FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, a whole industry has existed around death and dying; it is really big business for priests, monks, undertakers, coffin-makers, cemetery-owners, florists, etc. So much expense is involved in it that many people cannot afford to die, and the gullibility of the ignorant and superstitious are exploited by those with vested interests in the industry. People are prepared to spend huge sums of money to have funeral-ceremonies performed according to what tradition has decreed to be 'the proper manner.' In this article, I want to examine the validity and rationale of funeral ceremonies, and whether it is possible to help the dead.

It is amazing how foolish superstitions are carried over, unquestioningly, from one generation to the next, never losing their grip on the minds of the ignorant. I have seen educated, wealthy and sophisticated people— some of them hard-headed businessmen— burning model houses, TV's, cars, palaces replete with furniture and servants, and so on— all made of paper and costing great sums of money— in the belief that somehow— beyond logical explanation— their dead relatives will receive them in proper form, wherever they might be. People can be highly educated and shrewd in certain ways, while in other ways they can be naïve and foolish.

Some years ago, in Indonesia, I was told of a nun who, if requested to perform a funeral or memorial ceremony, would state her fee, saying: "If you want the full ceremony, three days and nights, it will cost ……; one day-and-night will cost ……" This is just exploiting people's sorrow and ignorance, and it is highly debatable whether the deceased person would benefit in any way from such blatant mummery. Surely, the ones who might best help the dead— if the dead can be helped at all— are those who were nearest and dearest to them in life, and with whom there was a strong bond of affection. The best way we might help, I feel, is not by spending huge sums of money on ceremonies and rituals that nobody understands (or, if they understand, they do not explain the meaning of), but by sitting quietly and composedly in a place where happy times have been spent with the deceased, and sending out positive thoughts of love and goodwill.

Objective and documented research done in the West in recent years into numerous cases of people being declared clinically dead— that is, without pulse, breathing or brain-waves — and then later reviving and recounting their experiences of 'life-after-death' or 'out-of-the-body,' seems to point to the fact that life can, and does, go on after the death of the body. People of various cultural and religious backgrounds who have undergone 'out-of-the-body' experiences, when interviewed and questioned, report the same basic things; they say that the mind, consciousness, soul or spirit— whatever you like to call it — detaches itself from the body, in which all the signs of life have ceased, and seems to hover above it, aware, by sight and sound, of what is happening around it. But, although it can see and hear, it cannot be seen or heard. Later, after the body revives— by something other than just the attempts of others to resuscitate it— they can report what went on. If the death took place in a hospital, for example, they can tell about the efforts of hospital staff to revive the body, who said and did what; they can tell of the grieving relatives waiting outside, and so on, all of which can be verified. They also tell of a feeling of great peace at being released from the body, and of a meeting with a 'bright light,' which some, because of their religious background, describe as an 'angel,' and feel great love and warmth coming from it, so that all fear disappears. It is at this point that they 'know' or 'feel' that they have to return to their bodies and 'wake up,' that it is not yet time to die. In some cases, there is a great reluctance to go back, particularly if the body has been shattered in an accident, or if it is pain-filled with cancer or another incurable disease. Back they come, however, but two results from their experience of death is that they are filled with a sense of the importance of living life as it comes, and, having known how easy it is to die— without terrible things happening to them on the other side— they are not afraid to die again.

All this does not constitute scientific proof of the existence or continuation of life-after-death, but it certainly should cause people to be more open to the possibility if not the probability of it, and never to dogmatically maintain that it cannot be.

Let us suppose— just suppose— life does go on after death, at least as far as in the cases referred to above: would it be possible to help the dead in any way, and how? Well, people who have experienced death and returned to tell of it, say they could see and hear what was going on in 'this world,' while the living here could not see or hear them; it is a one-way thing.

Now, as part of the funeral ceremonies in cultures such as that of the Chinese, many offerings are made for the dead, like food, drink and so on, things which the dead, without material bodies, cannot partake of; the food remains just the same after the ceremony. Are these offerings then in vain? No, we cannot say that. If the mind, or spirit of the deceased is near, and has not yet gone on its way, it would not be able to partake of the offerings being made in its name, of course; but it might take joy and consolation in the fact that offerings were being made for it by loving and devoted relatives and friends, and the arising of joy could, perhaps, help it to rise out of a miserable condition on that side and encourage it to go on. If the deceased person cannot be helped in such a way the offerings are still not in vain, if offered sincerely; the act of offering something with the intention to benefit others has a beneficial effect upon the minds of the ones who offer there and then. So, little is lost by making offerings in this way and much might be gained.

