Kalmyk funerary 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 undone 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 one’s death, Buddhist prayers are read on a round-the-clock basis and at mealtimes 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, milk and crumbled biscuits (pieces of cooked meat are 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. After the funeral, all participants cleanse their hands with water diluted with milk, smoke themselves with fire and incenses, and rub their 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. It is not only the deceased that is in transitional state (that is, in transit to the world of the dead) but their living relatives are too. 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) and to leave mirrors or objects with reflective surface uncovered (so that the soul of the deceased does not get stuck in a mirror).
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 usually held twice, on the 7th and 49th days after burial. In the case of old people, the ceremony may be 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 at appeasing ancestors, consolidating kinship groups, and securing reproduction among their members, gal tyalgn is performed not only at funerals but also during other transitional periods, including 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.
Alexandr Tarancheev, About Funerals
Alexandra says the following: If you cross a road with a funeral procession, you will have a tumor. In order to get rid of the tumor, take a sheep’s skull and prick the tumor with its teeth. The tumor will disappear.
Alexandra Sangadzhieva, What to Do When You See a Funeral Procession
When a person dies it is required that a special ritual of remembrance be performed once a year. Fat, butter or margarine is thrown into fire. It is believed that the smell of these substances remains inside the nose of the deceased making them satisfied. Badma’s grandmother died on the eve of Tsagan Sar in February. To remember her, on this day Badma always makes tea and cooks potatoes, and invites people to her house. She also performs this ritual for her mother and husband as well. Badma does not perform it for her father, as she does not know where and when he died.
Badma Ochirova, About Funeral
Tachal refers to a state when the deceased misses his/her living relatives and develops attachment. In order to prevent tachal, people consult with lamas as to how to bury the deceased correctly – i.e. when to take the corpse out of the house, how to treat it, how to bury it etc. During funerals people have all sorts of worries. It happens that following a funeral someone among the relatives sees the deceased in their dreams. That person may think: ‘I saw the deceased in my dreams. He asks for meat. It is tachal’. So, the relatives run and buy meat. After cooking it, they bring the meat to a temple to ask the lama to help them get rid of tachal. In this case, what happened is not tachal. According to Buddhism, in 49 days of one’s death, his/her consciousness gets reborn. That is why lamas read some prayers to calm that person. After that the person goes home and feels alright.
If the deceased is reborn as a hungry ghost (preta) or a similar being, then it causes trouble to the living by demanding food or drink. Whether the case is tachal or not it should be determined by a lama or an astrologist. They look at special texts or make a divination with a rosary. In most cases, people deceive themselves by thinking that they have tachal around. I heard about this from Shal’van Gegyan when he called at our prayer house during his visit to Kalmykia.
Boris Dochkaev, Tachal
Dzhidzha talks about funerary rituals, her mother’s funeral and her dreams.
This is her story: It is believed that after death, a person’s soul ends up in a pure world where there are no lies. By contrast, this world is full of deception and people constantly cheat each other.
In the past, Kalmyk funerary ritual was as follows. Kalmyks went to a lama to ask about the exact date and time of the removal of the deceased from the house for burial and the direction in which to put his/her head. There were three possible directions, including east, south or west. My mother told me that Kalmyks buried their dead wrapped in cloth. Whilst ordinary people were wrapped in any cloth, lamas and knowledgeable people were wrapped in a white cloth and buried in a sitting position. Only men were allowed to go to a burial place. By contrast, today anyone can go to a cemetery, since we have forgotten our customs.
My mother told me that, ‘On the 49th day after death you do a memorial service. After that you should not even look in the direction of the cemetery. It is a sin for you (a girl) to go to a cemetery. If one goes there often, the deceased may think that that person wishes to give something’. Only during Tsagan Sar can people offer food, including vodka and a piece of meat, to their deceased relatives. I listened to my mother’s advice. 10 years after her death, I went to a lama named Rinchen Dagva. I told him, ‘I have brought some food for my late mother, but I did not go to her grave as she had told me not to.’ He looked at his texts, thought for a while and said, ‘She was right. Do not go to her cemetery’. Since then I stopped seeing my mother in my dreams. The last dream about her was as follows. I saw my mother and two younger sisters, who died in Siberia. I followed three of them into a big house. After, they disappeared under a big canopy. All of a sudden, a fair-faced girl came out. I asked her, ‘Where did those three go?’, to which she replied, ‘You go through this gate. Inside there is another gate’. I stood thinking what to do. I felt unwell and woke up. I think my late sisters must have taken my mother with them to Siberia. My mother and I buried them there in the summer.
