I’ve started reading George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln at the Bardo, and it’s impressing me enormously. It concerns the afterlife of Lincoln’s son Willy, who died aged 11. Saunders imagines the afterlife as some form of the Tibetan Bardo Thodol, often incorrectly translated as the Book of the Dead.
So it got me thinking about my own trip to Tibet in 2007, and the poems which came out of it, later published in The floorshow at the Mad Yak Café (Red Squirrel Press, 2010). Here’s the Bardo Thodol poem from that book
We have four ways
to dispose of the dead,
she tells me.
Sky burial is still number one,
even since the Liberation.
The body is stripped. All flesh
is filleted from the bones
by the rogyapas, the body-breakers.
Then bones are broken with hammers,
sledged to splinters and mixed with tsampa.
Only after the rock platform is cleared of that
is the next course served.
Call it guts, internal organs, offal,
heart, lungs, liver, brain,
the slippery bits, glistening gobbets,
mad bellows that used to suck thin air,
all the pumps and pipes, intestines,
shrivelled sex parts, tumours,
empty blood vessels, the silent tongue.
Last the muscle, meat, the griffon’s favourite,
but these days a good hungry vulture
is hard to find. A potent medicine
used to relieve lameness in livestock,
gout in us, has poisoned the birds.
The fourth way is burial,
but ground deep enough to dig
is too valuable for corpses.
Only the minorities, I’m told
(with a significant glance),
choose this method.
Cremation is the third, but costly
in a land too high
for much wood to grow,
and as yet there are few
Water burial is an easy second.
It’s a long way from these headwaters
to the estuaries and oceans
where the rivers end. Mekong,
Brahmaputra, Yangtze, all rise here
under different names,
carry their disintegrating cargos
south and east. That’s why, she says,
we don’t eat fish – maybe they’re
Maybe they are. What is a body
when no longer alive?
No sepulchre, we would have it;
but a lump, a thing of no further use.
What was us has left the building
to swim with the fishes
or soar with the circling birds.
Om Mani Padme Hum