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A large majority of the Mongolian population belongs to the ethnic group called Khalkha.

Until the 1950s, their funeral practice was not complicated. The dead bodies were deposited on the ground and left to be eaten by animals.

The collapse of the communist regime in 1990 and the recognition of Buddhism as the official religion allowed the return to ancient traditions. Thereby the Buddhist and shamanic elements are reintegrated into the funeral ritual.

Three or four men from the family build the wooden coffin. For that occasion, they dress upside-down or wear their clothes rolled up. They nail the fabrics inside by circling the coffin (or the lid) counter-clockwise.

These reversals from everyday gestures are destined to protect the souls of the infants and the unstable dead, which are not yet “fixed” in the skeleton or have left it. Through these gestures, the wandering souls stay away.

The colors of the fabric inside the coffin are usually blue (like the sky) and green (like the earth). Symbolically they evoke the return to nature and recall the medieval practice of depositing the body on the ground in the steppe. Thus, the deceased lying on the ground looks to the sky. These colors are also associated with the ancestor’s territory.

The family places on the blue fabric, at the level of the face, seven white cotton balls. That represents the «seven divinities» or «seven stars» from the Ursa Major (Great Bear) constellation.

Sometimes, they add some representations cut out of white fabric:
– the shamanic sign: an arrow along the body
– the Buddhist signs: a moon and a sun at the level of the head or a moon, a sun and a fire with three flames at the level of the feet

Khalkhas men and women

These white symbols (the stars, the arrow, the flames, the moon, and the sun) indicate to the soul the path to the afterlife and the direction to take.
All those represent the material expression of his liberation and rebirth.

Woman and children in front of their yurt

The body, wrapped in a white shroud, is kept in an ordinary yurt, inverted for the occasion. Then the lama prays to «wash» the body.

Inside the yurt, the bone bearers have to move the coffin counterclockwise. The body is removed with the head and the shoulders first and the feet last to symbolize the opposite of the ordinary exit sense of the yurt.

During the funeral procession, millet and rice seeds are thrown into the air to feed the wandering souls and the evil spirits.

The family builds a miniature yurt for the soul to have its own dwelling in the afterlife. They sink a Buddhist ritual object (round, made of iron) eleven times into the yurt’s fresh cement slab to discourage the soul to return and torment the living. Inside the tomb, the head is facing north.

During the burial ceremony, the yurt that has hosted the body is washed with consecrated water mixed with milk to get back its characteristics of an ordinary yurt.

Upon their return from the cemetery, the members of the funeral procession must purify themselves. They eat a piece of sugar soaked in a mixture of consecrated water and milk (internal purification) and then wash their hands and face with the same melange (external purification).

After the purification rites, the family shares food with a large number of guests: the members of the funeral procession, the close and distant relatives, the friends, and the neighbors. That represents the third-day meal, the funeral’s one, which officially opens the mourning period.

After death, the Buddhist clergy prohibits the consumption of meat. The family has to cook only dishes composed of «white» food (made from dairy products).

Yurt
Men, women, child

Four funeral meals are prepared during the mourning period, one meal every seven days. The latest is organized forty-nine days later and closes the mourning period.

The “consolation meal” on the forty-ninth day of mourning brings together a huge number of visitors, almost exclusively children. They represent, by analogy, the newborns in which the souls of the dead reincarnate.

The children eat a meal composed only of the so-called “white” dairy products and the shoe-sole cake (which represents a hospitality sign).

That sends back definitely the “black” and symbolically closes the mourning period.
The mold for the shoe-sole cake has the shape of a sole to represent a footprint. The cake is presented as a pyramid in several odd layers (two layers of happiness to frame a layer of unhappiness).

The white food assures the deceased of a righteous judgment from the part of the sovereign of hell, as well as a good rebirth in the body of a descendant or the body of a newborn.

The soul is composed of three different essences:
– one entity lives inside the photographic portrait of the deceased placed on the altar
– one entity turns around the threshold of the purified yurt at the place of the funeral meal
– the third one is situated near the tomb.

On the day of the burial, the family has to feed each of these entities at the place where they are positioned. 

Ul boov or Heviin boov (shoe soles cakes)
Woman and children

The commemoration of the deceased consists in feeding his soul (the three entities) at specific dates and places: on the tomb (yearly, during three years) and under the yurt (the seventh, the twenty-first, and the forty-ninth days after the burial).

After three years, the soul has to be encouraged to reborn. To dissuade the soul’s temptation to stay or come back among the living the family must «forget» the deceased. The soul is definitively sent back and the defunct’s name is forbidden. The descendants must no longer say his name and can not reuse it for their children. This stage marks the end of the relationship with the dead person.

The family wraps his portrait in a blue silk ceremonial scarf and place it inside a box.
The soul joins the afterlife and settles among the ancestors. It stays with them until the day of its new reincarnation.

Khalkhas

Sources

Arnaud Esquerre, Les morts des espaces lisses

Grégory Delaplace, L’invention des morts. Sépultures, fantômes et photographie en Mongolie contemporaine

(https://laviedesidees.fr)

Sandrine Ruhlmann, Les pratiques alimentaires funéraires chez les Mongols Xalx. Purifications, offrandes et repas

Sandrine Ruhlmann, Médiation funéraire en Mongolie. Cercueil, yourte miniature et nourriture

(https://journals.openedition.org)

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