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Objects and Substances of Funeral Mediation in Mongolia: Coffin, Miniature Yurt and Food Offerings

Sandrine Ruhlmann describes contemporary Mongolian funerary practices in this week’s post. Mongolian funerary practices, based in shamanism but mixed with other traditions as well, provide material intermediaries for the care of the disembodied soul.

Originally presented at the conference:
Matérialités religieuses
Musée du quai Branly, Paris, 22 January 2015.
Published on Material Religions 8 April 2015.


On the basis of drawings, diagrams and photos, I will analyse Mongolian funerary techniques from the perspective of material treatment of the deceased’s body and soul. The body is putrefying flesh and must be purified. The invisible mobile soul is materialised and mediatised to favour its rebirth. To purify the body and to encourage the deceased soul’s rebirth, families make and manipulate objects (coffin, miniature yurt), materials (wood, fabric, iron) and food (purifying food substances, food offerings).

First, I will present the domestic production line of two important objects in the Mongolian funerary treatment: the coffin and the miniature yurt [i]. I will investigate their structure, manipulation, working and function. Then, I will show how food substances are manipulated and foods are offered on the day of the funeral.

The technical operations deployed by the coffin and the miniature yurt builders make religious and political subjectivities that are particular to contemporary urban and rural funerary practices.

The Coffin

On the day of the funeral, three or four men put the body in the coffin. They are also called “bones carriers,” because, in the past, those men would have carried the body to the steppe, where carnivores would have devoured it.

The wooden coffin is built and decorated by three or four close relatives of the deceased—exclusively men. Before the day of the funeral, they find some planks. Outside of the deceased’s yurt, they saw the planks to measure and assemble them to build a box and a lid.

The coffin builders are also in charge of its decoration and are helped by the other members of the funeral procession, the dead person’s close male and female relatives. Contrary to the ordinary, where any work is done upon sunrise, the decoration of the coffin begins after sunset. The decorators work inside the deceased’s youngest daughter’s house, in order not to disturb the soul of the condemned dead that stray at night around the yurts. Actions such as nailing down fabrics, walking around the box or the lid are carried out in an anticlockwise direction and clothes are worn on the wrong side or rolled-up. These multiple inversions of daily life are in order to avoid attracting the attention of the wandering souls—those that could not be reborn. Without corporeal support, they are starving and looking for a body to live in and be fed. The vacant body of the deceased constitutes a support for such wandering souls and must be protected through the inversion of routines.

The decorators take care with their gestures and movements while decorating the coffin. They fold the fabric on the edges of the coffin’s sides towards the inside to dissimulate the irregularities of the rough cut. The wrong side is maintained with a little saliva to facilitate fixation with small nails. The decorators stretch the fabric before driving in each nail. Each operation of the sequence is realized in silence. One can only hear the scissors as it cuts the fabric and the hammer as it hits the nails. Discussions regarding details take place between each sequence.

Even today, the outer sides of the coffin are covered with the colors of the former Communist government that, in 1954, imposed the burial of the dead in coffins and their interment in graves. Such hygienic and antireligious laws constituted a hindrance to funeral practices, particularly to the process of disintegration of the corpse’s flesh and bones. Such disintegration was what enabled the soul to leave the body and to be reborn. Nevertheless, families respect that law and still decorate the visible edges of the coffin with the colors of Communism. In particular, the box and the lid are covered with a red fabric on which black bands are apposed. The lid is ornate with three black-and-red flowers. The space of each band and each flower is discussed and carefully chosen.


Figure 1: Decoration of the outside of the coffin. Drawing by author.



