Funeral

Kalmyk funeral rites have the following functions: (1) to mark someone’s death, (2) to help the deceased depart from the world of the living and obtain a good reincarnation, (3) to cleanse the family members of the departed from symbolic impurity and return their lives to normality, and (4) to restore the border between the world of the living and that of the dead which was destabilized at someone’s death. When someone dies, the relatives of the deceased go to a Buddhist monk or astrologist to consult with him about who should touch the corpse first and how, when and where to bury. Only after that can the deceased be dressed in new clothes, or sometimes left in the ones they died in, but with buttons untied and belt unfastened. A candle or light is put by the head of the deceased for 49 days to illuminate the dead person’s perilous journey into the hereafter.

Until burial, which usually occurs within three days following death, Buddhist prayers are read on a round-the-clock basis and at meal times the deceased’s soul is ‘fed’ by family members by frying flour in a dry pan. Prior to taking the corpse out to a burial place, the ritual of dailgn is performed. A plate with butter and biscuits (pieces of cooked meat is also permitted) is rotated three times clockwise over the head of the deceased by a male relative asking the departed to pass on their blessing to the living relatives. Younger members of the family also touch the leg of the deceased in a ritual request to grant them forgiveness and blessing. The grave has to be dug on the day of burial to prevent it from being occupied by evil or uninvited entities. To purify the ground, a sheet of paper containing salt and incenses is burnt inside the hole. Traditionally, women were banned from participating in funerals, the reason being that they might bring a death clinging to the hemline of their dresses home with them. Hence today women who go to cemeteries shake their hemline afterwards. After the funeral, all participants cleanse their hands with water diluted with milk, smoke themselves with fire and incenses, and rub hands with butter.

The funeral is followed by a period of mourning characterized by the continuation of a state of symbolic impurity for the bereaved. Not only is the deceased in a transitional state (that is, in transit to the world of the dead) but their living relatives are as well. Since during this period the two worlds are believed to be still linked, it is important for the mourning relatives to strictly follow traditional taboos and bans to prevent misfortunes, the escalation of pollution, and to successfully detach the deceased from the world of the living. For example, during this time it is forbidden to show excessive emotional attachment to the departed (by calling their name, crying etc.), to take personal belongings of the deceased out of their house (in order to keep symbolic pollution localized), to take out rubbish (especially in the period between death and burial and for three consecutive days following the end of the mourning period).

The end of a transitional period, or mourning, is marked by a memorial service, usually held 49 days following burial, although the date may change depending on the age of the departed. If it is a child, the ceremony is held twice, on the 7th and 49th days after burial. In the case of old people, the ceremony is performed on the 21st day. The memorial service consists of the ritual of gal tyalgn (sacrifice on fire) followed by lunch at which all relatives and friends of the departed come together. As a multi-functional clan ritual aimed to appease ancestors, consolidate kinship groups, and secure reproduction among their members, gal tyalgn is performed not only at funerals but also following the birth of a baby (i.e. addition of a new member to the clan), and during weddings. The sacrificial animal is usually the sheep – a magical being whose wool, skin, and bones are believed to possess cleansing and fertility-inducing powers.

Andrei Boldyrev, About Traditional Funerals