Monday, March 1, 2021

Funerary Art: Souvenirs from the Bardo

First Journey: Bardo Beads

Bardo Beads

My lifelong friend and traveling companion of 51 years left the planet on January 12. In Tibetan Buddhism they believe the soul passes from death into the bardo state - a realm I envision as a jungle or forest with a lot of confusing adventures in store. The goal in the bardo is to strip away the illusions, fears, and misbegotten ideas about reality and to see reality stripped bare, to see the light of raw being and to go for it. Meanwhile, all of your old fears and ideas and character defects appear to you as hallucinations, attempting to trick you into buying into the same old burdensome reality you just escaped in your last life.

The bardo journey lasts for 49 days, after which you are reborn (or, if you succeeded in the bardo, you achieve enlightenment and a pure state). My companion's stay in the bardo ends today. During this final trip together (or almost final, as you will see below), I fashioned some artifacts that are, in effect, bardo souvenirs.

The bardo beads

The first project was to make papier mâché beads. Source materials included old notebooks from our global travel adventures and birding expeditions, old travel documents, and letters, including a vintage aerogram sent by me in Nairobi to him on the Serengetti back in 1968, just after we had first met.

Source materials

papier mâché technique I used was one I learned in San Cristobal de las Casas from a master of puppetry, Licha Matita. Begin with a clay base and roll it into a ball. For the first layer, cover the clay ball in lotion (any hand lotion will do) and use more lotion to cover the ball with tiny scraps of paper, all the same color, to create your first layer. This will make it very easy to remove the clay ball in the final steps.

Clay innards revealed in final step

You then want to build up six to seven layers of papier mâché, using a standard paste of half water and half flour (thinned as needed for easy application). Using tiny scraps of paper allows you to retain the curve of the ball easily. Most importantly, use a different color paper for each layer. This allows you to easily see what you have covered and what you have not. Otherwise you will get hopelessly muddled, which is easy to do in the bardo. I used the good luck paper the Chinese burn for the dead, which you can find in any Chinatown, and which seemed very appropriate for bardo beads, alternating that layer with layers from notebooks pages, letters, and other personal ephemera.

Layers of letters and notes

Layers of Chinese good luck paper

This was slow, patient, meditative work, and I sometimes chanted the heart sutra while working. A few days ago I knew I was done. The final step was to cut the balls open with an exacto knife, scoop out the clay core, and then seal the ball back together with a final layer of papier mâché.

Second Journey: Bardo Bag

Half-way through the meditative bead work, I suddenly got a call that the Neptune Society had the ashes ready and I needed to receive them. The idea momentarily horrified me. The whole point of the bardo process is to let go of everything, and now the earthly remains were boomeranging back. After giving myself a day or two to think it over, I decided to fashion a bardo bag - a little pouch I could use to take a portion of the ashes along with me on all future travels, and distribute them to the wind and sea around the world, in the spirit of letting go. I used a length of exquisitely hand-embroidered Chinese trim, a spiral button from Portobello Road in London, and a piece of horn from who knows where to create this little traveling bardo bag. A sealable plastic snack bag containing ashes can fit neatly inside. 

Bardo traveling bag

Back of bag

This was all a deeply satisfying process, and it is being shared here with love in hopes that, when the time arises, it may offer you ideas about how to process loss and grief.

Interested in learning more about the bardo and the heart sutra? Here are two good links:


  1. How beautifully you honor your companion.

  2. Thank you for sharing such a gracious tribute.

  3. Such a tender and exquisite way to process your love and loss. Thank you so much for sharing it. ❤️ Helen

  4. Very beautiful, Cathy, and a wonderful tribute to Roger.

  5. I came over here from reading another blog - a preachy, super holy blog talking all about making with less. Looking for a different kind of voice, came over here and found this WONDERFUL entry which is ... just so much more holy, without ever preaching a word. Thank you!
    Erika Otter


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