The inner, hidden edges of the coffin are decorated with colors that represent the former shamanic treatment and then the Buddhist treatment of the dead, that is to say the depositing of the dead body in the steppe. So, in the coffin, the body rests upon a green fabric that represents the earth, and under a blue one that represents the sky. On the blue fabric, near the face of the deceased, seven little balls of white cotton, “the seven [Buddhists] divinities” compose the ‘Ursa Major,’ a constellation visible throughout the year in most of the Northern hemisphere. Sometimes, other shamanic or Buddhist symbols are cut out in white fabric and fixed on the blue one, at the head (sun, moon), at the feet (moon, sun, three flames fire) or along the body (white arrow).



Figure 2: Decoration of the inner side of the coffin box. Drawing by author.



Figure 3: Decoration on the inner side of the coffin lid. Drawing by author.



Such a treatment of the flesh, materialized by the manipulation of colors and signs, allows the release of the soul that is lodged in the bones. In this way, it enables the preservation of a shamanic principle of perpetuation of the lineage: the rebirth of the soul in a descendant’s body.

The Miniature Yurt

The day before the burial, while the “bones carriers” build and decorate the coffin, a masculine relative of the deceased build a miniature yurt made of iron.

The basic material utilized is generally tin. However, the builder can use a teapot, a plate or various recycled materials made of iron or metals that are light and flexible like zinc.

The builder cannot exactly reproduce the right proportions of a yurt, but he meticulously respects the architecture. So, the miniature yurt is fitted with a roof, a hole of aeration with its square of closing, bonds to maintain the felts on the external walls, an opened door (the opening is on the right), a fireplace and a small fire as a kind of furnace (a ritual small lamp, lit and placed inside the miniature yurt).

The builder makes pieces of the yurt in order so that they fit or click together. That is the reason why he makes thin splits to insert a clip that are folded and pinched to be fixed together. The compression ring of the roof, its square of closing and the chimney are sometimes made as one piece and each element is positioned by folding, a delicate operation.

The construction order of architectural elements doesn’t change very much. An ordinary builder or somebody who is not a blacksmith uses basic equipment: a ruler, scissors (to cut), a stone as a kind of incus or as a kind of file, a hammer (to bang, to smooth, to polish), a plier (to hold, to fold, to grip, to fix), a nail (to pierce) and wire (to tie, to fix). He cuts out a rectangle of metal to build the wall of the yurt. In the wall he cuts up a little rectangle to position the door and two splits for its hinges. He draws the outlines of the roof with the point of a scissor on the rest of the metal plate. On another section of the plate, he cuts up a rectangle for the door and little bandages for the hinges, keeping them for aside for further fixation. Then, he fixes the circular band (once cut up) on the wall, which will form the roof. After he has cut up all the elements of the roof, these elements form one piece: the chimney, the square of closing the roof and its ropes. He puts the square of closing on the compression ring and fixes it at the base of the roof with its ropes. He rolls and folds the chimney to dress it vertically. Finally, he puts the door in the fixed hinges and shuts it with a wire. The only technical difference between miniature yurts built by the artisan and the smith is in the door: it is mobile and can be opened or it is fixed and stays shut. But the soul must have the possibility to go in and out to perform various activities such as herding, cooking, and offering hospitality.



Figure 4: Stages in the technical operation of making a miniature funerary yurt. Photos by author.



Both the smith and the simple handyman work on the basis of different materials (tin, teapot, zinc plate) which result in different constraints (malleability, alteration) but which leave them free for their creativity. In any case, the operations of measuring (rule, fingers), cutting, folding, pinching or soldering, hammering, polishing, and smoothing are deployed to give a “house” to the dead in the beyond. Most families prefer a homemade, artisanal or even industrial miniature house in form of a yurt. However, some families choose a miniature in form of an angular house or Buddhist temple. Other families prefer a squared house manufactured in stone that looks like a little Buddhist temple. In any case, the angular or circular house must present a roof and a door.



Figure 5: Different forms of miniature yurts placed at graves. Photos by author.



