Living and dying across cultures

There’s one thing about cancer that is undeniable. And that is that it abruptly confronts you with your mortality. Which is interesting, because many cultures, have so many taboos around death. We don’t talk about it. We remain in denial, about our own deaths, and of those close to us. We use euphemisms when a person dies. We too often avoid the topic. We even hide it from our own minds.

However, when you step over the line in the sand when we learn we have cancer, or if someone close to us is diagnosed, that taboo seems to melt away. Being part of a close cancerhood which includes too many with metastatic cancer, means that the subject of death is always there.

I learned a great deal about death and grieving when my father in law died nine years ago in north eastern India where my husband’s family is from. The family belongs to the “Tamang” ethnic Himalayan hill people and are very devout Buddhists. As a foreigner (and new daughter in law) in such an intense situation there was the potential for a very difficult time. I had no understanding of the rituals, or what would happen and my own cultural block prevented me from asking. This was eased enormously for me, when one of my husband’s aunts took me to one side and passed me “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” and pointed me to the chapters on ritual and belief around death.

As well as being enormously helpful and enabling me to understand and engage as appropriate in the rituals, I learned a great deal from that book as well as from being with the family throughout these rituals. I recount this from my memory of that time and what I have retained from the explanations from family and the book which accompanied me throughout. This is my own understanding and I trust that it is accurate, and am happy to be corrected if I err at all.

I am a complete novice in the teachings of Buddhism, so please be gentle with me if I either over-simplify or misconstrue. It is well known that Buddhism is based on the principle of reincarnation. This is where the way we have acted in this life influences and shapes where we head in the next one. As such the process of death is one of the soul passing to the next life and very important. It is critical that the process is carried out properly.

I felt humbled and privileged to be part of this when my father in law died. I found this process enormously respectful and helpful in that it guides the bereaved through a process where they focus on the transition of their loved on in stages and helped me to understand how differently we deal with death in different contexts.

The time of death is believed to be very traumatic for the soul of the one who has died and there is a transition stage known as “bardo” which the soul passes through. It is very important that Buddhist monks guide the departing soul through this process, with rituals known as the “phowa”. This is intended to help the soul understand that they have died and to support them to gradually come to terms with this. Over these early hours and first days following death there is chanting to comfort the soul, and the family say kind things about their lost one, leaving out their favourite foods and drinks to make sure they feel loved and not distressed. The funeral takes place very soon after death, at a place and time identified by the monks.

The 49 days following death are very important in the Buddhist rituals and beliefs, representing seven periods of seven days each. At each seven day point, rituals will be held in the home, Buddhist monks chanting and carrying out the appropriate “puja” to support the soul on their journey towards their next incarnation or next life. At the third seven day period, that is on the 21st day, an important “puja” is held. At this point the soul moves from the stage where they are newly passed, to that where they are preparing for their next incarnation. While in the first 21 days, the soul is believed to be nearby and moving through this “adjustment” phase, after that it is believed that on one of the next seven day points, the soul will pass to the next life, therefore either at the 28th, 35th or the 42nd day.

When the 49th day comes, it is known that the soul has moved on and there is a major day of rituals and puja, with family and friends coming from far and wide to pay respects and to grieve. It is a painful and highly emotional day, for it is on the 49th day, the family and close ones know that their loved one has moved on and they grieve their loss.


Today marks the 49th day since my father’s death.

Post Script

Strangely I dreamed of my father last night, after I had written this.  Strangely, because this is unusual.  I do not dream often of my father, I never have.  I think of him frequently but rarely dream.  Last night, in my dream, he came to visit us in our home.  He was looking so well, was dressed in his usual everyday “countryside smart but casual” clothes and standing in the garden near our door.  I was pleased to see him standing and walking unaided, and out and about as he had been so frail when I last saw him. Memory was clearly blurring with reality.

He didn’t come into the house, but we stood outside and chatted.  Small talk.  Chit chat.  Nothing of substance, but pleasant and lighthearted.

Writing this post and thoughts of the 49 days perhaps prompted my subconscious to form this dream. Or perhaps not?

