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?

A change of view and the days of the week

It is time for a change of scene.  The background image of a lakeside sunset needs to be refreshed and a new image found to replace it. The difficulty in selecting a replacement is in the immense choice of beautiful things to share.  I am surrounded by wonderful images and am spoilt for choice.  So this time, I have decided to share one of my photos of the iconic Shwe Dagon Temple in Yangon, a very important place of worship for all Myanmar Buddhists.  And it is impossible to do that without talking a little bit about it too.

Shwe Dagon is visible across Yangon, especially at night, and is bot serene, spiritual and spectacular.  The temple is always busy and the sounds of chanting, prayers and worship surround the variety of rituals and meditations.  Despite the throngs though it feels beautifully peaceful.

There are four main entrances to Shwe Dagon, facing each of the four compass points. As with all holy sites in Myanmar, visitors must remove their shoes before the first step at any of the entrances. In rainy season I slither around the shiny surface and in dry season I avoid going in day time because it is so hot underfoot.

The perfect time to go is either sunrise or just as the sun is setting.  At the end of the afternoon, the sun sinks in the sky and the colours dramatically within the space of a half hour or so.  The sky turns violet……….

And then suddenly it is night, and Shwe Dagon is illuminated, visible from many parts of the city.

In Myanmar Buddhist tradition, the day of the week a person is born decides a great deal from a persons name to how events such as moving house, marrying and undertaking new projects. Myanmar people will know immediately which day of the week a person is born, by their name.  Recently we acquired a puppy, and discovered several weeks later that she was Tuesday born and we have given her a Thursday born name!  Please don’t tell anyone!

Before visiting Shwe Dagon, or any temple you should know the day of the week you were born so that you can visit the appropriate shrine and make offerings, receive blessings and carry out the traditional rituals. Each day of the week has an animal assigned, and Wednesday has two meaning that there are eight points where people carry out their rituals, and again this is designated by compass point.  At each of the eight posts there is a Buddha image and devotees offer flowers and prayer flags and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. We pour one cup of water for each year of our life, plus one. At the base of the post behind the image is a guardian angel, and underneath the image can be seen the animal representing the day. The animals that represent the days are:

Sunday – Garuda (mythical bird, Hindu/Buddhist bird deity)
Ruling Planet: Sun
Ruling Direction: Northeast
Personality/Attributes of the Garuda
You are kind and generous. You would give the shirt off your back to someone in need. Some think you are overly gracious. You love a challenge. The tougher the obstacle the more motivated you are to crash through the barrier to reach your goal. You are energetic, and rarely allow life to get you down. You naturally motivate others, and are an inspiration to many.

Monday – Tiger
Ruling Planet: Moon
Ruling Direction: East
Personality/Attributes of the Tiger
You are very intelligent and intuitive. You have a keen eye for detail. You are strong and patient, but only to a point. You detest being taken advantage of and you don’t like people wasting your time. You are goal oriented and like to succeed. You are respectful of laws, and take responsibility for your actions.

Tuesday – Lion
Ruling Planet: Mars
Ruling Direction: Southeast
Personality/Attributes of the Lion
You are a crusader, a natural leader, and a noble person. You hold yourself with dignity and honor. You can be strong-willed and opinionated, but you are usually correct in your estimations. You make decisions easily and don’t like to compromise. You’ll take on any challenge, especially if you are supporting the underdog.

Wednesday morning (up to 12 noon) –  Elephant (with tusks)
Ruling Planet: Mercury
Ruling Direction: South
Personality/Attributes of the Tusked Elephant
You are unpredictable and enthusiastic. You have a taste for danger and action that sometimes gets you into trouble. You are spontaneous and people love you for your passion. You are independent and like to be in control of all situations

Wednesday afternoon –  Elephant (no tusks)
Ruling Planet: Rahu
Ruling Direction: Northwest
Personality/Attributes of the Elephant (no tusks)
You can be hard to figure out because of your contradictory nature. You are a private person and do not like people meddling in your business. However, you are excellent at promoting yourself and your works. You like taking action, but only if it’s a sure thing (little risk involved). You are very successful (especially in business) and you are able to accomplish achievements on your own terms.

Thursday – Mouse or Rat
Ruling Planet: Jupiter
Ruling Direction: West
Personality/Attributes of the Rat
You are clever, witty and intelligent. You have the ability to tap into resources and look at things from a opportunistic viewpoint. You can be introverted and quite, but you are unstoppable when it comes to getting what you want. You are focused and driven (sometimes overly so) and have a knack for getting ahead.

Friday – Guinea Pig
Ruling Planet: Venus
Ruling Direction: North
Personality/Attributes of the Guinea Pig:
You are naturally artistic and creative. You have tons of fabulous ideas, but have a hard time seeing them through to completion. This may be because you are going in so many different directions at once. But you hesitate to pick one thing because you bore easily and get tired of the same thing. You are loving, kind and very sympathetic. You are very sensitive to others, and make a wonderful friend.

And finally we have Saturday.  Thanks to the “Monday’s child is fair of face” rhyme I have always known that I was Saturday born and would have to work hard for a living.  So it was exciting to learn that my born day denotes that I am a dragon or mythical snake, and how my personality is perceived according to that.  Although recently a colleague asked me which day I was born.  She expressed surprise that I was Saturday born and told me that should thought I had the characteristics of a Monday born!  It was interesting to read the characteristics she thought I had.  Flattering?  I am not sure!

Saturday – naga (mythical dragon/serpent) Dragon
Ruling Planet: Saturn
Ruling Direction: Southwest
Personality/Attributes of the Dragon:
You are philosophical and understanding. People are naturally attracted to you because you have an easy confidence about you and you have a great sense of humor. You prefer to work alone because you believe you are the master of your own destiny and do not like depending on others to get the job done.

The image I have selected is one of me carrying out the rituals on my birthday in 2009.  My birthday fell on a Saturday that year, as well as it being my born day.  Very auspicious, and it meant the shrine was very busy.  I poured out the cups of water, one for each year of that milestone birthday, my arm aching before long.

It was August 2009 and I was oblivious on that day that I was harbouring and nurturing two tumours.  I was blissfully unaware that only the next month life was going to change so much.  And that is why I have selected this picture, with its close association of that birthday and those rituals with my cancer, and the fact that I am very much, still here.