At last night’s annual Ingersoll Lecture on immortality—a lecture series initiated in 1896 by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, class of 1853—Robert R. Desjarlais elaborated on the beliefs of Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists.
The Yolmo believe that one’s experience of dying has a direct impact on one’s consciousness in the afterlife and in the next life, according to Desjarlais, an anthropology professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
Titled “Cessation and Continuity: Poiesis in Life and Death among Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists,” Desjarlais approached the topic of immortality by outlining the death rituals of the Yolmo people.
In the Yolmo culture, the living and dead exist simultaneously, and during both, one must live in accordance with the ideas of karma. One’s family and friends must support and calm the dying in order to help the dying achieve a good next life.
“Dying without fear and with little longing for the life he was leaving behind” is the path to a good death, Desjarlais said. Following death, individuals enter the “in-between,” where the deceased are still attached to the living.
“Even thinking about the person can draw that person’s consciousness back to the house, and that can lead to the haunting of the house,” Desjarlais said.
The families then complete their funeral rites by cremating the dead and destroying any remnants of the person who passed away, in order to sever ties between the dead and their previous life. By disassembling the physical reminders of the individual’s life, the families enable the person to move to a new life, underscoring the Buddhist idea of “doing through undoing,” Desjarlais said.
Desjarlais was introduced by Divinity School Visiting Professor Michael D. Jackson, who nominated Desjarlais as the speaker.
“He was working on the afterlife in a very non-Western sense and a very different orientation,” Jackson said. “I thought he would be a great speaker.”
Desjarlais has spent a large amount of time conducting anthropological fieldwork in the Nepal Himalayas.
The Sperry Room of Andover Hall was about half-full—a change from Ingersoll Lectures of years past, which were held in Sanders Theater and drew larger audiences.
But audience members expressed enthusiasm about the talk.
“I was interested in the process of personalization and depersonalization and how ritual becomes a vehicle for the process,” said Charles G. Carstens, a Ph.D. student at the Divinity School.
Karin Grundler-Whitacre, Divinity School Assistant Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs, organized the event and said it was a success.
“I thought it was very thoughtful and a real insight into the Yolmo people,” she said. “It was a wonderful lecture, very engaging.”