Offering Condolences

The setting sun.
The setting sun.

Death. It’s a topic that makes most cultures squirm a bit, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of Mongolians aptly avoid the subject. Some believe that speaking about it invites it into your life.

I’ve recently had two of my teachers experience such a terrible loss. I was at a loss for what to do: They were my colleagues, but not close family. Immediate family set up a ger or open their home as a sitting area, and gather with each other on the first day. The second day, extended family comes in and pays their respects. Afterwards, close friends may join. This all depends on how traditional the family is, or how many people they wish to receive.

I asked what I should do, if anything, to show my condolences. I didn’t want to come across as condescending or insensitive, and I felt the many unknown pitfalls could be incredibly damaging to our relationship. My teachers told me to give a small gift of money to show my respect for the deceased. In Mongolian, this offering is called боян (boyan), which literally translates to “charity” or “good deed.” I did so without question. A few days later, I received a small bag with gifts from the teacher: soap, matches, and a few other goods. My other teacher gave a similar bag: matches, baby wipes, and Korean energy drinks. I assume the matches are to represent light, as they are one of the three offerings one makes to the Buddha at temples. I could be horribly wrong; I never asked.

21 days after the passing is also an important day. The teachers both took days off from school. I asked why it was an important day, but no one could really explain it to me in English. In Buddhism, it is believed in some sects that the time that a soul may be reborn is either 3, 21, 49, or 100 days after death. A few weeks later, I was able to talk to my supervisor about working with my counterpart again. She mentioned that the 49 days had passed, and that Mongolians (who are Buddhist) believe that this is when the soul departs this world and heads for whatever is next. I suppose the day count could be different for each person; perhaps foretold by a monk after the person has died.

Bonus fact: It is considered very bad luck in Mongolia to live near or next to a cemetery. The one that I have managed to see in our ger district is quite far away from the nearest home.

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