How Asian cultures approach death
by Isabella Chua
Everyone dies eventually. But the way we approach death can be informed by culturally specific practices.
Immortality has fascinated mankind for thousands of years. Famous Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, ingested mercury pills because he believed they would allow him to live forever. Ancient Greeks tried creating a “philosopher’s stone” to achieve immortality. Currently, the technocrats of Silicon Valley are investing millions of dollars to develop technologies that will “solve” and “cheat” death.
Why do we try so hard to avoid death? Perhaps because nobody knows what happens after we die. Death is the ultimate unknown in life. As we contemplate our mortality, we may start going down an existential rabbit hole of what-ifs. What if nobody remembers me? What if death is just an eternal void? It is much easier to avoid thinking about death altogether.
But what if death is not the end? In some parts of Asia, death is not perceived with the same finality. According to religious beliefs, the departed may continue to “live on” as ancestors, or be reborn into the next life. Having this awareness allows a person to make preparations for the transition.
The idea that death is not the end is shared in Buddhism and Hinduism. In both religions, death is understood to be a part of samsāra, the cycle of birth and rebirth. Spirits go through an endless cycle until they are liberated from samsāra. This moment of liberation is called Nirvāna by Buddhists and moksha by Hindus.
For Hindus who wish to attain moksha, the holy city of Varanasi is the place to die.
The city is home to Lord Shiva, one of the most important deities of Hinduism. Legend has it that when Lord Shiva reclaimed Kashi (the oldest name of Varanasi) with the help of Lord Vishnu, he created the Vishnu Kund as a gesture of gratitude. It is believed that any devotee who takes a bath in this well at midnight will achieve moksha. As they await death, many check-in to one of the 200-plus death homes in the city. Before tighter regulations were implemented to only admit terminally ill patients, inhabitants could stay in these homes for months and years before they finally pass on.
After the person has passed, the body gets cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat, considered the most sacred place for cremation in Hinduism. Hindus believe that by burning the body, the soul gets purified and is released from the body — an important step to achieving moksha. Conducted openly, the cremation process at the ghat usually has a celebratory mood as the deceased is believed to have departed for a better place.
The ashes are subsequently collected and scattered in the Ganges, which is venerated for its purity and ability to cleanse sins. By scattering ashes of loved ones in the Ganges, family members hope that the deceased will come closer to achieving moksha.
For the Hyolmo people, dying requires practice as well. To achieve a good rebirth or attain Nirvāna, these Tibetan buddhists who live in the north-central region of Nepal, learn to prime their minds to Buddhist teachings.
During their final moments, the Hyolmo people meditate on the phrase “chihiwa mitakpa”. By consciously thinking about how death (chihiwa) and impermanence (mitakpa) characterises life, they are able to let go of their worldly attachments and gain some mastery over the dying process.
Sometimes, buddhist lamas are hired to read from the funeral text Bardo Thodol, also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The text helps the dying to be mentally prepared for death, as it details what they can expect hours and days after dying.
In other cultures, they prepare for death in order to have a good afterlife as ancestors.
Consider the Torajans, an indigenous group from south Sulawesi Indonesia. At a Torajan household, it is common to grow up sharing space with an embalmed corpse. Adhering to the traditional religion of Aluk To Dolo (“the way of the ancestors”), the deceased person is treated as a to makala (a sick person), or a to mama (a person who is asleep), and they continue living in the house for a few years or more. In that time, they are offered food, drinks, cigarettes and are spoken to like any other family member.
It may take years before enough funds are raised to give the to makala a proper send-off. Funerals in Toraja are expensive affairs that can cost anything from US$50,000 to US$500,000. The bulk of the expenses goes to buying water buffalos, which are sacrificed during the Rambu Solok ceremony to guide the soul to puya (heaven). Only then can the to makala be considered dead.
In Toraja there is a saying that “all people will become grandparents”. Part of what makes death less intimidating is the awareness that they too will join a lineage of ancestors and be taken care of. Their close connection to their ancestors can be witnessed during ma’nene’ (“The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpse”), where families return to ancestral tombs in a seven or ten-year interval to clean and groom the corpses.
Ancestral worship is practised among ethnic Chinese in Singapore who practice Taoism and Buddhism. Similar to the Torajans, the living maintain connections with their ancestors, which in turn allows them to prepare for, and think about their own death.
The Chinese believe that in the otherworld, the dead become ancestors who can affect the lives of the living. They possess the ability to look after the family, bless them, and even influence their fortunes. As a mark of filial piety, family members customarily burn money offerings and provide them with their favourite food and drinks during important dates like the eve of Lunar New Year and Qing Ming Festival (“Tomb Sweeping Day”).
Because of their belief in an afterlife, it is normal for people to prepare for death arrangements well in advance. Taoists in particular reserve ancestral tablets and cremation niches early to secure prime feng shui (Chinese geomancy) spots to ensure a blessed life for themselves and their descendants. Considerations include whether they are housed in popular temples, are placed at the centre, at eye-level, and facing a deity. The practice has become so normalised that you can even purchase an ancestral tablet through online marketplaces like Carousell. For couples who want to go beyond the wedding vows of “till death do us apart”, they may reserve a double lot so that their urns can be placed side by side. Depending on the placement, a joint niche can cost up to S$40,000 or more.
But Singapore, like other densely populated Asian cities, may be running out of space to house the dead. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that 61.2% of the world’s elderly population will live in Asia. As such, various governments in Asia are promoting green burials as an alternative to conserve space.
There are many types of green burials available, but the ones common in Asia include scattering the ashes to the sea and garden, or putting ashes into biodegradable urns before planting them under trees or in flower pots. It builds on the existing practice of cremation in Asian countries such as India, China, and Japan.
Green burials may seem like a product of the environmentally conscious zeitgeist in recent years, but green methods such as sea burials have been an intrinsic part of Hindu death rituals. However, in other Asian cultures, green burial was not commonly adopted. In Chinese tradition, where people pay tribute to the dead at a physical site, scattering remains in nature can be interpreted as an abandonment of one’s loved ones.
To overcome such cultural barriers, government initiatives in Asia have integrated elements of traditional practices to green burials. In the Changqing cemetery in Beijing, families of the deceased who opt for the free natural burial receive a bronze commemorative plaque engraved with the deceased’s name and a QR code. Scanning the code gives them access to the deceased’s biography and a section to write commemorative messages. The Hong Kong government likewise set up a free memorial website where people can pay respects by sending virtual fruits and flowers to loved ones. Accompanying the website is an advertisement which extols the virtues of returning loved ones back to nature as part of life’s cycle.
Asians have conceptualised, imparted, and practised elaborate rituals to anticipate the end of life and the “afterlife”. There is an inherent belief that death is not the end, but a transition. Modernisation may have modified the ways in which funerary rites or burials are performed, but these practices are still undergirded by ancient traditions and beliefs. Until the medical industry or Silicon Valley’s technocrats find a way to prolong life, or “cheat death”, it is these rituals—both traditional and modern—that will better prepare us for death, when it inevitably comes.
Isabella loves to dig beyond what is ‘commonsensical’ or ‘natural’ to us, by looking at the larger forces (or even accidents), that may have structured these beliefs. A writer at Kontinentalist, she's particularly interested in social issues—religion, crime, identity, and food. While she strives to stay curious about the world by listening to podcasts and taking classes, she's happiest when eating pastries, cakes, and drinking tea.