Death and a Buddhist Funeral in Sri Lanka

I got off a bus from Kandy this evening in the neighborhood of Dangolla, where I started my daily ascent up the steadily up-hill road that leads to the ISLE Centre where I live. On the way, I stopped into my friend Sanjeeva Ayya‘s kade (small shop) to pick up a stalk of aembul kessel (sour bananas).

As Sanjeeva Ayya weighed the bananas, he told me that Ajith Ayya, another friend who is a bus ticket collector working part-time in the shop, was up the road at a malegedara, or Buddhist funeral home, being held for one of our neighbors who had passed away yesterday. The house was on the way back home, and despite the reluctance I felt with my tie-die shirt and blue shorts that don’t exactly mesh with the customary white garments worn at a malegedara, I hoped to pay my respects if I could.

The entrance to the road was emblazoned with an arched, white fabric, marking the passing of someone who lived here. As I made my way up the road, under the dark cover of coconut and mango and passion fruit trees, I soon came to a gathering of a few dozen people seated outside a well-lit home with additional adornments of white.

I looked over at the people gathered, and sure enough saw Ajith Ayya in his loose-fitting, purple dress shirt, which made me feel slightly better about my disparate attire. He immediately called over, walked out to the road, and grabbed my hand to bring me inside.

“mee aendum prashnayak naedda? (Are these clothes not a problem?)” I asked.

nae kamak nae aetule enna (No, it’s not a problem, come inside), he assured me.

My presence as a foreigner was apparent right away, as conversation halted and those gathered around looked at me with an innocent sense of curiosity. I raised my hands together in worship, trying to convey a quiet sense of respect without taking attention away from the ritual occasion itself.

“buddhu saranayi” (“May you take refuge in the Buddha”), I said, as Ajith Ayya helped put my bag down on a chair, and insisted on bringing me inside the home. Right before us, I saw the lifeless body of an old man–whom I later learned to have been 84–dressed in elegant white vestments, his two hands gently interlocked upon his chest, laying upon a ceremonial canopy bed adorned with flowers and two regal elephant tusks presiding above.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body. The first time I remember was back in 2012, also in Sri Lanka, when the husband of Violet, our cook at the ISLE Centre, passed away suddenly. I remember arriving upon an enormous gathering of people outside her home, clad in white, and making my way inside with the other ISLE students to pay our respects and listen to Buddhist monks chant pirith in order to transfer merit and ensure a smooth passing to this man’s next life. Despite their grief, the hosts insisted on bringing us orange soda, and I looked around, overwhelmed, processing a combination of monastic chanting, family members sobbing, a cameraman filming, and the implications of my blatant outsider-ness on this intimate occasion.

It was at one point a few minutes after finding a place inside this home that I glanced back over my shoulder. I felt a deep gasp inside my chest–it was the body of the deceased man, right behind me, clad in white, right out in the open for all to see.

Seeing a dead body for the first time came as a real shock–like something foreign to my tangible cosmos of experience–which was only compounded in realizing the body had been right behind me for this time. Nonetheless, the gathering of people persisted here, listening to the chanting of monks, standing side by side with death.

This experience back in 2012 made me reflect on death in my own culture, back in the US, and how we confront that inevitable condition of our mortality. I would later encounter Wendell Berry, who captures some of this cultural sentiment within a rich ecological metaphor,

“[The soil] is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.

It is alive itself. It is a grave, too, of course. Or a healthy soil is. It is full of dead animals and plants, bodies that have passed through other bodies. For except for some humans–with their sealed coffins and vaults, their pathological fear of the earth–the only way into the soils is through other bodies. But no matter how finely the dead are broken down, or how many times they are eaten, they yet give into other life…And having followed the cycle around, we see that we have not only a description of the fundamental biological process, but also a metaphor of great beauty and power. It is impossible to contemplate the life of the soil for very long without seeing it as analogous to the life of the spirit. No less than the faithful of religion is the good farmer mindful of the persistence of life through death, the passage of energy through changing forms” (The Unsettling of America, 86). 

While Berry’s characterization of a “pathological fear of the earth” may be harsh, and cast judgment on the ostensible religious significance of coffins and vaults, he does bring light to the sense of “separateness” in which we often approach death in our culture. Bodies are often whisked off to funeral homes before being sealed away in coffins, and with the exception of popular Catholic tradition and other minority religious practices, we seldom come face-to-face with them in ritual occasions. Even the elderly among us–those closest to our mortal apotheosis–are often placed in nursing homes and other institutional spaces where the reality of death is circumscribed and kept at bay from the “eternal” engine of worldly aspiration. This sense of “otherness” does breed a sense of fear–perhaps a fear of the unknown, or more existentially, a fear of reckoning with the reality of our own impermanence. I have certainly experienced this fear myself.

This evening, at the funeral home, I was asked to sit down next to the deceased body of my neighbor, as my friend pointed out the living relatives who sat around us. He introduced me to the late man’s wife, who also appeared to be in her 80s, a frail woman clad in a humble white sari with long silver hair, and a left eye without a pupil, colored purely white. I was struck by her poise and composure as she sat there across from her dead husband, a man she had probably known for over sixty years.

She asked me how long I’d been in Sri Lanka, and if I understood Sinhala, but wasted little time with basic pleasantries. She looked firmly into my eyes,

buddhu hamuduruwo kiwwa okkomalaa maeranawaa kiyelaa. apita hadanna bae. ee aeththa nisaa api minissunta udaw karanna oone, kaeaema denna oone, salli denna oone, eta kota apita ii langa ipadiimata pin hambakaranna puluwan.”

 (The Buddha proclaimed that all living beings pass away. We can’t change that. Because of that reality we need to help other people, give them food when they need, money when we can, so we can earn merit for our next life).”

I sat there, my eyes locked with hers, and I didn’t have anything to say. We paused for a long moment. I stood up from my chair, then descended upon my knees, raising my hands up to worship this woman. “buddhu saranayi.” I walked out the door and left.

I wonder now, looking back at that moment, who this woman might hope was the real object of my worship. Would it be her, despite her own aging condition, and what seemed like her recognition of anicca (impermanence) and anatta–the absence of any permanent, concrete self entity? Would it be her husband, despite his departure from this life, and his rebirth in an unknown realm? Or would it be for the Buddha, despite his ultimate liberation from the samsaric world of death and rebirth?

Perhaps what she really wanted to cultivate, in herself and in others, was a “healthy soil”–a “mindful[ness] of the persistence of life through death”–and the great beauty and power therein.