A Mongolian Funeral

Some time ago the father of one of my Mongolian language teachers died at the age of 65, so my class (consisting of three students!) decided to go and pay our respects. Not a very happy occasion at any time, but this really brought home to me the tremendous spiritual needs of the people here.

At 7.30 in the morning we went to the hospital; we had to wait for about an hour before we were all ushered into a small incense-filled room where a lama was muttering his prayers in Tibetan. After the relatives circled round the coffin three times as a sign of respect, it was carried out and put on two old kitchen chairs on the back of an old lorry; about eight men stood around it, and then the lorry drove off, with everyone else following in various vehicles.

For over an hour we went on a roundabout trip through the capital (to confuse the evil spirits!) until we arrived at the cemetery up in the hills. The casket, covered in red cloth, with a red rosette and a black stripe on top (red and black are the colours of mourning), was lifted off the lorry and the headstone lowered from another car and deposited beside the grave. It was then that the mourners discovered that the grave was not big enough, so more digging was needed. Meanwhile they lit a fire (using dried cow dung) and burned incense on top of it. After about an hour of strenuous digging, the ceremony could begin.

Milk, rice and sweets The coffin lid was opened slightly so that the head of the deceased – for the most part covered in a blue piece of silk – could be seen. The lama rapidly chanted Tibetan prayers from memory, occasionally glancing in his prayer book. Now and then his eyes absent-mindedly roamed the sunlit slopes. As soon as he was finished, he motioned for the coffin to be put in the grave.

The oldest son started reading from a piece of paper, apparently a short tribute to his father. His voice was choked with tears and he could hardly speak. When he was finished, an old man stuck the paper in the coffin beside the headrest. Then the lid was moved back into place and fastened with four small bows. The grave having been sprinkled with rice and milk, the men lowered the coffin and carefully put the gravestone in place. With special sand they had brought with them on the lorry, the men started to fill the grave. When it was full, they used the sand from the hole to make a mound on top. They believe that you need to surround the coffin with clean sand and not with what you have dug out of the hole.

When the women had put a lantern with a candle inside in front of the stone, and an old man had sprinkled some rice around the grave, the deceased’s wife walked around it, sprinkling milk from a bottle. After that, a son of the deceased threw sweets on the ground.

Then everyone walked around the grave three times to say farewell. As most Mongolians also walk three times around the stone cairns on top of mountains to appease the spirits, I decided to walk round only once. It is sometimes hard to know what is mere culture and what is real Buddhist ceremony.

A gaffe Having been at the cemetery for over two hours, we left, but after one minute’s drive we stopped, and everybody got out of the cars and lined up. A small dung fire was lit; one by one people moved their hands over the fire, then had water poured over their hands so that they could wash them. Then someone gave them a small piece of cotton wool which had apparently been soaked in some perfume or deodorant. After rubbing their hands with it, they took a small paper napkin from another person to dry their hands. The next thing they got was a lump of sugar. At the end of a row was a lady holding a bowl of milk with a blue hatak (a piece of blue silk) over her arms (a sign of respect). There everyone dipped the lump of sugar into the milk, put it into their mouths and got into their car.

Unfortunately I was not paying attention, as I was trying to figure out whether I could take part in all this or whether it had too many Buddhist or even Shamanist implications. But one of the teachers, a Christian, told me they do all this because they consider the graveyard a bad and unclean place, and assured me it was okay.

Still, I decided not to move my hands over the fire, as it would probably signify some sort of purification and I believe I am cleansed in Christ. In pondering all this, however, I was not paying enough attention, and so did not see what the others were doing; so I put the sugar in my mouth, and then wanted to take the bowl and sip from it (which is the normal ritual in many formal thank-you situations I had experienced in the countryside). But the lady holding the milk shook her head violently and would not let go of the bowl, so I knew I had done something wrong!

I took a new lump (realizing in time that taking the first lump out of my mouth and putting it in the milk would be an even more grievous mistake), dipped it and stuck it into my mouth. Some people were watching me and seemed quite amused, and the grandson, his head sticking out of a car window, grinned from ear to ear. I felt very embarrassed.

We drove back a different route (to fool the evil spirits that might come after us; it is the lama who tells the people which route to take) and we had a huge meal at the deceased person’s house, during which my teacher repeatedly poked fun at me. She kept asking me if I wanted to drink some milk, as she gathered I must have been very thirsty to want to drink from the bowl with milk during the cleansing ceremony. Fortunately, she too was more amused than insulted.

No hope, no assurance What struck me was the absence of any hope and the lack of any assurance. People believe that when you have been exceptionally good you go to heaven (which only seldom seems to happen). When you have been very bad, you end up in one of the eight hot hells or one of the eight freezing cold hells. In most cases, however, you will reincarnate. All you can do is hope that your spirit will return in a high reincarnation and not as a plant or an animal. But you can never be sure, which is why you often see elderly people sitting or walking somewhere, mumbling their Tibetan mantras and unceasingly moving the beads of their Buddhist rosaries. If they do this three million times, they seem to acquire a considerable amount of merit, but they can never be sure…

1 Thessalonians 4:13 spoke to me quite strongly: ‘we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.’ This indeed was a case of absolute hopelessness, of just having to let go without any real comfort. It was heartbreaking.

What also struck me was that you cannot pray yourself: you have to ask (and pay!) a lama to say the prayers that are needed. And it is the lama who decides which prayers should be said; this depends on the day, month and year when you were born. Moreover, he prays in Tibetan, a language that no one else here understands.

How privileged and how immensely rich we are in the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ Jesus. And we can talk to him in our own language whenever we want, without having to pay someone to pray on our behalf.

What a challenge to share that good news with those who do not know yet!

Simon Monster came to Mongolia in 1999. Since September 2003 he has been teaching English and Youth Ministry at Union Bible Training Centre in the capital Ulaanbaatar. He is also involved in youth work in a church.