Home to Cemetery:
To begin then, it is the custom to keep the dead body at home until disposal, embalmed if kept for a few days. In an urban setting, it may be kept in a funeral parlour, particularly if the dead person is of some social standing, as my father was (SEE PICTURE).
Additional respect may be shown (as in the picture) by having two elephant tusks placed in front, making an arch. The body, dressed in the favourite or the common attire of the deceased, is placed in the casket with the head pointing towards the West, possibly symbolizing the setting sun, and the end of life, and is kept open for public viewing. One or two standing brass oil lamps with wicks lit may be kept at the head of the body, in reverence, as at a temple when oil wicks in a holder are lit in honour of the Buddha. Any wreaths and cards received are placed around the casket, and a photo of the deceased, if available, displayed as well.
Family, and everyone informed of the passing away, a white flag may be put up outside the house to signal the event, this by the more socially conscious At home, a vigil is kept 24 hours of the day, family members and relatives taking turns. If this is to symbolize that the family has not abandoned the deceased, it is also intended as a way of keeping out and discouraging any possible evil forces, as is the cultural belief. Those on the wake may chant some Suttas such as the satipaññhàna or the less informed, engage in games such as carom or play cards.
At a material level in a domestic setting, the pictures on the walls, if any, are turned backwards, possibly wanting to avoid ushering in family memories, associated with the departed one in particular, and also showing a solidarity with the departed one who now can’t be party to the memories. No food is cooked at home for the duration. This could well be for hygienic reasons, even if the body may be embalmed. But culturally speaking, it may be a symbolic, and a more tangible, show of solidarity with the dead relative. How could I possibly eat when my loved cannot? The neighbours show their respect and solidarity for the family by providing (donating) food for the duration, every family in the community, of course, benefiting from the practice over time under a principle of mutuality.
The mourners, family or other, come to be dressed in white, the colour of purity in Buddhism.
With no religious directives as to the form of disposal of the body in a lay community setting, the norm, for practical reasons, is burial, at the closest cemetery. For those who can afford - making a funeral pyre in particular being an expensive affair, or if volunteers offer to bring enough firewood, cremation may be an option. In contemporary times, the cremation may be at the cemetery crematorium.
Again with no religious or social requirement of a particular deadline, the date of burial or cremation comes to be determined by how soon the relatives, the critical ones in particular, could attend the event.
On the day of the disposal, everyone goes by the casket paying their last respects, or letting out their final emotions through crying (as I did, to give an example, at my mother’s funeral) or in whatever way one comes to express one’s feelings. After a final announcement, the lid is closed, with wreaths etc., if any, placed on the casket.
As in the case of my father, at a Funeral parlour, a drummer and a wind-instrument player (nalaawa) announces the preparation for departure (SEE PICTURE), with a performance of a standard rhythm and beat. The drum used is the tammaettama, double-faced drum, face up, played with sticks. (see https://www.lanka.com/about/interests/traditional-drums/ for a picture of this and some other drums).
Following the announcement, the processional falls into place (SEE PICTURE).
The casket, carried on the shoulders of family (SEE PICTURE), friends and colleagues taking turns, is then taken in a processional, led by the musicians (sometimes adding another type of drum called yakbere, played with hands on both sides). A parasol is held over the casket (as in the picture), the same way a living Emperor would be treated, the parasol symbolizing regal honour. Relatives, friends and colleagues following the casket, the pathway comes to be carpeted with clean white sheet lengths (pàvàda) (as in the picture), the sheets already gone past by brought to the front by volunteers. The processional ends up at the cemetery, when the musicians retire, and there is no more music.
Part 2: You are reading part 2..