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Information for Relatives Caring for a Tibetan Buddhist who is Dying

The following is based on the Buddhist belief that consciousness continues after the body dies. The first 3 days following death are particularly important for Buddhists, as this is when the mind starts to disengage from the body. As such, Tibetan Buddhists will feel less anxious about their last hours if they know that the following steps will be taken after their body dies.
Main points to consider when your Tibetan-Buddhist relative dies based on advice given by Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche

As with most religions, Buddhists believe that candles and prayers help to create a positive and respectful environment for their loved ones in the hour of their death and in the days that follow.

  • If you are informed that your loved one is close to death, or as soon as possible after they pass on, ask a friend to contact Kagyu Samye Dzong London or other Tibetan Buddhist Centre so that prayers can be said. (It is very comforting for the dying person to know that prayers will be said for them. Because hearing is the last sense to go, the sound of prayers will help to penetrate the fog and confusion of the last hours and soothe the anxiety that your relative will feel as they approach death. If it is not possible for prayers to be said in their presence while they are still alive, it would be very beneficial to have them said at the bedside as soon as possible after the moment of death.)

  • Please try and ensure that the body of your loved one is left undisturbed for a minimum of 4 hours following death. Not only is this very important from a Buddhist viewpoint but, following the confusion and emotional stress that death brings, these few hours will provide you with a breathing space before other decisions have to be made. Please ask the nurses or carers to delay the laying out of the body for as long as is practical. If the body has to be touched within 4 hours it is considered best to touch the crown of the head first.

  • Once the prayers are completed, it is usual to have paper Mandalas placed on the vital energy centres body and in the coffin. It is considered of great benefit to do this.

  • We understand that different cultures have different ways of mourning but Buddhists believe that it is helpful to the person who has just died to maintain a quiet, stable and compassionate attitude when in their presence. See ‘Simple practices to help the dying, the dead and the bereaved’

  • If the death is unexpected, a post mortem may be required. If possible, ask for it to be postponed for 3½ days to allow the mind to disengage from the body without any undue disruption.

  • When the body of your relative is moved from the hospital / house, please tell the undertaker not to disturb it unnecessarily. It is important that the body is not embalmed as this level of interference is considered to be very disturbing to the death process. Buddhists believe that this could affect their subsequent rebirth back into life.

  • Please do not cremate your loved one’s body before 3½ days have elapsed.

Taken from Akong Rinpoche’s book ‘Taming the Tiger’

  • As soon as it is detected that the dying process has begun, a family member or friend should sit at the bedside and gently say to the deceased: “Do not be afraid, whatever appears, it is only a projection of your mind, like a dream. There is nothing to fear, your body can no longer be hurt. Just relax and when a bright white light appears, go towards it, merge with it.” This can be said several times. Because hearing is the last sense to go, it is considered helpful to say this and other prayers aloud (and indeed for the 49 days following death – the intermediate/Bardo state prior to rebirth).

  • Set aside a few moments daily to talk to the deceased. They should be reassured that even though they may see frightening things, they should recognise these as being merely projections of their own mind. As they no longer have a body, they can no longer be hurt. Light a candle and send blessings and positive thoughts to them.

  • One could also do the following positive acts and dedicate the merit to the deceased: Buddhists could undertake the Nyung Nay practice; or take one or more of the Five Precepts for a period. For example, you could give up alcohol and/or meat for a year.

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