The Localist

It’s not death, but passing away from this birth to the next


There are two occasions where I get the chance to meet up with my entire extended family: Weddings and funerals. More recently, as economic constraints have taken their toll on the overly flamboyant Sri Lankan weddings, invitations lists have become shorter and shorter and funerals seem to be the only place where everyone comes together. Of course the passing away of a loved one is a time of great distress to those closest to them, and even more so if it’s an untimely death. But when it’s the passing away of that long distant relative who you’ve hardly met and who lived to a ripe old age, the funeral more or less serves as an occasion for a family reunion. Hopefully it doesn’t sound too morbid when I say this, but I find the hustle and bustle of funerals in Sri Lanka uniquely intriguing!

So for those unfamiliar with a Sri Lankan* funeral, it usually lasts for about three days or more.  An open casket is kept in the house, and loved ones can come and pay their respects prior to the burial or cremation that takes place on the final day. People dressed in white visit the home at all hours of the day, bringing with them mountains of food and drink to serve the other visitors as well as alms to give to the monks in honour of the departed. It is considered bad luck to leave the departed unaccompanied,  so you’ll always find people awake and by their side, taking turns to sleep and chat with the visitors. You’ll find little children scurrying around serving tea and biscuits or playing with their new found friends, older aunties will insist you stay for breakfast, lunch or dinner depending on what time you visit the funeral, and the men will set up tents and extra chairs in the gardens and hallways to make space for the crowds.

At night you’ll find young people, men in particular, playing carom and card games outside, or older men chewing betel while others sit in little groups chatting away with friends and family who they haven’t seen for so long. Most of the time, the conversations will consist of little anecdotes about the good old days and all the memorable things that the person who passed away said or did. There will be smiles as old jokes are shared in hushed tones, awkward silences as someone breaks into tears, and most definitely the story of how the person died will be told repeatedly as each new visitor arrives.

On the final day, before the body is taken to the cemetery, monks visit the house and a brief religious sermon is held, followed by some Buddhist chanting. The people then serve alms (food and other offerings such as robes, essential items etc.) to the monks before completing the final funeral rites. On the evening of the sixth day following the passing away of someone, the family invites their close relatives and friends to attend the Bana session.  This is about an hour-long sermon in which the Buddhist monks return to the home of the deceased and preach on the impermanence of life for surviving relatives and for the benefit of the dead.


The next day, an event known as the seventh day Daane (alms giving) is held. It is an offering made in the name of the dead where the family provides alms for the monks as well as food for invited friends and family in honour of the departed. Everyone brings whatever he or she can afford as alms. It is popular belief that this act of charity will cultivate merit that the departed can then take with them to their next birth. As the seventh day draws to a close, everyone bids farewell and slowly parts ways, returning to their normal routines, spiritually revived by their acts of generosity, only to meet again at the ‘three month alms giving’ and annually for alms giving thereafter.

* The article describes a typical Sri Lankan Buddhist funeral for people who believe in rebirth that the writer has personal experience of attending. Funeral beliefs, customs and rituals significantly vary with ethnic, religious as well as geographical background and therefore cannot be generalized.





Images. Photo 1 by Stockholm Embassy. Photo 2 by OAAV.

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