Death in Bhutan.

Mini-chortens among the prayer wheels.

I’m falling behind on the personal blog. I suppose this isn’t a huge surprise considering it’s the lowest priority out of the three I now manage, and even then still falls behind work, writing, and school.

Which is fine, I mean this space is more for me than for anyone or anything else, so why allow it to be a burden or a source of stress?

I saw a lot of incredible things during my trip to Bhutan. Paro was my favorite of the towns that we visited, being smaller and less modern, but in Thimphu we had the opportunity to visit the Thimphu Memorial Chorten.

The first thing that struck me about the Memorial Chorten was what a social center it was. There were monks selling prayer beads out in front of the gate, and people young and old were gathered there. We circumambulated the chorten along with a crowd of Bhutanese. There were people there seated and chatting, some performing obeisances, and some there honoring the deceased.

The Memorial Chorten has many purposes. It is a community center, and our guide told us that some of the old folks go there in the morning and stay all day in prayer. It was built to honor the third Druk Gyalpo. It is a center of prayer and worship for the followers of Bhutanese Buddhism.  But it is also a center of funerary tradition among the Bhutanese.

Now there’s a great diversity of tradition surrounding death in Bhutan, ranging from sky burials in the east to actual burials in the south. But cremation is common, and our guide told us that the Memorial Chorten is a place where such funerary rites take place.

He told us that after the cremation takes place, monks take a few pieces of bone from the remains, and these are ground to a powder and mixed with clay, and shaped into what he called “mini-chortens.” They are similar to a cupcake in shape, and not much larger in size. We saw these mini-chortens along most trails and in and around most of the holy sites that we visited. They were almost as ubiquitous as the prayer flags.

These mini-chortens fascinate me. When you look at a group of them, you realize that they are without identity; they are not differentiated from their fellows by color or size or shape or decoration. They are plain. And as they are left out, the elements slowly wear away at them, giving the memorials a finite lifespan.

This seems to me to be an exceptionally well-adjusted approach to death and grief. I have long been puzzled by the efforts that some of us go through to preserve the dead. To breathe the appearance of life into corpses through embalming and makeup and various other practices. It seems to me to be a kind of a fetishization of the corpse, after the person that we loved has already vacated it.

And I don’t want to make it sound as though the Bhutanese don’t grieve; in fact they engage in forty-nine days of elaborate funerary rituals, including hanging prayer flags in honor of the deceased. But they do not create vast fields of memorials built to stand for centuries. They create small, modest tokens, and leave them in public, along trails to monasteries and in the yards of temples and dzongs. Death is treated as both a very public and a very normal thing. And the memorials are things that are slowly eroded away by the wind and the rain and the freezing and thawing of the passing seasons.

And I find that comforting, somehow. Comforting and beautiful.

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