A few months ago, I wrote a short series titled Approaching Death as a way of exploring grief rituals for my upcoming book with Elliott and Thompson (DEATH’S SUMMET COAT). Regardless of where we live or who we are, we must make preparations for the end that awaits us all. Historically, this was a problem of space and health as well as grief and loss. While our ancestors had to bear the burden of sorrow for a missing friend just as we, they also had to deal with pressing practical concerns–such as, what do we do with the body? To leave it lying would attract animal life and pestilence; to burn it would use fuel, to bury it would require workable soil. And so, in each culture, burial differs markedly due to climate and geography as well as spiritual practice and cultural assimilation. Today, I provide a brief look at death-in-transition.
Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” the tradition of ritually dissecting the dead into small pieces and giving the remains to birds. Sky burial not only solves the practical concern of removing a body in the cold, tree-less mountains, it agrees with the fundamental core of their cultural belief. Located in the Himalayas, Tibet has a diverse ethnic population and practices more than one religion, though Tibetan Buddhism remains primary. For Buddhists, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is crucial to understanding our present life, though different branches of Buddhism understand these cycles differently and have different sacred texts, all follow the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). Though some aspects of Buddhism still consider the divine, Buddha himself is not thought to be a god. Rather, he is a figure who attained nirvana. Nirvana is a difficult concept to grasp, but it says a great deal about the Buddhist perspective on death.
Traditional Buddhist ideas see life as cyclical, following the doctrine of samsara which literally means “wandering” from one life to the next. The object is to ascend in the chain of being, and this is achieved through karma. As Michael Coogan, professor of religious studies, explains, karma is best thought of as a “law of moral retribution.”[ii] To rise, however, also means to humble oneself, to be free of desires and liberated from earthly attachments. Nirvana is achieved when desire ceases and karma is exhausted, but this means an end to rebirth. When Buddha achieved nirvana, he ceased to exist.
To Buddhists, death is both the beginning of rebirth and also a final embrace of non-existence. Preparation for this cycle begins in life, but continues into death. Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explained it by suggesting that the Tibetan Book of the Dead could also be reasonably called the Tibetan Book of Birth.[iii] Over a period of forty-nine days, a lama (religious person) chants from the book over and over, frequently in front of the corpse, but after burial, they will chant over a picture or momento, so that the soul may obtain a good rebirth. Death, in this sense, is all about the transition.
Buddhists are not the only ones who see death as a transition to another state or another life. Various cultures (including the Cambodians, tribes of Borneo, people from Madagascar) see death as the beginning. In 1913, Sir James George Frazer documented Fijian after-death rituals, wherein it was believed that the real journey begins after death, and that the soul must encounter numerous dangers that it can, in fact, “die” from. Among the Arunta, Frazer describes a second ceremony to force the soul on its voyage.[iv]
There are so many different ways of approaching death. Studying them enriches our own experiences and helps us “approach death” in new ways.
Death’s Summer Coat will be published by Elliott and Thompson in 2015
[i] Michael D. Coogan. Illustrated Guide to World Religions. Oxford University Press (2003), 192.