Funeral Ceremony in Myanmar
The most inevitable ceremony in one’s lifetime – the funeral – may not be so pleasant or lavish compared to other ceremonies. But it is important in the sense that it reflects the influence of religion and belief, as well as people’s perception of death and life.
Funeral ceremony in Myanmar is noted for its simplicity and affiliation to Buddhism and Nats – the country’s prevailing religions, evidenced by the monks being part of the ceremony. Unlike people from many Asian neighbors who practice ancestral worshipping, Myanmar people frown upon that notion. Their only and ubiquitous object of veneration is the Buddha. Small ceremonies following one’s funeral, like the ahlu that marks the first month after one’s death, are sustained for the sake of performing good deeds rather than commemorating the deceased.
Preceding the funeral, the deceased’s acquaintances would have been informed of his declining health. When the news of the death is announced, depending on their connections, the informed can choose to send a condolence letter, send a representative or pay homage personally.
The deceased will be bathed and dressed in his or her finest clothes and the body is preserved at low temperature. Relatives put a coin in the deceased’s mouth – a small change – to pay a “ferry toll” to the underworld, a custom that bears striking resemblance to those of other Asian countries. The coin is called gadaw ga (roughly translated as ferry toll).
The funeral ceremony in Myanmar spans a total duration of seven days. On the first day of the funeral, a monk is invited to chant prayers that are thought to protect the soul. The culture of Myanmar is deeply rooted in Nats – the religion that worships spirits and has been practiced for centuries before the adoption of Buddhism. Consequently people take matters regarding souls very seriously. It is believed that for the first six days after the end of their mortal lives, the souls of dead people still do not cope with the fact that they have died. As a result, the doors and windows of the house must be open throughout the funeral in order for the soul to get out. Family members have to keep vigil all days and nights – a task that demands much coordination.
During the funeral, the grieving family will receive a lot of visitors who come to pay condolence. The guests bring their gifts which are practical commodities like money and food for poor families or flower wreaths for wealthy ones. The host will thank them and give them some refreshments – tea and black melon seeds.
On the third or fifth day of the funeral, the body is cremated. While burial is also commonplace, tight land budget means families in urban areas are more inclined to cremation. Prior to the cremation, monks are invited to provide incitation. Attendees are given fans with the name of the deceased printed on it and a sutra about the impermanence of life. The fans also double as invitation cards to a meal on the seventh day. However, only the ones who are personally invited by family members will attend the meal. Sometimes the fans carry out three missions at the same time as the names of the deceased, the excerpt of the sutra and the invitation are all printed on both sides.
The last day is called the Yet Le, when the family throws a meal for the monks to thank for their blessing. Certain guests are also invited. At the end of the meal, the funeral is concluded with Buddhist water libation ceremony – a metaphoric message to the spirit of the deceased that his or her earthly life – like the water that is thrown away – is unable to be recovered. After the deceased has come to acknowledge his or her death, the soul – leippya – will leave the mortal world permanently.
As aforementioned, Myanmar people take ancestral worship lightly and have no intention to commemorate one’s death for its own sake. They, however, hold post-funeral ceremonies to express their gratitude to the community who have shared their difficult times. Those ceremonies go under the name ahlu. The family of the deceased will invite guests and treat them generously with main courses including mohinga and samosas. The dessert has more color, with sizable portions of Burmese snack like shwe htamin (a sweet snack made of rice) served to the attendees. The attendees also give some cash as a contribution to the host.