WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka

Funeral rites in Sri Lanka

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims observe different funeral rites when it comes to burying or cremating their dead. In this thanatophobic society, people have different beliefs which have come down the generations from time immemorial. Some beliefs have a religious twist while some are grounded on customary practices with a mythical twist. Whatever it be many people dread the dead as something connected with voodoo and the malignant powers of spirits, ghosts, apparitions etc., which are likely to harm people by getting either possessed or obsessed.

A funeral is a simple, solemn and dignified ceremony, sometimes with superstitious beliefs woven into the fabric of mythology. In this civilised world, people dispose of their dead in two ways. Some bury the dead and others cremate. Cremation is preferred for hygienic reasons, in not allowing the corpse to become putrified and ridden with colon germs.

The Buddhists and Hindus prefer to cremate their dead and collect the ash to build tombs in memory of the departed. The Christians bury their dead to facilitate resurrection (rising from the dead). influences

The Holy Bible says "And have hopes towards God that there shall be a resurrection of the dead both of the just and unjust" (Acts 24:15). The Muslims too bury the dead, and do not keep the corpse for more than a day, in keeping with their customary practices and religious beliefs. Neither do they lay their dead in a coffin.

Despite alien influences and different religious beliefs, which manifest in our society, the overall attitude towards rites and rituals concerning the dead has not intrinsically changed in its curious perspective, because most of them have a traditional pattern.

On a purely humanitarian point of view, funerals are always attended by the kith and kin of the deceased, as a mark of respect to the departed being. In keeping with the saying "Never despise the dead", even the worst criminals and offenders are praised and blessed highly as a token of gratitude to the departed.Let us look into certain rites and rituals concerning the dead.

When a person dies in a Buddhist home, the body is laid with its head facing towards the West. The belief is that it is the direction of the abode of god Vesamuni alias Vysravana, the chief of the evil horde. He is under the direction of Yama, also known as Vemanika Pretaraja, who is the overlord of the under-world. Yama is believed to decide on the merits and demerits of the deceased, and whether he should be punished or rewarded for his activities during his life on earth.

Yama is identical with Kuvera of the Vedic scriptures or Pluto of the Greeks. His messengers are said to be the birds 'polkichcha' and 'kanakoka', and even today people fear to listen to their cries with awe and repugnance foreboding evil or which portends death.

In any funeral house, the family photographs hanging on the walls are kept over-turned, also those of the close relatives of the dead, and, perhaps, of others known to him when alive. This is done to prevent any one of them being possessed by the spirit of the dead, which is considered more harmful than useful, because the familiarity between two human beings and that between a human being and a spirit is not equal.

It is the custom to take the dead body out of the house with legs first. This is done with a purpose, although most people are unaware of it. It is to prevent the spirit returning back home, if taken head first, which, it is believed, helps the dead to trace the path taken by the cortege from home to cemetery.

Common sight

This is not possible when taken legs first because he moves forward and not backward.

It is a common sight to see flickering oil lamps kept burning throughout day and night, until the corpse is removed out of home. Even in houses where electricity is available, these lamps keep burning as usual. The practice in the old days was to light up a few 'vilakkus' (small 'pandams' or incandescent torches) around the bier, instead of oil lamps. Whatever the mythical conception be, it creates a healthy atmosphere within the house, because the obnoxious effluvia emanating from the decomposing body is absorbed with oxygen and burnt by the flames.

Therefore, the lighting of oil lamps has a scientific significance. Some people who suffer from skin diseases become allergic to such polluted air, and even those who have wounds and ulcers, do not attend funeral houses as a precautionary measure.

In selecting a coffin, every care is taken that it conforms to the size of the dead person. When brought home, if it happened to be bigger in size, an egg is placed near the feet, to overcome the superstitious belief that it would be the forerunner of another death in the family. The egg is supposed to neutralise the evil influence for a 'nara billa' (the sacrifice of a human being), caused by the additional space in the coffin.


In some parts of the country, there is the custom of isolating the corpse within the house, for about five minutes, until it is taken out of the house for cremation or burial. Every one vacates the house and all windows and doors are closed, to enable the evil horde to take possession of the dead body and leave with the cortege, without lagging behind. Evil spirits are said to be active in the dark and it serves the purpose.

On the way to the cemetery, a cart carrying sand goes before the cortege and the sand is thrown on to the road, in keeping with the ancient custom of guiding the cortege to the cemetery. Sometimes small coins are thrown with the sand for purpose of charity to anyone who picks them up. 'Pori' (fried paddy) is also thrown in view of the belief that evil spirits are attracted by them.

In the old days, it was customary for people of the household to accommodate the kith and kin who had come, to pay their last respects to the departed, from distant villages, and as they could not return before dusk, a meal is supplied to compensate for dinner.

This practice is still followed and the meal is known as 'mala batha', which is a simple meal of rice served with curries cooked with dry-fish and pumpkin. But, today, in some homes biscuits and cool drinks are served, as the alternative to the 'mala batha', as a token of gratitude for attending the funeral.

On the other hand, in those days when transport facilities were poor, people who came to attend the funeral, could not get back in time. So, they stayed during the night and left in the following morning. They made best use of the 'mala batha' to overcome hunger. In regard to this offering of food, the Christian Bible says: "A devout man and one that feared God gave much alms to the people and prayed to God always" (Acts 10:2). This refers to charity performed in the name of the dead.

When a person dies, the body is never kept in isolation and, at least one or two persons keep awake the whole night, sometimes taking turn. This is to break the monotony of the night and the silence that pervades with it. In the old days, mostly in rural areas, the renowned classic 'Vessantara Jatakaya' was recited in the most melancholy tone.

Burial and cremation

Burial and cremation of the dead are the results of civilisation. The barbarians of old left the dead bodies in lonely places or within jungles to be devoured by vultures (large rapacious birds of prey, feeding largely on carrion) when the dead bodies have become decomposed. Cannibals burnt the bodies and ate the parched flesh, without disgracing the dead.

Cremation was introduced by the Aryan nomads, who invaded India in the 2nd millennium BC and became a rule of Hindu funeral rites. Even today, Hindus do not bury their dead but burn it in a pyre, very often without coffins, and using sandalwood timber depending on the dignity of the dead.

After the funeral is over, Buddhists offer 'dana' (alms) to bhikkus on the 7th day and on the 3rd month and at the end of one year, which is considered compulsory, and the merits of such offerings are transferred to the dead to release themselves from any woeful state. 'Death is certain, life uncertain' is a natural phenomenon, and every person born has to die one day. This is the end of life.

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