Death Rites in Paradise


I have never fully recovered from the deaths of my parents 50 years ago. At the time, I was in boarding school in India. The journey to my home in interior Bhutan would have taken me more than 12 days of walking for there were no motor roads in most of Bhutan in the 1960s. So I missed all the processes of bereavement and healing through traditional Bhutanese shared prayers and rituals.

Here in Bhutan, we have a long tradition of observing deaths and death anniversaries, which are expensive and complicated with prayers and elaborate rituals that go on for many days. Prayers and rituals are conducted for 49 days after death with especially elaborate prayers and rites on the 7th, 14th, 21st, and the 49th days after death.

Deaths are important to us because we view death not as the end of life but the beginning of the journey to the next life in the cycle of births. Celebrating death is not only an honored duty, but also a gesture of love performed by the living to make the deceased’s journey easier.

The rites begin even before the person has really died. As soon as person starts to die, a learned religious master must bestow prayers of “liberation by hearing”. This prayer alerts the dying person to realize that she/he is dying and prepares him or her for the journey.

Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness has to be separated from the dead body. This is done by a religious practitioner through a powerful ritual: phowa. All the rituals and rites that follow are not so much for the body, but for the consciousness, which may hover around the family because of attachments.

It is customary to offer condolences to the bereaved family in the form of gifts like money, food, clothes and volunteered services until the 49th day. Family members and relatives take turns serving elaborate meals in front of the corpse, which is bound into the fetal position and covered in layers of cloth until it is finally cremated on an astrologically determined day.

On the 21st day after death, a grand feast called “the feast of giving”, or gewa, is held. Everybody comes together. In rural areas, the tradition of reciprocal participation -one person from each household attends the gewa- is still followed very diligently.

These long and busy days of prayer and emotional interaction between family, friends and community, help the dead on its journey to the next life. They also help bereaved family members to heal and cope with the loss.

The government, in its wisdom, has elaborated that “in the event of a death of an immediate family member, bereavement leave of 15 working days shall be provided to a civil servant on each occasion”, in the Royal Bhutan Civil Rules and Regulations.

Instead of birthdays, the Bhutanese traditionally observe death anniversaries. The New Year is like one big birthday party for all, when everyone becomes a year older. Just like at individual birthday parties, traditional New Year celebrations consist of family members, relatives and friends coming together to feast, exchange gifts and have a good time. But death and death anniversaries are very individual and personal – they cannot be observed jointly.