Due to a cruelly prolonged illness, my aunt made the decision that upon her death, there would be no viewing, no funeral. Straight to the crematorium she’d go. In illness, there are plenty of things that other people can do to make your life easier. But when you die, you’re dead. Maybe. Buddhist tradition provides a number customs to help the deceased, but I had no idea what they were.
I first contacted a good friend, an articulate monk at a Chinese temple, to ask about what the usual customs were. One typical practice is a period of 49 days of mourning. This seven week period of time is supposed to coincide with the time between rebirths. Families typically hold a service once a week each of these seven weeks. Due to the burden of such frequent services, family members may alternate who leads the service, and may even cut the number of services down to three or four over the seven weeks.
Since most of my family, including my aunt’s family, is not Buddhist, the seven weeks of family services is out of the question. But that’s not to say I can’t do anything as an individual.
When the departed are in this state of not-quite-yet-reborn, I was told they are still “there.” So if I have anything I need to say, then now is the time to say it. There is still some last opportunity to spread the Dharma—one last push before the next rebirth—and so chanting sutras and acts of generosity, all performed with a clear mind, also have the chance to influence the rebirth and future contact with the Dharma. The merit of our actions can thus be transferred, at least so I was told.
Since my aunt had passed away around the time of the Ullambana full moon, it meant that I could also participate in the usual Ullambana rituals. This holiday has a different meaning for different traditions and even individuals, but there is a common thread related to remembering those who have left us. I purchased a plaque to be inscribed with my aunt’s (English) name. Placed on the wall, monks and nuns recite sutras throughout the week.
The real reason I run through all these familiar-yet-unfamiliar rituals is because they give me something to do. These rituals feel meaningful. The philosophical assumptions beneath the customs are less important to me than the ability to express my gratitude to my aunt for being such an awesome part of my life. I’m glad I can do this in a Buddhist framework, where all the details have been worked out decades, if not centuries, in advance. Given my motivations, these customs might not easily fall into a category of cultural or religious practice, but maybe that’s because for now I’m really just winging it.