Why Some Meditators and Yogis Practice in Graveyard

Image by Paul Brennan from Pixabay

An extreme practice to help you realize the impermanence of everything.

“The [adjoining] crematory grounds, especially gruesome at night, are considered highly attractive by the yogi. He who would find the Deathless Essence must not be dismayed by a few unadorned skulls. Human inadequacy becomes clear in the gloomy abode of miscellaneous bones.” — Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi

Most meditations are associated with beauty, peace, calmness, and joy. They focus on tapping into the happiness within regardless of what’s happening outside.

But there’s one exception that can puzzle you if you’ve ever heard about it: meditating on death in graveyards or crematory grounds.

Common sense tells us it’s morbid. But it actually isn’t. In fact, this practice is one of the main reasons why Bhutan is the happiest country in the world today.

Meditating on death or reminding ourselves of our mortality has become somewhat popular with the reintroduction of Stoicism in modern times (read Memento Mori).

Believe it or not, meditating on death is very calming to the mind and the soul. Once we understand that, we can see why meditation among the cadavers is delightful for yogis, Buddhists, and meditators from all walks of life.

An Extreme Practice To Realize Impermanence

A crucial pillar of all spiritual teachings across the world is non-attachment and impermanence. Try learning anything about the teachings of Buddha or pick up a copy of the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, you’re going to find a strong advocation of both of the above principles.

When we deeply ingrain the impermanence of life, we can truly be non-attached. And when we’re non-attached, we can live happily without conditioning our happiness to people, places, or things.

An extreme, dramatic case of impermanence is, of course, death. It’s then no surprise that it’s given importance in every teaching we come across. If one has perfectly accepted death and is ready for it, he realizes the impermanence of all things.

This knowledge of impermanence helps one avoid numerous sufferings and the emotional rollercoasters of life.

Even without knowing the purpose of ‘marana-sati’ (death awareness practice), it’s quite astonishing to see people stable and peaceful after its practice. I’m talking about ordinary people like you and me

Pythia Peay, a contributor to HuffPost says,

“Call me dark, odd, or a bit of a mystic, but I’ve always been drawn to cemeteries. Far from feeling gloomy or morose, I find meandering among gravestones strangely calming.

Stepping out of the mad rush of life and onto the hushed burial grounds of the dead is like crossing a threshold between worlds. Secluded within these sanctuaries of resting souls, the pressing problems of life become muted to stillness.”

The Sattipatana Sutta, where Buddha mentions the essentials of mindfulness practice, includes a cemetery contemplation.

At that time yogis would actually go and live at the cemeteries to see the different stages of decomposition of a corpse. Burial was also not as sophisticated as today. Often the dead bodies were discarded in the cemeteries out for animals to eat.

By observing the corpse through all these stages helps them realize that the same fate awaits them one day. The Sattipatana Sutta doesn’t leave it at that.

It also defines the nine stages of corpse decomposition for the yogis to focus on:

  1. A corpse that is “swollen, blue and festering.”
  2. A corpse that is “being eaten by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals or by different kinds of worms.”
  3. A corpse that is “reduced to a skeleton together with (some) flesh and blood held in by the tendons.”
  4. A corpse that is “reduced to a blood-besmeared skeleton without flesh but held in by the tendons.”
  5. A corpse that is “reduced to a skeleton held in by the tendons but without flesh and not besmeared with blood.”
  6. A corpse that is “reduced to bones gone loose, scattered in all directions.”
  7. A corpse that is “reduced to bones, white in color like a conch.”
  8. A corpse that is “reduced to bones more than a year old, heaped together.”
  9. A corpse that is “reduced to bones gone rotten and become dust.”

While contemplating on all these stages, the yogi is advised to reflect thus — “This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.”

All this helps us to be detached — in an extreme way, of course.

It’s For Everyone

On each branch of the trees in my garden
Hang clusters of fruit, swelling and ripe.
In the end, not one piece will remain.
My mind turns to thoughts of my death.

— Seventh Dalai Lama

While it may seem that this extreme practice is reserved for people of high spiritual dedication, we can still reap benefits in our usual, run-of-the-mill routines.

As society has advanced, we no longer have places where dead bodies are lying in the open for us to reflect on their decomposition. Perhaps that will be too much for us to do.

But taking a walk in any graveyard has an instant centering effect, if we’re sensitive and mindful. I remember a kid once told me that our high school used to be a graveyard a few decades ago. As a child, that thought scared me a bit. The thought that hundreds of bodies are buried beneath our playground was certainly not a pleasant one.

As I grew older, that thought stuck with me. And it often left a calm feeling in my heart.

Just like meditation, going to a cemetery helps us focus on what really matters. It helps us separate what is true and lasting from what is transient.

I know you may not believe in afterlife or reincarnation but even then the presence of departed souls creates an aura of tranquility silencing the thoughts in your head.

The practice isn’t even restricted to spiritual seekers. Contemplating death will stir the thoughts of mortality even in the mind of ruthless businessmen or mafioso.

There’s a lot of power in this practice. And there’s no reason to keep it hidden from the general masses. In the words of John Muir

“On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death. … Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.”

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Written on July 16, 2021