Buddhist Funeral Customs in Nepal and the Himalayas

Buddhists in Nepal and the Himalayas have similar funeral customs.
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Like much of Southern Asia, Nepal and the Himalayas have a population of mostly Hindus or Buddhists. Both faiths embrace reincarnation and the belief that living deeds impact a person’s rebirth after death. While Hinduism significantly influences Buddhist funeral customs in Nepal, Tibetan Buddhism guides those in the Himalayan Mountains. Many Buddhist sacred sites are located there, including the residence of the Dalai Lama. Despite subtle distinctions, funeral customs in both Nepal and the Himalayas are similar.

1 Family Members and Funeral Arrangements

Nepali and Himalayan societies are male-dominated with patriarchal funeral customs. For example, if a married man dies, the person who makes funeral arrangements is not his widow but his eldest son. If that son is unavailable, his next son takes over the duties. If the deceased male has no living son, the responsibilities go to his nearest male relative, not to his daughters.

2 Roles of Buddhist Lamas

Buddhist funeral ceremonies in Nepal and the Himalayas are steeped in sacred tradition. Buddhist Lamas -- spiritual teachers and monks who often lead monasteries -- perform burial rites and provide spiritual guidance to mourners. They also guide the dead, so the dead do not get lost on their final journey to the eternal world. During a cremation or burial ceremony, a Lama carries out rituals, such as reciting or chanting sutras, to redeem the sins of the deceased.

3 Cremation

Buddhists do bury their dead but in Nepal, they often cremate bodies, especially those of high monks and aristocrats. To some extent, this is due to the scarcity of burial grounds, but it is also because of Hindu influence. In Nepal, Buddhists share the same burning ghat with Hindus. Ordinarily, a ghat is a series of steps leading to a riverbank, where waterside cremation takes place. Ashes are either washed away by the river, scattered by the wind or gathered and placed into a container for burial. A Lama's ashes are placed into a small gold or silver tower, called a mourning tower, along with classical books, musical instruments and other treasured objects.

4 Sky Burial

In addition to cremation, Buddhists in Nepal and the Himalayas also perform sky burial, also called celestial burial, in which a corpse is left at an open-air sacred site. The remains are intentionally exposed for vultures and condors to eat. Buddhists believe that since the human soul is immortal, the body is merely a receptacle to hold the spirit. Buddhists feel it is more honorable for another creature to take nourishment from the body, as opposed to letting it decay. After scavenging birds have gone, the bones are collected and burned. Sky burials are commonplace in the Himalayas.

5 Other Types of Burial

Other interments in Nepali and Himalayan cultures include stupa, water, earth and tree burials -- all following a hierarchy as to the deceased’s social status. The noblest burial is stupa burial, a disposition reserved for the Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama or Living Buddha. It involves embalming and mummifying the corpse, before placing it in a monument, called a stupa. In water burial, the body is wrapped with white cloth and submerged in a river. Wherever sky burial is the prevailing practice, such as the Himalayas, water burial is performed for commoners, beggars and others of low standing. To many Buddhists, earth burial is also considered an inferior type of interment. Only those who died from infectious disease or murdered are buried in the ground. Earth burial may offer two meanings: either to halt the spread of contagion, or to castigate the dead by lowering the corpse toward hell. Tree burial is a burial for children; the dead child is entombed in a wooden case and hung on a tree in a secluded forest.

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.