Because of the possibility of the spirit of the deceased person still being near for some time after death— in limbo, as it were— the preaching of the Dharma is very important, and the ceremony should not be conducted without some Dharma being preached. Unfortunately, Dharma-preaching is often left out, and so the real purpose of the ceremony is neglected and discarded. Even if the consciousness of the deceased is no longer near but has already gone on, the Dharma should be preached to the living, so they may learn something useful for their own lives from this occasion of sorrow.

In some cases, people die so quickly and suddenly that they do not realize they are dead, and, thinking that they are still alive, are confused to find that no-one listens to them or sees them. How long they may continue in this state, no-one knows, but sometimes it is necessary for someone to inform them of their condition and urge them not to stay here, but to go on. This is why the Tibetans, when someone dies, carry the body outside and say something like: "You are dead now, so go away and don't come back again; we don't want you here anymore; you must continue with your journey." Thrown out? Yes, in a way, but not because of lack of love; it is in order to help the consciousness of the dead to break any temptation or desire to linger around the family, friends or familiar places, and speed it on to the next stage of its pilgrimage.

Once, in the Refugee Camp in the Philippines where I used to stay, I was approached by a family and requested to accompany them to their quarters. There, they told me that their younger sister had drowned in the nearby stream two weeks earlier, and said that they could feel her coming back every night, as the room would suddenly become very cold, and they were afraid. I advised them not to fear as their sister was probably coming back to ask them for consolation and reassurance, and when they felt her presence again, they should explain to her: "Sister, we love you very much, but you are not part of this world anymore so must not come here again; you must go on with your journey, just as we must go on with ours; and if we have enough affinity, we will meet again. Go on, go on!" The next time they felt her presence they followed my instructions and spoke to her in this manner, and after that, they never felt her coming again.

The phenomenon of haunted houses can be explained by the excessive attachment of some people to family, friends, places or possessions while they were alive. When they died, the attachment acted as a force to keep them 'stuck' near the people and things they were so fond of. It must be a miserable condition, seeing and hearing, trying to communicate, but not being seen or heard, and exorcism must often be employed to 'unstick' the one who has become so stuck. However, this has become so shrouded in mystery and superstition that many people view it with suspicion, fear, or repugnance. But I have spoken about exorcism above in a simple down-to-earth manner, shorn of elements of magic and mumbo-jumbo.

As to burning houses and other things made of paper, well, the only people who benefit from that are those who make them. Where it all began, I do not know, but I once heard a little story of how, when the paper-industry of long-ago China was hit by a recession, the paper-merchants got together to discuss what to do. Someone finally came up with the bright idea of making model houses, palaces, people and things from paper and then mount an advertising campaign to sell the idea to the public that it is filial to burn such things for dead relatives, who would then get them in real form on 'the other side'. Slowly, they were able to foist this ridiculous idea off on a filial society (it's amazing just what people will believe!), and the paper-industry began to recover. These days, many people follow this custom not from filial piety but from conformity to tradition and out of fear of what others might say of them if they were not to do so. Traditions die hard.

Help your own dead! Don’t just call in others and pay them to do it, for they will have no close connection with your dead and might perform their ceremonies half-heartedly, anyway. All that needs to be done can be done by you yourself. Put aside the idea that monks and priests are specially appointed for this or are magicians who can do things you cannot. The duty of monks is to teach and transmit the Dharma, not to make mumbo-jumbo and cheat people. If the monk teaches at the funeral-ceremony he has done his duty, but if he does not, the ceremony is not valid, and the whole thing is just a matter of priestcraft. And if we allow things to go on in this way, without trying to halt or slow the decline, maybe soon, we must hold a funeral-ceremony for Buddhism itself! But what can be done? Well, for one thing, the monks should be requested and required to preach the Dharma and not allowed to get away with mere chanting and the performance of rituals that have lost any meanings they might have had to begin with.

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