What did Keku believe in?

February 28, 2007 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment

Bastet - Egyptian cat godI spent most of last week in Wellington, New Zealand running a workshop. But I had one day free and headed off to the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongawera, one of my favourite museums. I was keen to see the exhibition, Egypt: Beyond the Tomb, which is the story of Keku – a 2700 year old mummy of a young girl. The exhibition is the story of Keku’s preparation for her death and the Egyptian belief in the Afterlife. I have always been a closet Egyptologist and spent many pleasant hours looking at everyday artefacts of ancient Egyptian life.

Artefacts speak volumes about a civilisation. Embedded within ancient tools, household items and public or private buildings is knowledge wealth – craft techniques used; shared beliefs about life and death; myths and stories; use of private and public space; burial practices etc. Of particular interest was the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which contained specific instructions and spells to help the deceased navigate to the Field of Reeds (the ultimate resting place). Only the correctly mummified had a hope of running free in the Field.

What I found intriguing was how the Scientific method of the past few hundred years – the gathering of observable, empirical, measurable evidence – means that Western society focuses on the NowLife rather than the Afterlife since we are not able to scientifically prove life after death . We engage in various bizarre ways to delay the onset of the inevitable or make us look younger than we care to admit – botox, plastic surgery, latest fad diets. And to help us truly side-step the inevitable, there is always cryonics where you can join a few hundred already cryropreserved humans silently waiting for resurrection at the hands of science.

Ancient Egyptians prepared for death and the Afterlife and took into the tomb funerary figurines or shabtis that would act as substitute workers for the deceased in case labour was required in the Field of Reeds.

Our obsession with youth, beauty and the immediate contrasts sharply with previous civilisations’ concept of Earthly life being but a transitory phase. Of course, various contemporary religions hold to the belief in another level of existence beyond death.

I decided to talk to my good friend, Lalida, who lives in Thailand – a country I have visited many times and particularly like. What do Buddhists believe? she shared the following with me:

There’s a wonderful Buddhist story about at a woman who lost a child, and she brings this child in her arms to the Buddha. And she begins to ask him all these questions; she wants his help. And the Buddha says to her, “Bring me back a mustard seed from a house that has not experienced death, and we will have a long conversation” And so she frantically begins to run from house to house through the village, knocking on every door. And at every door that’s opened she asks, “Have you experienced death in this family, in this home?” And exhausted at the end of the day she comes back to the Buddha open-handed and empty handed because every household had experienced one death or another. And she began to learn the nature of the impermanence of life, and began to let go so that she could fully live.

Stories as we know carry meaning. Within this story is the essence of Buddhist belief – life on Earth is but a transitionary state.

And then Lalida told me:

Good Buddhist shall always think about the death since it’s inevitable. Thinking about the death is very useful because:

  • you will not be careless since you don’t know when it will come. Then you should do the right/good things now;
  • you will not do bad things ie being greedy, getting angry since it’s useless;
  • rich people, poor people, all of them can’t take any money with them when they die;
  • when it’s time, you will face the death bravely since you understand it’s a part of life cycle
  • you will not be too sad when the one you love pass away because you know everyone’s life is equal

Despite a lack of ability to scientifically prove that there is some form of life after death, Thai Buddhists share a similar belief to that of Keku and her family in ancient Egypt.

As Western society worships at the altar of youth, beauty and money, it might do us all some good to spend an afternoon in the company of ancient artefacts that remind us that, along the path of progress, we took a wrong step and ended up obsessing over the Now and not the After.

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Entry filed under: History, Reflections.

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