On the day of the burial, once the coffin is under the earth and the grave full of earth, the miniature yurt is settled on the grave, in the front of the funerary stele. The deceased’s relatives light a small burner of incense fire on the doorstep of the miniature yurt to encourage the soul to stay in his or her new “house”. Sometimes, footprints are made with a marker in front of the yurt to delimit a domesticated space; in fact, the dead is provided in the beyond with all the things that humans need to live. This was something that the makers reiterated: the handyman whispered it to himself during the assembly of the miniature yurt, and the smith explained this to me while activating his blowtorch. The dead live in a yurt as the living. They herd livestock to feed themselves. They keep the fire burning in their “house” to warm up and and also to cook their meals.

The deposit of a miniature yurt on the grave is a recent practice that emerged under the pen of Mongolian folklorists and under the Communist government in 1980. It is a recovery of shamanic practices to feed the dead [ii]. It is a miniaturisation of the deceased’s burial in his grave. In 13th century, the travellers Jean de Plan Carpin and Guillaume de Rubrouck noted that great Mongolian emperors were buried with their yurt, sitting at their table with meat and fermented mare’s milk offerings.

Through a play of techniques, materials, colors and signs, coming from creative features and an art of doing as well as an art of feeling, the coffin and the miniature yurt constitute objects of mediation between the dead and the afterlife. The techniques mobilized in the construction of these two objects favour the departure of the soul by offering her a “house” to live in until her rebirth in a human body. These mediation techniques not only provide the deceased soul a new home but also provide the living their peace.

Such techniques and objects make the relationship with the dead palpable and visible. The family must correctly effect each sequence of the funerary ritual, make a “beautiful coffin” and a “beautiful yurt” to satisfy the dead and to favour his/her departure in the Beyond.

The word “beautiful” designates the realisation of the “right technical gesture”. It denotes also an association of the “beautiful”, of the “well” and the “good” in the context of the result of the action [iii]. In fact, some vengeful dead souls remain and haunt their families. Other souls are condemned not to be reborn in a descendant’s body because the persons have not realized enough goods actions during their life. These souls also haunt the living.

Through these actions and processes, we understand that the objects and the gestures of making them are endowed with a specific capacity to act (agency). These actions and constructions enable families to apprehend their world and its contradictions, to respect a government law bypassing it, to preserve in the same time other Buddhist or shamanic funerary practices that are integrated in scalable creative processes. These actions and constructions particularly bear the marks of confrontations of different religious and political systems during several centuries (shamanism, Buddhism, antireligious Communism).

Purifying Food Substances and Food Offerings

Feeding plays a part in the use of substances as purifying agents and in the form of foods that constitute offerings.

When the funeral procession goes to the cemetery, the deceased’s relatives purify the body and what was in contact with the dead body (beginning with the truck of the funeral procession), with a mixture of consecrated water and milk. They splash the back of the truck carrying the dead and they wash the yurt where the dead lived until being placed in the coffin the purifying white substance. They wash the dead’s furniture, and then they wash their hands and their face with the same purifying substance. They wait for the return of the funeral procession at the entry of the yard of the house. Upon the return from the cemetery, before stepping across the entrance gate or the yurt’s threshold, the members of the funeral procession purify their body (inside and outside). They wash their hands and their face with consecrated water and milk and they eat a piece of sugar soaked in the white purifying mix. Entirely purified (inside and outside), they can enter in the purified yurt to eat the funerary meal.

