffin on a mat, sit the close relatives to listen to the monks and speeches from various local leaders and senior relatives who talk about the deceased. Water is poured by the relatives onto their hands from a teapot. The monks then depart.

Amongst much loud mourning the coffin may be opened for a final look at the deceased, then the coffin is carried to the grave led by funeral musicians (trumpets and drums). The chief mourners follow immediately behind the coffin. The grave may be dug in the garden or at the local cemetery. At the graveside there is again much loud mourning. The chief mourners circle the coffin 3 times in each direction then it is lowered into its grave which is immediately filled in. Graves used to be cemented and bricked in, but now this is not done due to lack of space.

Relatives friends and neighbours visit the funeral house during the days of the wake. They will typically bring gifts of tea, sugar, biscuits etc that will be used to serve refreshments to the visitors. Men and women usually congregate separately.

They will pay their respects to the deceased

On the day of the  funeral mourners typically wear white. Usually at least one mourner is overcome

Mourners awaiting start of the funeral service

Funeral musicians play special funereal music as the monks arrive

Final farewell from close relatives before bier is folded into a coffin  which is then carried out of the house for the funeral service

For the service the coffin is placed in front of the monks, close relatives are seated on a mat in front of the monks.

Other mourners are seated around the yard

Room where the deceased lay is immediately washed and cleaned

MC formally announces details of funeral to the monks and the mourners

Monks are seated on chairs. The table has refreshments for their use during the funeral - tea, water, bulat etc

Close relatives all hold a white cloth during this part of ceremony

One monk chants special Buddhist prayer

Chief mourners pouring healing water

The entrance to the funeral house is often marked by the name of the person and their dates

Close relatives sit with the body

Following the Buddhist monks’ speeches to comfort the bereaved, several friends and local politicians deliver eulogies on the deceased

Sometimes the Monks then depart at this point

Rice is cast along the  route the coffin is carried. N.B. the light haired mourner with a basin of rice.

White cloth “unrollers”

They then return home. Food that has been cooked at the same time as that for the Monks is served to all the neighbours - it is  taken to their homes in parcels.

Three months after the death of the person, a Pirit is held at the family home. Food is cooked and pirit men or perhaps monks, will recite the Holy texts all night. Relatives and neighbours will attend and they are served refreshments throughout the night. Then a main meal is served at sunrise before people depart to their homes. Again neighbouring houses are given food parcels.

This type of pirit is repeated every year around the anniversary of the death. If the all night prayers are not held then food may be cooked for the monks. E.g. one of my neighbours did this every year for her late parents who died about 50 years ago. Another informant cooks every year for the local Home for the Elderly Blind in memory of her parents who died in the 1970s.

Failure to observe this custom can render an individual weak making them subject to demonic attack which can manifest itself as bad luck, business failure, physical or mental illnesses etc. One of the Mahasona Tovil/Devil dances I attended was for a patient who had failed to cook for a relative - Mahasona (the much feared Cemetery Demon had entered her, resulting in her present mental illness, confusion etc. (See section on Tovil Ceremonies.)

At this funeral, the monks led the procession with the coffin to the grave. NB the white cloth that is thrown down for monks and pall bearers to walk along

Senior monks are shaded from the hot sun

Traditional Funeral musicians lead the procession

At  the grave  the coffin is opened for the  last time and close relatives bid a final farewell to  the deceased

The coffin is then screwed up for the final time and carried to the grave

Musicians play the funereal music

Close relatives pass 3 times in each direction around the grave into which the coffin has been lowered and the grave is immediately sealed. Then the mourners return to their homes.

Seven days after the funeral, the family must cook for the monks. This food is prepared at home and then they take it to the Temple to serve up for the monks’ lunchtime meal.

The widow

Buddhist prayers before serving the meal to the monks.

Family then retire outside to pray at the Temple

Head monk

Family serve the monks and then retire to sit in front of them whilst they eat.

The deceased is laid out by the undertakers in his house. Mourners, including children, come to pay their respects.