Life and Death in Nepal: A Sherpa Funeral

November 18th, 2016 by

Travel to NepalA bit of life…and death…a Sherpa funeral…three days of a happening! We arrive to be fed tea or local brews – chang or rakshi – in a tented waiting area. Lakpa, our host, is sitting, talking, and laughing with us. To my surprise, he tells me it is his father who died–so typical in this country where life and death are one.

A German lady arrives with her Sherpa escort. The lady is building a Sherpa Cultural Center in a monastery above the village. She appears to know it all, yet she has brought her camera equipment. I couldn’t. I am not here to stare but to learn and pay my respects.

After tea and chang, we go inside the house. I sit a bit with Alice, a client and new friend, listening to the chanting of orange-clad monks, smelling the incense, and feeling the vibrations of their voices in my stomach, the familiarity of the sound.

How can this now be so familiar, this strange Sherpa world? I remember laughing rudely in my first concert of chanting Gyuto monks in America. Now the chants here in the mountains are comfortable, peaceful.

Rituals and Rites

Lakpa explains what is happening – the thankas, or wall hangings, brought from the monastery on the hill especially for this ceremony, the many offerings to the gods on the table, his father’s heart on a plate under a glass cover. Travel to Nepal(My friend, Ang Dawa, tells me it’s not really his heart but a piece of bone or dust from the cremation. Who knows!)

The German lady is still taking pictures. I tell Alice a bit about death in the Sherpa culture – first losing weight (earth), then the drying of skin (water), the loss of heat or body temperature (fire), the cessation of breathing (air), and finally, after three days, the release of fine breath or “lung,” which contains one’s essence or soul. Then come the 48 days of passage or bardo before reincarnation to a form determined by one’s behavior in the previous life.

Sherpas say we go through life with a bag on each shoulder. When we do good deeds a white pebble goes in the bag on our right shoulder; when we do bad deeds, a black pebble, in the bag on the left shoulder. At death these bags are weighed to determine the form of our reincarnation. I wonder how many pebbles are in the bags on my shoulders.

Food and Conversation

After a bit, Lakpa suggests we go outside for some food. There I find friends, including the headmaster of the local school and Dorje, a local, who donated a field for the READ library. We troop upstairs to a third room, and Dorje makes a point of sitting next to me. He is slightly drunk, smells of garlic, and loves to talk. All I have to do is laugh and nod in the right places, whether I understand or not.

Rice, lentils, potatoes, and achar or relish. That was the meal. No spoon, but the rice clots, if squeezed hard enough, can be dipped in the dal (lentils) without crumbling. Dorje keeps talking…about monks, teaching villagers about religion, what he does and doesn’t know.

Alice wants to hear what’s being said; but I can’t translate all. The server wants me to drink bowls and bowls of chang, and everyone giggles. Alice is talking with the German lady. Finally, it is time to leave. I am tired of the effort involved in trying to understand and talk Nepali and am ready to go. We promise to return tomorrow for the giving of kataks, prayer scarves or blessings.

Travel to NepalThe next afternoon afternoon, I return with my friends. The German lady too is there, with Dzherdz Sherpa… and camera! Everyone is sitting on the balcony of Lakpa’s house talking, drinking chang, and nursing babies. I think the month of June, when the men return to the village for planting, must be a time for love. There are many new, small babies being fed by rosy-cheeked, full-breasted Sherpa mothers, babies all born in February/March.

Lakpa and his brother sit on cushions behind a small low table. On the table is a large offering plate and a pitcher of tea. A large keg of chang is on the ground in front. I know we will have to give kataks and money to Lakpa – kataks in sympathy, and money to defray the cost of the funeral, costs for the monks and food. I don’t understand the protocol and feel shy.

Ang Dawa and his wife, Ang Chokpa, are occupied with babies and friends and are too busy to explain. I go over to the table and watch. First you pour some chang for Lakpa’s brother and tea for Lakpa (he must not drink). Then you put money (200 Rs or about $5) in the offering plate. Finally, as Lakpa and his brother bend forward, you drape kataks over their necks.

Returning to Ang Dawa and Ang Chokpa, I report on my research. Since the line is long, we decide to wait a bit.

Am I at a Party?

Someone calls me. It is Nyima, a Sherpa who trekked with me several years back. We reminisce a bit about our trip, and I think of the photos I took of his family. My pictures show tiny children clinging to his leg or his wife’s apron. The children I see with him today are big. Where has the time gone?

Finally it is our turn to pay our respects. Ang Chokpa and I go together. There is no line, and people are pushing and shoving. Ang Chokpa gestures me to go in front, which I do, wishing she were there as my model. I am nervous and convinced that I will spill chang on Lakpa’s brother. Lakpa senses my nervousness and smiles encouragement. Bless his heart! Nothing spills!

You would never recognize that this is a funeral. People are laughing, drinking, joking. Children with candy are running all around. The monks have all returned home to the monastery. Am I at a party?

Travel to NepalWe are once again invited inside the house. The cooking room is full, and the guests pile into the altar room, sitting around on low benches or cushions. There is no other foreigner but me, and many of the visitors, especially the women, are wondering who I am.

I find myself sitting with the women on a side bench between two strangers who are not at all sure they want to sit with me. After I introduce myself in Nepali and ask their names, the tension eases somewhat. At least we can communicate. Ang Chokpa and the schoolmaster’s wife, Ang Nyimi. are nearby and tell the other ladies who I am.

Once again the service begins with tea, chang, dal, potatoes, and huge portions of rice. Many of the women have new “February/March” babies and feed themselves while nursing the children. Soon the room fills with more guests – male and female – and each is served food, mostly by close men friends of the family.

As we eat, a few monks come in to take down and wrap the funeral thankas. They will be returned to the monastery. Travel to NepalThere is much laughing and joking, and people sit for a long time. Of course, we are so tightly wedged in together that it’s hard to leave.

Finally the meal is over, and people file outdoors once again. Candy and cookies, blessed by the monks are distributed to everyone, particularly the children, who cling to their parents with very sticky fingers. Slowly people drift down the stairs away from the house.

Lakpa grasps my hand to thank me for coming. To thank me? Rather it is I who should thank him for including me, feeding me, and making me part of the family rituals of this Sherpa Lama clan that inhabits this idyllic, picture-postcard Himalayan village.

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