The day of the burial ceremony is divided into sequences that correspond to food offerings. These foods are cooked or uncooked, depending on the persons addressed. So, on the way to the cemetery, the driver of the funeral procession throws some consecrated uncooked rice and millet grains out of the window to the starving dead souls that follow the vacant body of the deceased. At the cemetery, the members of the funeral procession offer uncooked foods to the entity or soul of the dead [iv] that stays near the grave. The bone carriers prepare the grave. They put down a tea brick to the bottom of the grave and solemnly throw some consecrated millet and rice grains, and some raisins that fall into the bottom of the grave. They do a second offering of consecrated uncooked millet and rice grains on the coffin that is placed in the grave. Then once filled with earth, they do a third offering on top of the tomb. These uncooked foods are inedible for human beings and draw a distinction between the living and the dead. When making these offerings, the bone carriers turn around the tomb counter clockwise. During the consumption of the funeral meal, close relatives offer a plate of cooked foods, (i.e. edible for human beings), to the entity or soul who roams near the doorstep outside of the yurt where the funeral meal is eaten. They also fill a plate of cooked food in front of the dead’s photo portrait, placed on the domestic altar. This portrait is a material representation of the deceased’s soul. It is placed near other formerly dead who became ancestors and near pictures of Buddhist divinities. These cooked foods are taken from the funeral meal. Cooked edible foods for human beings are offered to those two dead entities (or souls) because they are foods for the deceased’s soul in the path to rebirth. These cooked food offerings constitute “meritorious actions” which favour the rebirth of the dead soul in a newborn’s body.



Figure 6: Offerings placed in front of images of the deceased and ancestors. Photos by author.



On the occasion of the four funeral meals (3rd, 7th, 21st and 49th days), foods are also shared between the living. The grieving family offers a lot of white foods as qualified “merits” to a great number of visitors. On the 49th day, to close the grieving and to mark the end of the “black” period, the grieving family offers white foods, milk, products or foods qualified as “white merits” whatever are their color, only to children. The meal devoted to children permits the rebirth of the deceased’s soul in a descendant’s body (a shamanic principle of lineage perpetuation), or in a newborn’s body (the Buddhist principle of positive rebirth in a human being’s body and not in an animal corpse). The rebirth of a human being’s soul assures the reproduction of society.

With the manipulation of purifying food substances and of food offerings, the families materialize their relationships with the dead: his body and his soul. For that, they have to realize all the funerary rites correctly. The purification and offering actions enable the good fate of the dead’s soul and keep a distance between the soul and the living.

The dead’s soul is nourished on the domestic altar on the 7th, 21st and 49th commemoration days and for each morning for three years as well as the day of the New Year.

Qualities are attributed to the different food substances and to foods, which are on commemorative occasions, manipulated, shared, eaten and put into circulation. Each of these substances or foods provides a value to the relationships that the family has with roaming souls, ancestors and the dead.


Technical operations, such as making objects, manipulating materials, colors, signs, purifying food substances and food offerings, model religious subjectivities where shamanic and Buddhist elements intermingle. These technical operations make palpable the relationships with the souls of the dead through the senses of sight, touch, smell, taste, etc.

They also show how, today, (after a period of persecution and confrontation) different and concurrent religious and political systems articulate with each other: Buddhism [v], shamanism [vi], antireligious Communism, and a post-Communism advocating religious tolerance. Each family chooses among possible combinations as long as it respects the governmental law (hygienist, Communist and anti religious) that from 1954 has imposed the burial of the dead in coffins. By building a miniature yurt that they put in front of the funeral stele, the families supply the soul of the deceased a life similar to that of human beings on earth. That object and the action are simultaneously a principle inherited from shamanism and an emergent practice, placed today at the rank of shamanic tradition by the Mongolian folklorists. This materiality is clearly enrolled in a policy of “valorisation of Mongolia’s authentic traditions”.

Notes and References

  • [i] Since about fifteen years ago artisanal, domestic constructions have their industrial equivalent in the funeral home services market.
  • [ii]Ar’jasüren and Njambuu 1992.
  • [iii]Ruhlmann 2008a.
  • [iv]Upon death, the soul leaves the bones and is considered like three entities or souls.
  • [v]Recognized as official religion since 1990, the date of the collapse of the communist government and the beginning of the period of political democratisation and religious tolerance.
  • [vi]Today, invented or renewed and placed at the rank of “traditions”, shamanic practices were tolerated since 1990. During national celebrations, shamans are associated with Buddhist monks and state leaders in large public rituals that benefit the Nation.
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