Dzhidzha Araeva, About Funerals
Elza says that Kalmyk funerals in the past were different. For example, women did not go to burial places, nor did children. It was only men who were allowed to. Seven days after the burial, people gathered, but Elza does not remember whether women were allowed to come. The dead were also wrapped in blankets, for cloth was rare and in short supply. Today, by contrast, both women and children do participate in funerals.
Elza Badaeva, About Funerals in the Past
Telo Tulku: Nowadays we adopted the Russian Orthodox way of doing funerals. In many Buddhist countries, they do not bury the dead but cremate. That is a standard procedure or practice. But in Kalmykia we have adopted this tradition to bury from the Russians. We are slowly introducing cremation, but it will take a while to introduce this concept and for people to understand why we do so. So far, we have done several cremations. But we do not necessarily encourage or implement this tradition among the public. We do tell people that this is possible and that it is a Buddhist way of doing funerals, but psychologically people are not ready to adopt this.
Baasanjav: When you read books about funerals in Kalmykia in the past, they write that cremation was preserved for high-born people or lamas and that ordinary people were simply left outside in the steppe.
TT: Burying underground was never a traditional practice. That is something that we developed later.
B: Let's say, someone dies. People say that they should go to a lama and ask for certain prayers, the date when to bury the dead and so on. What are the right steps?
TT: Usually when a person passes away we recommend to the family members that they go to the temple to consult with the lamas. By consulting I mean the following: To have the astrological calculations done for the dead, to ask to have a look at that person’s date of birth to determine a good day for the burial, to ask the direction where the dead’s head should be placed, to ask whether the dead should be buried or cremated etc. To do these things correctly are very crucial for a good rebirth. Many people follow this procedure and tradition. There are certain monks who specialize in this.
B: In Mongolia, we do the ritual of remembrance after 49 days. Do you have the same ritual in Kalmykia?
TT: We have the same thing in Kalmykia. According to a Buddhist tradition, for 49 days after the funeral the deceased person’s soul, spirit, or consciousness, dwells on this planet, closer to their relatives and family. After 49 days, the soul conceives a new life.
B: Are there any special taboos to be observed during the 49 days?
TT: No, not necessarily, but what we do is to put deezh (food or tea offering). The very first scoop of our food, we offer to the Buddha, we place it (deezh) on the altar and also put food to the spirit of the deceased on a table or somewhere in the house. We serve food because we believe that although the person may be physically dead, his/her consciousness remains in the house for the next 49 days.
B: Could you say something about the Buddhist understanding of the afterlife. The person dies and his journey to the afterworld begins. What will this person see and feel?
TT: Since the physicality of that person is already dead, what travels from one life to another is his/her consciousness. If I were to explain to you 'what consciousness is', I can't do that, because consciousness does not have any form. It is not an object but a mindset. It is something internal and spiritual. In other words, it is a soul. The words ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ are Christian terms. It is what others describe as consciousness that continues from one life to another. In Buddhist cosmology there are 6 different realms: the realm of hell, that of the hungry ghosts, the human realm, the realm of animals, and the realms of the gods and semi-gods. So, which realm would you prefer to be born in? You would prefer to be born in the human realm. You do not want to go to hell, of course. Nobody wants to go to hell, nobody wants to remain a hungry ghost, nobody wants to be born as an animal, so the human realm is the best for us all.
Telo Tulku Rinpoche, About Funerals and Afterlife
In this video Vladimir talks about the funerary ritual.
After the removal of the deceased from the house, a fire should be made. It is forbidden to step over the fire, especially for women. In the olden days, Kalmyks cremated their dead using wood, hot butter and animal dung. Only lamas were present at the cremation. Four or five lamas, who read prayers. After the fire died off, the ashes were put in a box and scattered over water.
Kalmyks also buried their dead. Before the burial, the deceased was wrapped in a felt carpet or a rug. There were some differences among Kalmyk clans as to in what direction the head of the deceased should be laid. The Erketen clan laid their deceased facing the west, the Baguds – the east.
Dalg which is a ritual of granting wealth and happiness of the deceased to his/her living relatives, should be performed by a woman prior to the burial. Sugar, milk and butter are mixed in a cup in small quantities. One holds the cup over the body of the deceased and moves it clockwise and then counter clockwise three times from the head to the feet. Afterwards, the cup is put on the altar for some time. The contents should be shared among relatives, including children, of the deceased.
About respect for ancestors.
Kalmyks were respectful of their elders and ancestors. They performed a ritual of making food offerings to a fire in order to receive blessings from their ancestors. Meat, which is cooked for the ritual, should be consumed only by relatives. After the ritual, food leftovers are to be thrown into the fire and the ashes buried.