Bhutan is known as the happiest country on Earth.
And yet, the peaceful Buddhist nation, sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas, is preoccupied with death.
People of Bhutanese culture think about death five times a day. And, surprisingly, this doesn’t provoke negativity or darkness; it brings happiness and joy.
The Bhutanese understand that death and life walk hand-in-hand. And their quasi-celebration of death is best represented in their rituals.
Rituals, Values, Beliefs
Rituals, tied in with values and beliefs, are part of the 10 Cultural Universals.
Rituals are shared events, often traditional, that are unique to a given group or community.
As UNESCO puts it:
“They are significant because they reaffirm the identity of those who practice them as a group or a society and, whether performed in public or private, are closely linked to important events…to a community’s worldview and perception of its own history and memory.”
How do Bhutanese rituals reaffirm their identity and demonstrate their perception of death?
Death rituals in Bhutan are so enriching, because Buddhists believe not in death, but in reincarnation. Therefore, the focus is on the rebirth of the soul into a new life; not on the death and ultimate termination of the departed’s life here on Earth.
According to Eric Weiner’s BBC article, “Bhutan’s Dark Secret to Happiness”:
“Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals.”
The rituals during this 49-day period are performed to help ensure that the departed soul improves its state in rebirth. Although praying happens every day of these 49 days, the more elaborate rituals occur on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th after the departed’s passing.
Rituals include 108 prayer flags being erected in the deceased’s honor. The local astrologer is also asked for their recommendation on a favorable cremation day prior to the 7th day ritual.
The gewa, or “feast of giving,” occurs on the 21st day. One person from each household in the village attends the feast.
In a wonderful article, written by Kunzang Choden, Choden explains how Buddhist beliefs inform these rituals:
“Buddhists believe that a person’s consciousness has to be separated from the dead body. This is done by a religious practitioner through a powerful ritual: phowa. All the rituals and rites that follow are not so much for the body, but for the consciousness, which may hover around the family because of attachments.”
These acts are also a sort of grief cleanse for the living, with one man calling the 49-day process “better than any antidepressant.”
And the death rituals do not end at the 49th day. Every year for three years following a death, prayer flags are erected in the departed’s honor, with rice, alcohol, and other items offered up by family, friends, and other attendees.
This is how values, beliefs, and rituals can blend into a culturally-rich experience that caters to the soul.