Funeral Rites among the Lama Priests of the Monguor

In all cultures across the world, death and the traditions bound up in death are important aspects of one’s culture. Among the Monguor (also known as the Tu), one of the 56 officially recognised ethnic groups in China, there are certain funerary rites that must be adhered to in order to safeguard the community. In addition to this, deaths are categorised into different groups; those who have died a natural death, an unnatural death or the death of a lama.

A lama is a Tibetan or Mongolian priest of Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) and the death of one of these priests is of great concern among the Monguor. Death and the spirits are considered with great seriousness as if the proper rites are not performed correctly, then the spirit can raise havoc among the community.

If a lama is advanced in years or is clearly seriously ill, a coffin is built for him in advance. The coffin is constructed sloping at the top and is painted red with a sun and moon symbols. The box is built on a small scale, usually only big enough “accommodate the corpse, which is set in the box in a squatting position just prior to being carried to the cremation ground”.

As the lama dies, his clan and immediate family are invited to join in the ‘death watch’. As soon as the lama dies, his ajiu (important male maternal relative) is informed. The rest of his family and village are then told. On the first day of his death there are endless burning of symbolic paper money and flat pieces of fried bread (which are only used during the Spring Festival, the Day of Pure Brightness, and the anniversary of the death of the deceased, and are never eaten).

The body is then prepared. The body is generally tied in a squatting position, dressed in his finest clothes. His face is white-washed and covered in yellow silk. The head is crowned with a five-directional hat and then the body is placed in the centre of the north room facing the door. A table or chest is placed in front of him where offerings of fruit, money, large sugar crystals, a bowl of rice in which crossed chopsticks are inserted, bread, joss sticks, oil lamps, etc, are placed upon. The body will stay here until the third day of his death.

On the third day, the ajiu arrives to visit the deceased with a group of people. Several old women will walk behind him, singing loud laments. As soon as the ajiu arrives, family members rush out of the home and kneel outside on the ground, and, as the ajiu draws near, they kowtow, holding incense sticks. It is the older family members, and those who are closely related to the lama, that will kowtow and the entire family will wail before the ajiu enters the home.

After this, the body is then placed in his coffin. The windows are closed in order to prevent the curious looking in. As this happens, a retinue for wailing women set off for the cremation site, singling laments about the deceased. The woman going in front carries a wicker basket containing crumpled funeral bread and bits of “sacred paper” burned for the deceased. As she walks to the site, she will gradually throw out the contents of the basket. The women have effectively, “opened a road for the deceased to follow”.

The coffin is then brought to the site. The ajiu walks in front of the coffin and the rest of the family and community behind them. Once they reach the site, a screen of several blankets are placed around the oven before the corpse is placed seated upon it in privacy. “The coffin sedan is smashed to pieces and the pieces placed in the oven bottom, above a basin of liquefied butter and cypress needles”.

On one side, a group of lamas will assemble. Usually they number seven but any up to twenty will arrive. “After the lamas assemble and begin chanting, a lama hands the oldest xiaozi a long tree-branch, the end of which has been tied with cotton, dipped in butter, and set ablaze. The xiaozi accepts the torch, kowtows to the dead lama, then kneels and lights the fuel inside the cremation oven through the four small open-ings at the bottom”.

At this point the women leave and only the men remain. After an hour the rest of the villagers will leave as well so that only a few xiaozi (male relatives) and lamas remain. After the lamas have finished their chanting, they too depart.

The fire then burns out and after three days the oven is opened, and the bones are removed using red chopsticks, wrapped in yellow gold paper, and placed in a small con-tainer. This container may then be buried locally or sent to Kumbum (Taer Temple). The mourning period of the nephew of a lama lasts for 100 days. In this time they should not cut any facial hair or brush their hair. In addition to this, they are should not wash their faces until after the coffin is taken out.

The funerals and traditions surrounding the deaths of lamas among the Monguor are fascinating; it has been pondered by scholars as to the reasons why they are cremated and never buried in their ancestral burial grounds. It has been suggested that this is because they die childless and if they were buried in ancestral ground it could bring bad luck to the community – that future generations may not reproduce.


Stuart, Kevin & Hu, Jun (1992) Death and Funerals among the Minhe Tu (Monguor), Asian Folklore Studies, Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.