Liberating ghosts at Yangon’s Yayway cemetery

At Yangon’s Yayway cemetery on the full moon night of Thadingyut, the faithful performed ceremonies to free the spirits of the dead from wandering the earth.

By YE MON | FRONTIER
Photos STEVE TICKNER

ON THE FULL moon night of Thadingyut, one of the most important occasions in the Myanmar Buddhist calendar, more than 100 people gathered at Yayway cemetery on Yangon’s outskirts to make offerings of food to the spirits of the dead.

It is a tradition for Buddhists in Myanmar to make the offerings on this full moon night in ceremonies called akyut alutt sutaung pweh, “praying for release”. They believe that doing so will liberate the spirits from being ghosts that wander through the world of the living – a deplorable state that denies them the chance to reincarnate into a higher order of being, and in which they can pose a nuisance or danger. Devotees think that helping spirits in this way will earn themselves good luck and merit for their next lives.

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U Maung Maung Myint, one of the organisers of the event, which fell this year on October 13, has been helping to lead the ritual since the 1990s, when the ruling military junta ordered the relocation of cemeteries in urban areas of Yangon after Yayway cemetery was established in North Okkalapa Township in 1992.

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Before then, one of the biggest resting places for the dead was Kyandaw cemetery in Kamaryut Township. This was demolished in 1996 to make way for the Yangon Drug Elimination Museum, and the bodies interred there were exhumed and moved to Yayway. The Kyandaw cemetery site is now occupied by Junction Square shopping mall, in space left over after the eventual construction of the drug museum.

Maung Maung Myint said the ceremony at Kyandaw cemetery, in which he had participated as an ordinary devotee for many years, was banned by the junta after the national uprising in 1988.

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He said the ceremony could only take place at monasteries until Yayway cemetery opened four years later, when the Yangon City Development Committee, the city’s municipal government, gave permission for it to be held there.

A group headed by Maung Maung Myint, who lives in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, made offerings at about 600 tombs at Yayway on the full moon night while another group performed the ceremony at about 500 tombs.

Both groups prepared rice with chicken, beef and lentil curries to offer to the spirits of adults, and milk rice porridge and ice lollies for the spirits of departed children.

The offerings ceremony began with the leaders of each group inviting the spirits through loudhailers to dine on the offerings.

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After the announcement, participants placed servings of the food on plates or banana leaves and presented them to each tomb. Offerings of cigarettes were also made at the tombs of some adults.

A participant in Maung Maung Myint’s group, Ko Win Aung, told Frontier that over the last year he had been haunted by ghosts demanding food because he had failed to offer it to them at their particular tombs on the last Thadingyut full moon.

The spirits could be very impatient, in Win Aung’s experience. During the ceremony last year, “a spirit grabbed the [banana] leaf from my hand,” he said. “I was frightened. Before that, I didn’t actually believe that the spirits would eat the offerings.”

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Once the offerings were made, the participants, who had travelled from across Yangon, returned to their homes in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, Sanchaung, Tarmwe and Shwepyithar townships.

The leader of the other group at the cemetery, Daw Khin Khin Htwe, from North Okkalapa Township, said she had been performing the ceremony for nine years. She collaborates with two friends to prepare the offerings to the spirits, which she believes will bring her and the other donors good luck and protection.

“When I am in trouble, I can vanquish it by making the offerings; that is my faith,” she said.

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On October 14, the day after the full moon night, those who participated in the food offering ceremonies reconvened in a Buddhist prayer hall at Yayway and in a ceremony led by 11 monks, prayed for the spirits to be liberated from their existence as ghosts. Space was made in the hall for the spirits to join the devotees.

“Sadhu! Sadhu! Sadhu!” the congregation intoned, silently echoed by the spirits as they embarked on the long path to reincarnation, beginning with the expiation of past sins.

TOP PHOTO: Steve Tickner | Frontier

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