19 thoughts on “Living and dying across cultures

  1. I found this post fascinating learning about how a different culture looks at death. How interesting that you dreamed about your father after writing your post. My father died of pancreatic cancer and I often wonder where he and my brother who died of esophageal cancer souls are after death and I appreciated thinking about them in a different way. I know you are on the other side of the world and everything around you is different, yet when it comes to life and death, there is so much we can’t be sure of, but we all are surrounded by it, wherever we are. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your comment, S.I think about this a great deal, especially since diagnosis and I suspect there may be more thoughts here later. There are a few in my mind. As you say, we may be in different places in so many ways, but we are grounded by those universal truths and equalising conditions of birth and death.

    • Thanks, Y – it is a helpful process and very dignified and respectful. The dream was completely unexpected, and the warmth that it brought has stayed with me. Thanks 🙂

  2. Forty nine days… wow. You’ve made me think of so much in this post. And to add your dream onto the end, it’s wonderful you saw your father at the gate standing and well. I don’t know what comes next after we pass on, but I do hope there’s wellness involved – in whatever form that may be.

    Thinking of you today.

    • Thanks C – yes, it is nine years since my father in law died and there has been such a lot of learning and reflection from sharing that experience with my family in law. Yes, wellness in the broadest sense. The thing which I realised later about the dream, was that the overwhelming sadness which had bathed my father since my step mum died, was not there in the dream. That heavy sadness had lifted….

  3. I don’t believe it was your subconscious. I am a firm believer that our connections don’t end when we die. Thank you for sharing this wonderful personal story, and also for sharing the Buddhist traditions around death. We can all learn from them. This is a beautiful post.

  4. this is so beautifully written, philippa, soothing and so fascinating. and that is how the dream of your father seemed as well – soothing and so peacefully, you encountered him in the garden. it’s good for us to glean understanding of death rituals, each so different in so many places on the globe. any ritual or part of it that can help us see death through other eyes and may even offer some comfort and reassurance for us personally is a good thing. thank you for writing about a way that we can become more citizens of the universe through understanding and respecting other’s traditions.

    love, XOXO

    karen, TC

    • Thank you so much K, yes that was exactly it. It was soothing. The pain, discomfort and sadness were no longer there (I didn’t realise this till after I had written the post). I find the rituals here very helpful, respectful and dignified and although they are very different to our rituals, I found them very accesible and easy to understand.

      I am thinking of you, as we go through similar paths (((hugs))) P xxx

  5. Amazingly tender! Having lived in Africa for a number of years there are some traditions that are to to what you described. After death there is held a MATANGA where you mourn the loss of the loved one for 39 days. On the 39 th you celebrated their life Kill a couple of goats eat a lot of chicken and traditional vegetables. There are so many varities of food There is music people eat drink dance have a wonderful time that lasts to the 40th day. At around the time dawn approaches many people leave. It is all about getting on moving on with life you had those 39 days to mourn properly.Crying wailing depression is done! I like to believe we cross a threshold we either see our loved ones from time to time or we have different sensations they are here always around us… When my mom died my son swore up and down he could smell Grandmas perfume in the center of the stairway. She had never been there we moved after her death He was 6 years old He knew she was there.. I saw my grandfather one day walking down the street all dressed up in a suit and tie Took off his hat waved I asked my husband if he saw that He said saw what? That was the only time I ever saw him but it left me peaceful. He was just fine after a hard few months with Bowel Cancer ..
    Thank you for sharing…Alli…

    • My goodness, thank you so much for sharing your insights here – parallels and differences across continents, indeed. I am sharing your comment on the Feisty Blue Gecko facebook page as it is so interesting 🙂
      Thank you 🙂

  6. Oh Philippa – this is so beautiful. It really gave me some comfort reading about this tradition and makes me wish I had something like this when my mum died. The western way to deal with death really feels inadequate when reading your post.

    • Thank you so much Marie – I was thinking of you as I was working on this. It is such a long and painful process, and certainly in my own background once the funeral is over, it is swept back under the carpet. I have found the Buddhist process helpful, but am surrounded by the western side too and people expect me to be “over it”. sigh. Big hugs to you Marie. xxx

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