Die as You've Lived
Is there such a thing as a good death? If one draws from the experiences of people living in the Yolmo region of Nepal, the answer is often yes, says faculty member and anthropologist Robert R. Desjarlais. "There, people die as they live: among others," he tells us.
Speaking of one elderly Yolmo man in particular, Desjarlais says in his newest book—Subject to Death: Yolmo Buddhist Meditations on Dying—"Certain of his death, prepared for it …Sange's father died at home without fear or regret or longing for the world." The passing was a social one, with many others present in the days before the death and a few close by during the death itself, says Desjarlais, who has studied extensively in the mountainous area and speaks the Yolmo language.
To ensure that the dead pass on to the next life without any remaining attachments—or semjha—to the present material world, a lama performs a purification rite. "My father-in-law had no semjha while dying," Sange's daughter-in-law says in the book. "He was very relaxed and satisfied because he had his three sons to look after his property, and he had all the good things that he loved. But in other cases, if a person who is dying doesn't want to die, then there are chances of semjha coming." It is believed that if semjha remains, it can disturb family life, causing illness and troubling dreams among those left behind.
Known as the doyen ngogen, the purification rite takes place while the body is still in the home and before it is cremated. Five elements —related to the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch—are offered to the deceased as a way of sating any remaining desires. While a lama recites an ancient mantra, a mirror is held up to the corpse, a bell is sounded, incense is lit, and foods and clothing are set out.
Desjarlais, who taught "Engagements With Death and Dying" during the spring semester and will be leading a four-session seminar, "Death in Cultural Context," for the Center for Continuing Education's October College this year, says that all cultures shape their members' experience of dying: for example, how a corpse should be treated, and how funeral rites should be conducted to lessen the pain of losing a loved one. All cultures also address another central question, he says: Is it better to remember or forget the dead?
For the Yolmo people, once someone has died, his or her name is never spoken again; the deceased are remembered only as the family function they served, like Sange's father.
Or, as the lama recites in an important funeral rite:
Zug mhe (no visual form)
Dha mhe (no sound)
Dhi mhe (no smell)
Rho mhe (no taste)
Rhecha mhe (no touch)
Chhe mhe do (no spiritual qualities, period)