Need for a professional funeral service in Bhutan

Death is an unpredictable and inevitable phenomenon that happens to everyone. When a loved one dies, the family members are confronted with a couple of decisions that need to be made under great emotional distress, especially the funeral process. It can range from offering a small prayer in a humble funeral to lavish funerals where the rituals are performed for weeks on end, involving many lamas, astrologers, caterers, carpenters and drivers. It can add to the financial burden and hassle to the already grieving family.

Dambari Maya Gurung, who had lost a loved one before, is all too familiar with this process. Being a Lhotshampa, their ways of sending the dead to the afterlife is influenced by the Hindu rite and rituals. This calls for arrangement for transportation of the body, calling upon religious bodies to perform a puja, having an astrologer to discern the appropriate date for cremation, and mourning the dead for 13 days by the whole family.

The ashes are either placed in an urn or scattered by the river side. The funeral traditions may vary from people to people in Bhutan, but the expenses incurred can be as high as Nu 300,000 or even higher, which also depends on the individual.

It is not always possible for  families to pool in resources and manpower to conduct such time consuming and ritualist funeral rites. As more and more people opt for the nuclear family set up, especially in the fast city life, it seems easier to pay someone to arrange the entire funeral process.

Therefore, the people could use a professional funeral business/service with all the knowledge, equipment, manpower and facilities to provide a funeral in a convenient way, and more so at an affordable rate, especially for financially challenged families.  The funeral service can also get all the protocol clearance to conduct the funeral in the pandemic era.

Currently, Bhutan doesn’t have such services, and the funeral has to be taken care of by the grieving family members. Dambari Maya said she wished such a convenient service existed in Bhutan, and she had no idea that such funeral services existed in other countries.

The Thimphu Thrompon, Ugyen Dorji, said how much they want to spend for the funeral depends on the individual. If someone decides to come up with such a service then it would be actually very good, as it will save a lot of time and hassle, but in the end it has to follow the traditions and customs.

“This won’t happen anytime soon in Bhutan because no one is raising the issue at the moment. We have a caretaker who takes care of the crematorium, but it is Zhung Dratshang who owns the land. Unless it becomes a problem, no one is going to come up with the solution,” he added.

According to the Thrompon, no one really wants to use the incinerator at the crematorium. This is due to the funeral custom bias that people have. However, in case of unclaimed bodies, they are readily burnt in the incinerator.

The crematorium in Thimphu has a guest house where the bodies can be kept before cremation. From the statement of the duthroe manager, the crematorium sees all kinds of people from Christian to other religions, who come to get their deceased family members cremated. The government provides free funeral services to kidu people and fully sponsors the rites at the crematorium.

A senior Lopon at the monastery near the crematorium, Namgay Dorji, said that the practice of cremation in Bhutan is deeply rooted in its culture and traditions, and not only Buddhism.

The first step in a traditional cremation is getting a Tsip (astrologer) to ask for divination and the appropriate date for the cremation of the body, as well who is allowed to touch the body and when.

In a month, there are eleven days where a body cannot be cremated from Buddhist point of view, including Sundays. When someone dies, the community generally mourns for 49 days and a series of elaborate rituals are practiced for the smooth transition from bardo to the rebirth. The deceased is believed to roam the intermediate state called bardo for 49 days. Sometimes a bardo throedel may be read in front of a dead person to guide them through the intermediate state simply by hearing it.

Though a funeral service business sounds like a feasible business model Bhutan, with the number of people dying every year (3,220 registered deaths in 2019 as per NSB), however, there are many hurdles to overcome, for this business to become functional in Bhutan.

It will require an enormous capital and resources, including water system for washing the bodies, freezer system for storing bodies (Buddhists believe some bodies can be burnt only 2 or 3 days or weeks later), bamboo and tree for hoisting prayer flags, clay and flour for tsa-tsa, firewood, kitchen utensils, catering, transportation, including hearse vehicles. Not to mention the requirement for specific manpower would require extra effort in skilling up new youngsters according to the need of the industry.

The other expenses to be considered are rents, salaries for the employees, advertising, maintaining accounts, taxes and obtaining various religious items for use in the funeral service.  It may happen in the future, a private funeral service fashioned solely for people of Bhutan, but the current lack of knowledge and expertise prevents it from happening anytime soon.

An additional unspoken challenge is potential social stigma for a profession like this which may also be one of the main reasons why such a service has not yet started. 

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