With Dawa driving, we leave Paro and head to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. We come to a pine-covered hillside bisected by a cluster of white prayer flags on huge vertical bamboo poles being erected by dozens of locals. Someone has died, and the 108 prayer flags will assist the spirit of the deceased on its journey to its next reincarnation. Stopping to watch as the people silently go about their task, their reverence for the dead is unmistakable. Death here seems like a community event, natural in the cycle of existence.
As we get deeper into the mountains, we view the endless rows of tiny clay stupas (shrines) tucked into the crevices on the mountain face. Stupas play a significant role in funerals. After a person dies, a ceremony is performed in front of an image of the deceased. A lama reads from sacred texts, and the picture of the deceased is burned. The ashes are then mixed with clay and formed into tiny conical shapes. Sometimes bone fragments are taken from the skull of the dead person and mixed in as well. Marking the landscape as another blessing for a loved one who has died, they become a receptacle for sacred power.
My thoughts turn to how we say good-bye to our loved ones back home. While our loved ones might be remembered by a few, the Bhutanese pay homage to all departed loved ones, known and unknown, each time they pass those prayer flags and rows of tiny stupas dotting the mountain ranges. I have read much about the Western fear of death and dying. Buddhists are taught that death is a natural part of life and not something to fear. Death isn’t final; it’s merely something that leads to a person’s eventual rebirth. That doesn’t mean they don’t grieve—grief is universal—but how wonderful not to fear death, knowing your spirit will seek out a new life and a new body: another opportunity for self-improvement. You have to love that.